Meet Haji Bhai aka Nafees Ansari, the only chef in the whole of Mumbai who cooks his food on a stone. His dishes include immense variety- from fish, meat, rice, vegetables and even desi Chinese- he knows it all. He cooks his food on two large slabs of stone, and is popularly known as Haji Bhai Patthar ke Sanam! The stone slabs are 2 feet long and 2.5 feet wide each and weigh around 50 kgs. They have to be specially imported from Saudi Arabia. 2 people set up the stones on a customised steel stand and wrap it in a silver foil just before cooking to avoid the heat from the coal from escaping.
The menu includes classic kebabs and meat dishes like chicken tikka masala, dabba ghost, bakra tandoor etc. But that’s not all, Haji Bhai also makes vegetarian dishes like palak paneer and vegetable korma, thus defying the myth that cooking on stone is only done while cooking meat. If this isn’t lip smacking enough then there is also desi Chinese classics like fried rice and chilli chicken on his marvellous menu. The interesting thing about this menu is that every dish has the word “Patthar” before it, like Patthar ka Murg, Patthar ka Korma, Murg Patthar etc., making the point quite obvious.
For Haji Bhai this idea of cooking on stone first struck him when he went to Saudi Arabia in 1982 to work as a chef. But he noticed that they only made lamb curries and tikkas on it. He decided to give it his own twist and so came the irresistible dishes that Haji Bhai can proudly claim to be his inventions. For him cooking on stone is the best method of cooking as it doesn’t let any flavour get diluted and makes the dish even more tasty. He also thinks it’s a fairly easy process, he says, “All you have to do is heat up the lava rock by placing coal in the stand, place your meat, fish or vegetable on top and then simple cook to your very own taste. With little or sometimes no oil at all, the health benefits are easy to see and with the purity of taste, you will enjoy each bite. So now we know that it’s not just tasty but healthy as well!
One of the biggest achievements as he recalls was when ShahRukh Khan said he loved his food while he was catering at Juhi Chawla’s Breach Candy residence during last year’s IPL party. But all these praises don’t come easy. It takes a lot of time to set everything up, heating the stone over 20 kgs of coal utilises the maximum time. But once it’s hot, it stays hot for at least 4 hours. However, the food does cook faster than a pressure cooker. A protein will require a maximum of 5 minutes to cook, Haji Bhai says.
When Haji Bhai returned from Saudi Arabia he wanted to order the stones from Maharashtra but those stones would crack under the heat so he resorted back to importing them. Once the stone is imported it is cut, polished and finished. They are cleaned regularly with an iron brush too but despite all the care they do end up getting damaged as a lot of water is splashed on them to bring down their temperature. He has a total of 7 stones-each for a different kind of food. Chicken, mutton, seafood, even Jain food has a different stone. The stone costs Rs. 3000 but after adding the import expenses it comes close to around Rs. 54000 per stone. But it is expensive for him? Not at all, as he recovers all he spends and even more, thanks to his immense popularity and delicious food.
He operates from Byculla and charges around Rs 6000 for 500 diners. He can be contacted at 9322343280.