Just like I promised, here's part 2 of last week's post that was waiting to hatch into a published post. The chick is finally out now.
Ever watched the Kotthu Roti man belt out his beats with...blades on the griddle? This stuff happens out near the street in places like Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, and often behind closed kitchen doors in Dubai and Sharjah. But when you come often enough to a place like Rakaiez in Sharjah, and you know the servers and cooks by name like Shiyam does, then closed kitchen doors will magically open for you.
Kotthu Roti is a tumbled up heap of chopped parotta with fried eggs and onions and masalas and green chillies whose biting aroma shoots right up your nostrils and hits the trigger for a sneeze. Here was another comfort food, one that had to be snatched up with the fingers and dipped into a chest-warming salna.
The night was about comfort and connection, and in many ways, it was a real eye-opener for me about Sharjah. And about foodies who don’t just eat, but start sensing and smelling even before they’ve entered the restaurant. The pungent smell of South Indian sambar spices as you place your order for Kotthu Roti. The smell of the blossoming Neem tree surround the Afghan/Pak Naan shop, a seductive smell that that shies away if you stick the blossoms up your nose, but that swirls up to you on its own terms by latching on to a passing breeze. The sweet-salty-caramel smell of the deep-fryer, a smell that slowly gives way to a fishy essence as you approach one of Sharjah’s tiniest, yet most outrageously popular fish shacks—Mamma Machi.
I have yet to try Mamma Machi - there was so much food that night that we couldn't eat it all, but crazy awesome curried fish, I know where you live now.
There was a heightened sensitivity that night, a curiosity, a suspended judgement, and a keenness of appreciation that often defies the mass marketing of foods and restaurant concepts and blog posts eager to keep up with traffic stats.
And then, there was this.
A place that made a Chappli Kabab that has made every other chappli kabab of my past suddenly seem dry, rubbery and spiced with the wrong (more heaty, less flavour) spices.
This was the cashmere of chappli kababs. Caramelized to a golden-brown on the outside in that savoury way that tugs on your glands and gets your mouth salivating on overtime. Impossibly slim and soft like wool on the inside, glisteningly moist to the core, studded with ruby tomatoes, and seasoned with masalas like whole coriander seeds that erupt into citrus peel and dried green tea leaves upon first crunch, and then waltz down your throat leaving a whiff of flowers in their wake.
After you furiously argue that nothing, no NOTHING on earth can make that kabab better, the guys around you will recommend you squish a bit of lemon over it. NOOOO DON’T RUIN IT BY ADDING ANYTHING!...NO REALLY…PLEASE IT’S BEAUTIFUL JUST THE WAY IT IS…AAH OKAY FINE…*SQUISH*…*MUNCHMUNCH*… HOLYUNTHININKABLES. THIS HAS BLOWN MY BRAINS TO A HAPPY PLANET CALLED BLUTO THAT DOESN’T EVEN EXIST.
The night ended with my brains still in Bluto but my body sitting cross-legged, sipping a midnight infusion of jasmine buds with honey that Shiyam had graciously made for us. It was the sort of drink that induces the deepest sigh in the deepest part of your chest and makes you deeply reflective about what you’re doing—in my case, blogging about food.
The evening had inspired us, and while we spoke about many things, we spoke most passionately about something that we've each been feeling in our own way for some time now. We spoke about dethroning oneself off of the social media pedestal and returning the crown to where it belongs—to the food, to the flavours, to the people who have accomplished so much through hard work, travel and experience in the culinary world. And above all, to those people, whether celeb chef or old uncle with a white beard who makes that cashmere of kababs, who serve you a plate of honest-to-goodness food.
Al Rakaiez Restaurant
Al Ashifah Cafeteria
Link to Google Maps for Al Ashifah's location