As Ramzan gets underway, neighbourhood mosques serve kanji to both those who break their fast there, and to those who simply ask for it
Muslims all over the world began observing Ramzan, the month of fasting from dawn to dusk, this week. The fast is usually broken with dates and a sip of water or fruit juice, preceded by a short prayer. The fast-breaking meal is called iftar, while suhoor/sahri is the name of the pre-dawn meal that prepares Muslims for the day of fasting.It is but natural that fasting is inextricably tied to feasting.
From fried snacks to an array of soups and juices, an average iftar meal will comprise of full-blown spreads of rice dishes and gravies, each varying according to the food culture of the community.
In southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, the custom of preparing ‘nombu kanji’, a nutritious gruel made from rice and other grains, during Ramzan is commonly observed. For decades, mosques and other religious institutions have involved the local populace in preparing and distributing the gruel. As the name implies, it is a dish rarely cooked outside of Ramzan.
Using roughly the same spices as biryani, nombu kanji is a meal in itself. Raw rice (basmati or jeeraga samba) is cooked to a mushy consistency in a flavourful broth of mutton or vegetables, and then tempered with thinly sliced fried onions.
In Tiruchi this year, as before, neighbourhood mosques will be preparing and serving kanji to both those who break their fast there, and to those who simply ask for it.
“In all mosques, the kanji is for everyone,” says S Mohamed Meeran Misbahi, secretary of the Tiruchi Jamathul Ulama Sabai, a grouping of Islamic scholars in the city. Speaking about the Kader Pallivasal, in Gandhi Market area of which he is a member, he says, “we get schoolchildren who fill up their tiffin boxes with the kanji while returning home, we have load men from the shops, and so on. We serve anyone who asks for it,” he says.
Bigger mosques such as the Madinah Pallivasal and that in Mohamedpura area, host iftar for up to 500 people every day during the fasting month.
Even though the kanji will be available only in the evening, the cooking process starts at early in the morning. The Kader Pallivasal maintains its own set of cauldrons and other utensils for mass catering. On average this mosque serves a congregation of 300 persons in the evening.
The vegetarian version of kanji is more commonly served, but a special announcement is made the day before the non-vegetarian ‘kari’ (mutton) kanji is served.
On average, it costs the mosque Rs5,000 to serve kanji per day, an amount that is donated by the members of the congregation, mostly shopkeepers and businessmen in the area.
Other than the rice, the ingredients that go into making kanji (allowing for regional variations) are onion, ginger, garlic, whole green gram (pasi paruppu), tomato, coconut, mint and coriander. Powdered spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, chilli and turmeric are added according to taste. Whole spices cinnamon and cardamoms add a new depth to the flavours.
Leftovers from the Kadar Pallivasal are sent to an orphanage for girls called Annai Khadija Pennkal Madrasa run by the mosque.
At the Al Muhammadia Mosque (formerly known as the Thanjavur Road Mosque), built in 1909, a committee of 25 members, headed by Mohamed Ansari - Muthavalli and E K Jeelani Basha - President, starts preparing for Ramzan at least a month ahead. Donations in cash and kind are solicited from the public, and a system of sponsor cards streamlines the kanji preparation. “Around 500 people are expected to consume the kanji we make everyday,” says Basha. “Usually we serve the gruel from the evening prayer onwards until it is exhausted, so we normally don’t have leftovers.”
“After a hard day of starvation, kanji is a refreshing way to recover our spirits,” he adds. “Not just Muslims, but people belonging to other religions also look forward to tasting kanji during Ramzan.”
For M Akbar Hussain, Ramzan is the time for noble deeds. A cycle-shop vendor for the rest of the year, Hussain turns kanji specialist during the fasting month. He has been preparing the gruel at the Salahiya Mosque, Anna Nagar for the past 20 years. "An assistant helps him with the prep work, working through the daily allowance of 25kg of rice throughout Ramzan. Hussain starts at around 6am, and makes sure the gruel is cooked by 10am. The kanji is then left in heat compress ('dum’’) until 2pm, when the master chef returns to temper the dish with fried onions.
"Ramzan is a month of blessings," he said. ""I consider it an honour to be making kanji every year for the mosque. The people whom we serve will pray for us.””
This year, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has announced the free supply of 4,000 tonnes of rice to help mosques in the preparation of nombu kanji. The initiative is expected to benefit at least 3,000 mosques.
As Ramzan gets underway this year, the kanji makers of Tamil Nadu will have their vessels overflowing with the ‘gruel of plenty.’’