Ignored by guidebooks, Khasi Muslim restaurants are cooking up a storm in Shillong, says Janice Pariat
A BOWL of creamy mutton korma. Spicy, warm sheekh kebabs. Accompanied by soft roti and fluffy pulao. No, you’re not in a shadowy back alley in purani Dilli — you’re sitting in Hotel Grace in Mawlong Hat, a busy market area close to Shillong’s biggest traditional bazaar, Iewduh. Muslim food in this city, like its people, has long been neglected: unlike jadoh stalls, “Chinese” restaurants or age-old bakeries, it definitely isn’t in popular guidebooks, or even articles on Shillong’s cuisine.
Most of these eateries are owned by “Khasi Muslims”, a term usually met with a quizzical expression. In a place where religion is commonly equated with ethnicity, and where the undercurrent of communal tension has never quite washed away, the phrase is unsettling for it defies easy definition.
For instance, in which language do you speak to them? Most people who enter these restaurants resort to faltering Hindi. Kong Sohtun, also known as Mimi, who runs Hotel Grace explains (in fluent Khasi and equally crisp English) that her daughter married into a Muslim family from Lucknow who came over to Shillong “during British times”, possibly the early-1900s. There are about 60,000 Muslims — tribal and non-tribal — among Shillong’s 500,000 residents, the result of inter-marriages rather than conversion.
Hidden along the main road in Laban, a bustling residential colony, is Hamid Food Centre — a one-room joint that serves almost authentic “bhuna” (rogan josh) and kebabs to order. Their biggest crowd, owner Kong Ruby Kharbuli says, comes on a Sunday straight after church service. Next door is Bah Rustum, who opens his makeshift chicken kebab and pulao stall in the evenings. Khasis, he says, love it.
OR TRY Hotel Naz (also run by Mimi) in Mawlong Hat. Here, Mimi’s burqa-clad daughter, Dimple, sits at the counter. Along with fairy lights, pictures of Mecca and Islamic prayers adorn the wall. “We get people from as far away as Lucknow and Kolkata,” Mimi says, adding, “Manipuris come here a lot. Nagas and Mizos too. Khasis have been coming here since we opened and even Hindu people come here to eat.”
A Khasi couple in the corner tells their kids to quieten down. Mimi explains that they’ve never faced local prejudice, although the word “Muslim” has acquired a bad reputation in these parts because of masses of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. She adds thoughtfully that they come to eat here too.
The food arrives from the kitchen — swimming in rich gravy, a platter of lime and mint chutney on the side. It’s easy to see why Hotel Naz is arguably the most multi-ethnic space in the city. Little else matters when the meal is this great.