© 2012 . All rights reserved.

Iftar in a different world called ‘Naif.’

6 minutes before sunset.  We parked our cars near the Fish and Vegetable market, greeted each other, and started walking.  Naif was on the other side of the pedestrian bridge. And Naif was where we had planned to be...10 minutes earlier.

As we hurried through the streets, winding our way through invisible folds of oppressively hot air, we entered a different world. A hushed world. Naif had an eerie calm that you’d rarely ever see in this very historic, very congested area. An occasional taxi would screech around the corner, narrowly missing the men tranquilly crossing the road on their way to Iftar. The place was one of heightened religious anticipation…waiting out the last 4 minutes before sunset.

The air gently murmured, Hush, keep the camera away.  This is not the place

So I listened to the air. I didn’t unpack my camera. All I have is the memory of a place that was so incredibly different from the massive Iftar gathering I had been invited to last year. So different from the luxurious tents described in the Iftar invites that PR companies have been feeding my inbox.

It was a different world. A disciplined world. I have no photos of that world before sunset, no photos of that feeling of calm, of community, of a religious sensibility that lingers over in those 3…2 minutes before sunset.  A time for photos would come, that time would be later, maybe over the Iftar table…but that time was not now. I have no photos of that place for you, just a memory of the path we followed. So come, just walk through it again with me.

The first sight that greeted our fasting eyes was a massive tray of freshly fried pakodas. Untouched of course, waiting out their final 2 minutes of chastity before being devoured.  Groups of men were sitting cross-legged on the floor, over chaddars spread out in a little alley off of the main road. Some had orange halves in one hand, plastic glasses of water in the other. I don’t remember anyone talking. Whether it was the hunger, the fatigue, or the religious importance of the moment, every soul was silently tuned into one channel—the Adhan.

It was a different world. A devoted world. One where there was a mosque on every block, one where we could see at least two mosques from almost any point on the road. When we peered into the shops, we could see the staff huddled in a single, communal circle on the floor, their chappals neatly lined up at the entrance, all waiting for the call to prayer.

Sunset. The air exploded with the resounding calls from minarets all around us, chanting out to the hot, hot sky in religious unison. Hands were uniformly raised to the mouth, ending a day without food, without water, for the most pious, without temptation—ending a day with so little, yet so much. This is the food of spiritual fulfilment.

We were still on the road, a rare sight of two women armed with bottles of water and a ziplock of dates. I’ve broken my fast with dates and water many a time. Actually, every single time. But this time was different. It was in a different world. A more modest world. A world that felt closer to what Ramadan is meant to be.

The only element of decadence was the dates that Reem had bought me. There was one set drenched in syrupy dibs (date honey), and another stuffed with candied nuts. I made a mental note to gift Reem anything but dates in the future—my date finds in the city pale in comparison to what I tasted from her stash that day.

We finally found a mosque with a ladies section, and within minutes, we were part of the Muslim masses in Naif, standing shoulder to shoulder, praying with the Imam, lowering our heads in the direction of Makkah.

Back out on to the street, this different world had suddenly become full of life, full of smells, full of photo opportunities itching to happen.  We experimented at three places that night, a few hits, many more misses, but all together, the experience of strolling down the row of restaurants in Naif’s Frij Murar area was unforgettable.

We poked our noses into a corner cafeteria, craving the pakodas that had been stacked up against the window display. You'd be shocked to see how many pakodas they cram in to one brown paper bag for a petty 5 dirhams.

Mixed vegetable pakodas on Naif Road

Onions, chillies, eggplant slices…coated in gram flour batter and plonked into seething oil. But sadly, not strained very well. I couldn’t stomach more than one greasy piece that had been thrown into the microwave and reheated for us. Dubai has better pakoda places, and this was sadly not one of them.

Oily pakodas in hand, we stepped into Pak-Afghan Darbar and sprawled out on a raised, majlis-style dias. We experienced Iftar as the Afghanis traditionally prepare it, with a homely bowl of thick, warm noodle soup.  I couldn’t quite dissect the Aush, it was one of those grandma concoctions—some spices, maybe beef broth, tender doughy noodles, the perfect amount of heat—that you’d rather just sink into and not overanalyse.

Afghani Aush. Homely, noodley, I'll remember you dearly when I'm down with a cold.

Another traditional Afghan Iftar dish that graced our plastic dasterkhan was mantoo: pasta parcels of minced beef, dotted with yogurt and some sort of subtly spiced tomato gravy.  The actual dumpling skin was chewier than I’d have wished, but the filling and the saucy drizzle cuddled my tongue with cosy, beefy, handmade comfort.

Beefy Afghani mantoo, the riverbed for a yoghurt and tomato gravy to flow through...

We had saved the legendary Delhi Restaurant, 'since 1978,' for last. This is one of those places that I’ve only just discovered thanks to a very well-informed friend. Their buttery beef nahari, cooked overnight for twelve hours, has cleanly ousted my previous nahari favourite in the city.

We didn’t have nahari that day, opting for something lighter—a lipsmacking raita with fragrant ground coriander, and chicken cubes of malai boti kabab, marinated in cream and grilled till tender. We found a few chunks of chicken that had the scary translucent sheen of uncooked chicken at the centre. I'm hoping it was a one-off. But next time, I'm sticking to my true loves at this restaurant: the nahari and green chilli keema (minced meat).

Malai Boti Kabab. Outwardly pretty, inwardly...uncooked.

Thankfully, the gulab jamun more than made up for the chicken disaster. We declared that the deep fried balls of khoya (milk powder), coloured at the core with some sort of reddish essence (potentially saffron, or plain food colouring), was a fitting end to our Iftar excursion in Naif.

Sugar syrup drenched ball of Gulab Jamun

If there’s one thought I’d love to leave you with, it’s that almost all the food we had that evening was consumed (save the semi-cooked chicken). We packed up our leftovers, even those 5 dirham pakodas, wherever we could. There’s never any shame in walking out with a box of leftover food. I’ve been known to even pick up bottles of unfinished water and walk out—not because I’m cheap, but because I don’t believe in wastage where I can genuinely avoid it, whether in Ramadan, or at any other time of the year.  Food wastage has increasingly become an alarming and embarrassing issue during Ramadan, and I’m relieved to see that local government agencies are starting to take initiatives to address it.

Wait, there’s a second thought too. If you truly want to experience the spirit of Ramadan, step off the beaten buffet track and stroll down the modest streets of a place like Naif, or Hor Al Anz, or I’ve been told, Meena Bazaar in Bur Dubai. These are the areas where Ramadan really feels like Ramadan, and not some sort of commercialized, well-publicized affair. These are the places that offer a truly communal, down-to-earth, cross-cultural Muslim experience, the 'Back to Basics' Ramadan experience. These are the places where you'll suddenly feel like you've been transported to...a very, very different world.

 

I’d love to give you directions, but when it comes to Naif, I just lead the way by…smell.  If you’re hoping to hit up some of these eats, land up at Frij Murar in Naif, Deira, Dubai. Delhi Restaurant has a google map on their site, but if you still need help getting to the area, your best bet is to give them a ring and ask for detailed directions. (+971-4-2711885)





26 Comments

  1. So beautifully written Arva! First few paragraphs made me well up. 

    I’am really happy to know that there is someone in Dubai who gives the part of Dubai I live in, all the importance and respect it deserves. 

    And yes, you are right – there is nothing wrong in taking home leftover food or water. This Ramadan I have been making every effort not to waste and use leftovers in creative ways- we tend to waste a lot at home too. 

    Wishing you a blessed Ramadan
    Neelu

    • inafryingpan

      @13241eff07d52a6fac372019030b434d:disqus – Thank you for the kind message. I relived the magical atmosphere of the place as I rewrote it…and I’m glad it came through. I feel like Naif has such accessible, authentic experiences in store…I do hope more people venture out to go visit and have a meal there. Hopefully one day I will do an iftar food tour in that area! :)

      Ramadan Kareem to you too!

  2. Renu navin paliwal

    that was a beautiful read arva.. its my first ramadan  here and was thinking of ways to get the real feel.. meena bazaar i snot very far from wheri stay.. thinking of going there:)

    • inafryingpan

      @google-671af2baed6abba9b948cb24db8c6b6a:disqus – yes, do check out meena bazaar and let us know how it is! I hope I get a chance to drop by there before the end of Ramadan.

  3. Sarah www.thehedonista.com

    Gorgeous post Arva. Almost makes me wish I was taking part – could anyone else make me WANT to fast?

    • inafryingpan

      @64e917df4e6af6c03a214fbcda055ab6:disqus :) it is a whole other experience. Honestly, it’s really, really challenging through the day in this heat. But there are moments, like early in the morning when you wake up for suhoor and prayers, or when you break you fast in the evening…those moments are magical. There’s a sense of unity, serenity, and family togetherness that’s so rare to have in our crazy rat race of a world..and a real sense of appreciation for the food and drink we take for granted during the rest of the year.

  4. Sarah allenby

    Beautifully written Arva, and reminded me of when I would visited Naif many moons ago, during Ramadan with a Bohri colleague & friends. A wonderful experience indeed.  How wonderful that there are people willing to have a simple Iftar, and thank you for sharing it with us. xo

    • inafryingpan

      @google-1335bdae59527c041608c5870ebb0873:disqus – Ah with Bohri colleagues! Do tell us where you went with them? Bohri food is the best!

  5. Awww, the beginning was such a beautiful read.  I could feel myself there and experiencing the sights and sounds and the anticipation.  MashaAllah.  

    • inafryingpan

      @openid-151378:disqus – Thank you for the sweet words. I have loved learning about the Emirati iftar dishes on your site…I should really visit Al Fanar and get a taste!

  6. What a wonderful post, Arva. I really enjoyed reading about your back-to-basics Ramadan experience and seeing all the beautiful food … Another amazing food story!

    • inafryingpan

      @FoodStoriesBlog:disqus – thank you CJ! That’s big coming from you. You will still always be a judge for me :)

  7. Saleem

    Well written article, wish some cooperate houses read that and apply – Ramadan is suppose to conserve and pray – not waste and feast. Yes you will always find the true meaning of Ramdan in places like Naif road and small communities.

    Would love to eat the pakodas from the road side – they taste different than the one we are used to eating at home

    • inafryingpan

      @9a1d510f1be63443c618f7d241d72ab2:disqus – Couldn’t agree more dad. I don’t know when these buffet extravaganzas began in Dubai, but I certainly don’t remember them from back in the day, and they’re far from ’traditional’ or ’capturing the spirit of Ramadan’ which is what every ad claims them to be.

      Pakoda hunt is still ongoing…need to find the right place!

  8. Rishi

    Arva!!

    I dont fast… but i am tempted to go hungry all day and head to Naif in this evening :)  Your introduction to this piece paints a poetic picture of the district…. very vivid. I’m glad I read it slowly, going over bits again and again. Best 20 minutes at office this morning!!

    Rishi

    • inafryingpan

      @4ae6766d6676805f83a45d7498af1696:disqus – awww thank you, I’m glad the article was so evocative for you! You should seriously try doing it – maybe on a weekday when there’s less traffic getting to Naif. 

      Hope The Boss isn’t reading this…(gulp.)

  9. Alex

    Love, love, love Naif!! Ramadan kareem!

    • inafryingpan

      @862a497265ff3397ba47d646d923bdc8:disqus – me too :) we have to head back there again! And thanks for the wishes, Ramadan Kareem to you too!

  10. Msalman

    Very evocative writing.. I have been a fan of your writing but not so much the food finds. Still excellent blog.. and you feed hungry souls like us with great food stories…

    • inafryingpan

      @b71fb8e1bc1976749ce8c63c75cad669:disqus – thank you! Thanks for the honest feedback :)

  11. StuffYourFace.net

    And I thought I had been to every joint in Deira! So I work in Deira and In our office we have a Ramadan ritual where we have to try pakodas every evening from a different place. The winner of last year was bhatkal restaurant opposite the abra station. Will keep u posted on the badshah of pakodas for Ramadan 2012!

    • inafryingpan

      @e179160cd861176321da16c21f45cfe1:disqus – no way!! have you tried their bhatkal biryani???

    • StuffYourFace.net

      biryani is good, khichdi is even better! must stop on your tours…

  12. Tim

    Great story, Arva! The food looks delicious.

  13. Saleem

    What an emotional and well written article and photos take you down the memory lane. Yes you get to see the real spirit of Ramdan and sharing what you have with others in places like Naif Road, Hor Al Anz and Satwa and not in big tents that you see companies organize. Well done and keep it coming.

    • Thanks dad, really appreciate the comment. You’ve echoed my sentiments exactly – some of these older, more modest parts of town still stay true to the spirit of Ramadan.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By The many sides of Ramadan and Iftar in Dubai | My Custard Pie 9 Jul ’13 at 1:10 am

  2. By In Photos: Dubai’s Alternative Iftar Buffet. | I Live in a Frying Pan 30 Jun ’14 at 11:20 am

  3. By In Photos: Dubai’s Alternative Iftar Buffet. | I Live in a Frying Pan 30 Jun ’14 at 11:47 am

Leave a Reply to Neelu Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked:*

*