Sabir’s Rezala: Love Story in a Bowl

I was born and raised in Kolkata. Yet in the 4 decades I’ve spent in this city, I have never been to Sabir’s. In my defense I can say that my mom was a wizard in the kitchen and along with daily delicacies, special food was also very frequent. When it came to eating out, mom wouldn’t go beyond Park Street. Though I believe Dad was more adventurous and had been to these gems of food places, but didn’t reveal much at home paying respect to the (British) monarchy ;-).

Also, I never had food enthusiast friends until I got into food blogging/writing and met some of the craziest, most curious and enlightened food enthusiasts, the company of whom I treasure every bit. Sabir’s beeps strongly in their radar and soon a meet-up at the place was planned.

Sabir’s is located in Chandni Chowk in central Calcutta, a predominantly commercial and old city area bustling with offices and traders’ outlets. The restaurant is located at the crossing of four inner lanes lined with small shops selling electronic items. The pavements are occupied by street food vendors. The roads witness endless movements of cars, two wheelers, small trucks, cycle pulled carts and people. It would be hard to imagine that this place would be quiet at some point during the night. Car parking would be tough, so availing underground train or cabs are recommended.

History says Sabir Ali came to Calcutta from Lucknow in search of a livelihood in 1940. He started off as a helping hand in a hotel in Titagarh keeping the dreams of setting up his own restaurant fuelled all the while. In 1948, he could make his dreams real and Sabir’s Hotel was set up to mark its place with indelible ink in celebrated culinary history of Kolkata.

Today, the fairly spacious restaurant occupies two floors. The ground floor has the non-AC section and a takeaway counter, while a flight of rather steep stairs will take you to the cabins and AC section. We, a group of 8, gathered around 1 pm in front of Sabir’s and to avoid the summer heat, we chose to be seated in the AC section. 6 in the group were seasoned sinners. Prasun and I were first-timers. The place was typically old world with sturdy, functional wooden chairs and tables. Barring a few touches of modernization, it was pretty much Kolkata in the 60s-70s. The servers were old-school, the kind that study your face and can make out your food preferences, food pedigree, wallet size, tipping behaviour etc.

So, what to order first and let the mood build? The much famous tea of course. The tea here is quite legendary for it’s secret formula and Sabir’s handles a strong crowd in the morning that drop by to have tea and parantha (another specialty) breakfast.

Anwar Ahmed, grandson of late Ali, recalls that earlier tea leaves were procured straight from Darjeeling. Presently, Sabir’s has an arrangement with Anwar Tea Company which sends the perfect blend of various leaves. This blend is their trade secret.

The tea was served with sugar in a separate bowl. It had hearty doses of milk in it and a faint hint of spices, making the tea a fuller liquid. It was meant to remain in your system for a while and I could understand why tea and parantha could be a complete breakfast. Taste-wise I would say I didn’t find it remarkable. But perhaps a tea-parantha breakfast in a wintry morning is needed to change that verdict.

Now the royalty (read Rezala) doesn’t appear before you just like that. You have to go through the junior officials cum palate teasers first. Chicken Malai Kebabs and Chicken Garlic Kebabs came to our table to test our foodist quotient. Malai Kebabs had all the classic goodness of cashews and malai or fresh cream marinated charcoal grilled succulent melty meat. The Garlic Kebabs were a surprise. Strongly flavoured with garlic and onions and spices, the chicken chunks hit your taste buds like Lady GaGa singing Bad Romance and continue to thrill you through out. Not your kinda romance, but you can’t resist anyway. Good recommendations by the server. If Malai kebabs were yang, garlic ones were yin, completing the circle. Both were served with a mild pudina chutney to help you enjoy the meaty goodness to the fullest.

Sheeesh…. It’s 700 words already…when is she gonna talk about the rezala?!

The wait is over. Ba-adab, ba-mulahiza hoshiyar, Sabir’s Special, Calcutta’s heartthrob, shahanshaho ke shahanshah, foodies ke rakhwaley, Mutton Rezala padhar rahe hai…….!

And thus it came. In a bowl, a regal piece of mutton is laying majestically on a throne of white silken gravy. Made out of mutton breast, other key ingredients involved are dahi, ghee, poppy seeds, zafran, jaitri, whole black pepper and whole kashmiri red chilli that are used in a mysterious proportion to make this perfectly balanced delicacy. A few makhnas (fox nuts) were added from the top, most probably for decoration purpose. According to the owners, even if you get hold of the recipe and master the proportion, still your rezala will fall short. Because the secret ingredient is the fuel. Unless you cook on charcoal fire you can’t conjure this magic.

Sip a spoonful of gravy and feel it cascading down your taste buds releasing intoxicating flavours. Smooth, a bit tart, neither thick nor thin….. and mesmerising! The cupid’s arrow pierces your heart and you become damaged for good. Add a dash of lime from the top if you want to make the taste brighter (patented advice from Abhik). The mutton is cooked tender yet won’t fall off the bone unless you humbly request with a spoon. Each time you cut a bite size piece from the body it will release a bit of juice in to the gravy making it indecently good. Though we had ordered paranthas and tandoori rotis to go with the dish, I ended up having it without any accompaniment. Too love struck I was, and I preferred unhindered appreciation of this love story in a bowl. But some of us liked dunking tandoori rotis into the gravy and I have strong faith in their culinary practices. Once you are finished with the gravy, don’t forget to scrape the layer coating the sides of the bowl with your spoon or roti and win brownie points in rezala love story.

After the rezala, you will probably won’t notice anything else. But I have to spare a few words for the delectable parantha and delightful shahi tukda. The flour of the parantha is kneaded with milk, malai and sugar, the latter being responsible for the unconventional sweet taste. Soft yet flaky, filling yet non greasy, it’s quite a masterpiece. And it’s a solo performer. At best, you can team this up with tea. Shahi tukda was white, much to my delight, as I suspect the yellow ones use colours and not saffron. The rabri was rich and thick and the bread was pav. So it absorbed less rabri and hence was less soggy. The taste was quite enchanting.

We had ordered special mutton biryani, firni and malai too. Good, but not aspiring greatness.

So how does one sum up the experience at Sabir’s? One doesn’t. It is an eternal love story. It has marvelled common men and celebrities alike for the last 70 plus years and hopefully will continue to enthral many more in the coming days. On 19 May, 2018, one more fan surely was added to it’s ever expanding list of admirers. I am now officially a Sabirian.

Restaurant details:

Sabir’s Hotel

  • Address: 3&5, Biplabi Anukul Chandra Street, W-block, Chandni Chawk, Bowbazar, Kolkata, West Bengal 700072
  • Phone: 033 4602 1254
  • Hours: 6 am – 11 pm, all days
  • Cuisine: Mughlai
  • Pocket pinch: Rs 600 for two
  • Location on Google map