The first Ramadan Iftar at Haroon Masjid introduced me to a community with a 200 year history, a mix of Muslim brothers and sisters from all walks of life, a remarkable evening with the perfect host and of course the ‘the best mutton biryani’ in Bangkok.
Lost in the narrow alley, skeptical and unable to get to my destination, I ask in my limited Thai, where it was, ‘leo khwa’, she says. Quickly re-tracing my steps I find myself standing under its modest shadows, a brown marble archway greets me in bold gold colored font ‘Haroon Masjid.’
I walk past groups of men sitting in traditional attire and white caps, looking at me fumbling trying to get my camera out, wondering who or where I was from. Soon Imam Ahad meets me at the entrance hall of the Masjid, smiling and gracious as ever, welcoming me into his world.
Captivated by the familiar fragrance in the air, I quickly asked to see the kitchen area before the crowd came in. Going past trays of delicacies, silver cups with motifs filled to the brim with pink and brown drinks, which little children raced towards – I am finally led to the kitchen. Now I am completely taken over by the aroma. Imagine warm cinnamon, shreds of saffron, a hint of rose water, cumin and yogurt blending to create what the Moghul Kings of ancient times would feast on. Imam Abdul Ahad says it is the best ‘Mutton Biryani’ served in this part of town. I didn’t argue.
I was introduced to the chef; a smiling gentleman who took me further inside the tent to a giant sized aluminum pot. He lifted the lid and promptly at the Imam’s orders took from it a big serving spoon full on a plate so it could be photographed. Long grains of basmati rice in white and orange engulfed big chunks of tender mutton. The flawlessly cooked meat along with the rice had become the highlight of my visit, and then he closes the lid. I fought to resist taking a spoonful myself. Sensing my inner conflict the secretary to the Imam pointed out that we could only eat this special item after the prayers at 7pm. I took a sideway glance at my watch, a very long 30 minutes remained.
The Masjid for the feast was divided into two sections; the inner mosque was lined with rugs for the men to be seated and the outside area with tables for women and elders. While people were still coming in I peeked into the Masjid and saw platters of freshly cut pineapple, dates and silver jugs with sweet ginger tea. “This is for the men to break their fast with” said Mustafa, a young lad.
Soon I was on my own, the Imam and the clergy-men parted ways to arrange for the feast, I walked back and forth from the women’s section to the men’s, then to the gender separated prayer room to the main hall of the Masjid. Emerald green carpet reached every corner of the peaceful high ceilinged room; glass chandeliers moved gently with the cold air of the Air-conditioning. The top half of the walls were inlaid with verses from the Holy Quran in green and gold; magnificent in a simple way.
Back downstairs, the eating area was now filled with women in colorful burqah’s, seated alongside a stretched dining table. The first Iftar of Ramadan was about to begin; after a short call of prayer, everyone broke their sunrise to sunset long fast with a sweet nourishing date and a sip of the warm ginger tea. Followed by a bite of fresh fruits, crispy samosa’s, cold Thai dessert and a bowl of yellow lentils or ‘dal’.
After a few minutes of silence and silverware clanking, the crowd rose in unison and walked towards the Masjid, it was the second call to prayer at Maghrib or sunset.
Quietly, from the stairs I watched the disciplined process of the prayer in tune with the Azaan, it was serene and calm like I had never quite experienced before. Used to the loud honking and screeching tires outside of my apartment, this was an unknown peace. The rhythmic bows and harmonious turning of heads the ladies in white looked saintly, not an ideal description but you get it.
At 7pm I followed the rest of them down to their tables and waited patiently for what I knew was awaiting me since the moment I had first walked through the gates of the Masjid.
A group of ladies who were sitting closest to the kitchen area had invited me earlier to join them during the feast. Gladly I accepted because by now the place was packed. The center of these tables had plates the size of a small coffee table; half covered with the Biryani accompanied small bowls of tangy mint and cucumber salad.
The massive plates was a shared platter from which 4-5 people ate out of; surprised at first I later understood the meaning of it. New to the communal sharing process, I too indulged and felt connected to the ladies at my host table, who kept piling more food on my side, which lets say for respectful reasons I did not turn down. The first bite of the warm fragrant rice was just like I had thought it would be; the richness of the saffron made its presence felt along with hints of cardamom. When I finally dove into the mutton it was even better, the perfect combination of spices mixed with yogurt and garam masala along with years of experience all put into that one incredible dish, I was sold.
Having lived in over 3 countries and being an outsider to this very low-key community, I couldn’t have been more welcomed like I had been at the Masjid, starting from the Imam, clergymen and to the lovely ladies.
The entire gathering for the Iftar centered around the core of community building, about people embracing their culture and heritage while trying to keep alive the true meaning of Ramadan.
The Imam had mentioned the significance of Ramadan in the lives of Muslims is not only “obligatory fast for thirty days” but is also “food for our soul, by submission to Allah’s will.” Through self-restraint our body and soul go through the process of purification that removes toxins and curbs our carnal desires.
Even the day after I cannot stop thinking about the Mutton Biryani, the taste of which still lingers in my psyche, I can now agree that indeed it is the best in Bangkok. The warmth of the people and the gracious hospitality of Imam Ahad bundled with the richness of this wonderful community gave me an evening to remember and many reasons to come back.