“The Sai Hotaa – a humble eatery with personality”

Article by: Ali Hussain
Photography by: Iman Rasheed

They’re sometimes decried as hubs of misogyny whose hygiene is suspect and patrons foul of mouth. Yet sai hotaas remain a vital component of local food culture.

Enter a hotaa and some heads will turn, invariably, regardless of your gender. The looks may not be hostile necessarily, they can be those of idle curiosity. And you notice the air, thick and clinging to your skin, alive with the smell (or stench) of fried goods, fish and curry and humming with people-sounds; conversation, the scrape of chairs, chewing, the clink of cutlery. If this sounds repulsive, get thee to a Shell Beans, post haste.

A hotaa’s patrons are as varied as those of any other establishment; it’s not just the poor working-class stiff who ventures in – businessmen, taxi drivers, civil servants, government officials, fishermen all park their rears on the cheap plastic seats of these eateries. Often, people from different walks of life will get to know one another over a cup of tea and hedhikaa and share stories. While sometimes disagreements can escalate to bouts of screaming, there’s a certain sense of camaraderie within a hotaa’s humble premises.

The space of sai hotaas inevitably assumes the character of their customers, servers and seytu. It becomes a decidedly ‘male’ space, because, for the most part, it’s men who go and serve there. Away from stabilising ‘feminine’ influences, in the company of other men and food, it’s unsurprising that men begin to touch and draw on their primal instincts. More often than not, hotaas end up being loud and boisterous, boiling pits of testosterone.

And this brings us to the recent #occupysaihotaa phenomenon, which seems like a natural reaction to the ‘male-ness’ of these places, an attempt to claim a chunk of space that by rights should be shared with the rest.

Some might contend there’s nothing preventing women from going to Aibbalhey’s and getting masburi riha. However, just because they aren’t obvious, it doesn’t mean that the barriers aren’t there. What seems like ‘idle curiosity’ to some, may appear hostile, even lewd, to another. The loudness, the griminess, the seediness of these places, they can all be construed as barriers, not just for women but for others wanting to get a piece of sai hotaa action but dare not.

Where to go

Aibbalhey (Faseyha Point 1)

It’s said the original owner and cook of Aibbalhey had a crooked arm, the result of an accident, hence the hotaa’s charming sobriquet. Initially an eatery on Violet Magu, near Mauhadh (now the Islamic University), Aibbalhey migrated to its present location by the Majeedhee Magu-Sosan Magu junction some 30 years back. Go forth and you will be swept into a realm of cheap tiles, pastel green walls and poor ventilation where laminated wall signs implore you to keep conversation civil. It’s famous for masburi riha – a soupy, spicy curry cooked with a thick chunk of fish. Masburi is best with roshi and sides of fresh chili, onion, lime and poppadum. A good time to pop in would be soon after Isha prayers, when the roshi is likely fresh.

Dawn Café

Sitting near the fish market, in Kandi Dhon Maniku Goalhi, this hotaa is indubitably an institution. Some reckon Dawn’s been around since the mid-70s, around the time of the first mechanised dhonis, though not in its current location. The favoured haunt of fishermen and folk from nearby baazaaru shops, Dawn’s interior is awash with fluorescent light regardless of the time of day. As the name implies, the hotaa is busiest at first light when the fishermen and baazaarumathee folk drop by for their morning fix. Dawn Café has a solid reputation for hedhikaa in general, and while their handulu gulha, in particular, is oft praised, Dawn’s gabulhi boakibaa has become something of a sensation of late.

If you’re to enjoy them, though, sai hotaas should be accepted for what they are. There’s much to love about them; the most popular places, like Dawn Café or Faseyha Point (Aibbalhey), have perfected recipes of certain favourites over the years. They’re the logical choice for those who’re budget conscious and can handle places that aren’t bastions of good hygiene. Plus, you never know who might end up next to you, and that’s part of the thrill. Sai hotaas aren’t cafés, they’re not restaurants. They’re almost antiques, cultural artefacts that have survived the march of modernisation, and as such, they deserve to be judged differently.