This month, treat yourselves to more than just haleem; the Toli Chowki ‘food court’ will not disappoint

The month of Ramadan is only a week away and every one who has experienced the holy month in Hyderabad knows that it is a time for celebration and feasting, as much as it is for austerity and fasting. While haleem remains the most popular iftar food, this month will also see an increased demand in Arabic and Lebanese cuisine, simply because the variety of meat dishes along with sides of salads and dip present a tasty and wholesome alternative. While haleem can be found at every street corner, when it comes to middle-eastern food, most foodies will suggest you head straight to Toli Chowki.

Once a major suburb and home to the troops of Mughal emperor Augangzeb, today the area finds itself in the heart of the expanded city – in proximity to the older city as well as the new IT centre. The result, in security guard Mohammed Maulana’s words is that “the place is a favourite among sadha log and posh log.” Mohammed who has worked at the Toli Chowki food court for over 15 years informs us that, at first, Yousuf Tekri Complex was just large enough to house Mandar Restaurant. Inside Mandar, chequered table cloths and dim lighting remind one of what fine dining meant in the Nineties.

Toli Chowki gained prominence after a branch of 4 Seasons opened in April 2003. Its Lebanese and Arabic specialties drew people from all over the city. Soon a slew of other eateries followed. A decade later, the building is now a hub of food joints; Mak’s kitchen, Ice and spice, Siddique Kebab Centre, Kulfi House, Pista House and Arabian Nights, offering a wide variety of food from Indian to Lebanese to Turkish. Places serving Shawarma, Muttabaq, Chicken Shawai, Kebabs and Khabsa Laham (a dish of mutton and aromatic rice) that draw in the crowds. At Ice and Spice which started out as an ice cream place and then moved on to serving more items, the shawarma counter remains open all day. Naturally the cook barely gets a breather between serving up the roll to customers looking for a quick and tasty snack.

As a result of the competition among these neighbours, each restaurant has developed its own signature specialty. While 4 Seasons boasts of the widest variety on its menu, Siddiqui Kebab Centre has its signature ‘masala’ – a tangy powder which serves as an accompaniment to their grilled chicken. Like Siddiqui, where the marinated chicken has only just been placed in the grill, most of the neighbouring eateries experience their thickest crowd late and night and hence stay open till 11 p.m or later, depending on the day of the week.

The month of Ramadan is, of course, a busy time. “If you come here during Ramadan, you will barely have a place to stand,” says Mohammed adding that the ample parking space adds to its popularity. The complex also has a few ice cream stores including Temptations, which also serves chats and the newly opened Kulfi House where customers can choose from 34 varieties of kulfis. According to the manager of the Mumbai-based chain, the location was chosen on the basis of the footfall the food court receives on a daily basis. The complex was never meant to be the ‘food court’ it is today. “Lots of business opened up here,” informs the manager at 4 Seasons, “but only the restaurants were able to last.” Jabz Vision, a tiny optician’s store sits sandwiched between them as if to remind us it used to be a diverse commercial complex once. The complex also houses a Baskin Robbins; and a Subway outlet is only a stone’s throw away, but if you are making a trip there, a Chicken Ham sandwich will be the last thing on your mind.

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