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Little India

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If proof were ever needed that being an exclusivist society goes against the grain of the city, take the culinary route to discover Bombay.

I’d come to Bombay to eat. And I’ve discovered that there is a living, throbbing food culture that survives here. A sense of die-hard loyalty to food traditions and to signature eateries, which have fused intrinsically with the lives of all Bombaywallahs.

Sunday morning began with a 15-minute wait outside Madras Cafe. I sensed a buzz, an energy level that refused to be beaten down by the snarls of traffic and fumes, the stress of traversing distances, heat or humidity. I glanced around the cafe, getting the feel that its walls, tables and fans must have stood here for decades now. Years of smells, and colours, of food had crept up its walls. Bombay feeds on this unchangedness. It demands it. Places like this are milestones, there is a historicity to them, and they are a vital part of the culture of the city. Just as you can’t think of Bombay without Marine Drive, you can’t think of Bombay without some of these ‘holes in the wall’.

Once seated, it was almost like we were seeing food after a long starved time. No normal person, even for a heavy Sunday breakfast, would end up ordering rasam vada, idli sambhar, pesserette dosa, raagi dosa, udundu dosa, upma sheera, and top it up with the proverbial coffee. The beehive texture and crispness of the raagi dosa and the fermented mixed lentils taste of pesserette with maluga podi was like forming a link with a region, a culture, a rootedness. I felt rooted in Bombay. The upma-sheera, a typical breakfast dish, was totally new to me. The sheera was sunny, light-footed, its sweetness just merely touching the tongue. It didn’t cloy my tongue with the heaviness that comes when ghee meets sugar in a kadhai to sweeten semolina. Coffee actually helps wash it all down. I didn’t want to wash away any of the flavours with water.

At 6.30 pm the same evening, outside Aswad in Dadar. The road is packed, and the pavement stones can’t be seen. I feel like I’m walking on a conveyor belt. We are called in to share a table with a mother and her son. They watch us place our order and share in the waiter’s amusement. Misal, pohe, kothimbir vadi, thalipeeth, sabutdana vada, puran poli, piyush and kharvas. A slightly largish order for just two people and that too after a pork-chops-and-red-wine-washed-down-with-beer lunch. This was my first taste of Maharashtrian snacks.

The misal was a perfect spicy start—a base of mixed lentils and veggies, topped with ‘farsan’ to lend a fieryness and activate the taste buds. The kothimbir vadi reminded me of lost flavours. Growing up in a state where gram flour is used to make a snack called pattod—basically flour seasoned with coriander, turmeric and curd, steamed and rolled out—the texture and taste of steamed gram flour, spiced with green chillies, peanuts and red chillies, and served with a powdered, dry garlic chutney, was like reliving my childhood in an altered way.

My friend was ready to disappear under the table when he saw me devour the puran poli served with hot milk. I was having the fried version of puran poli, thin, light, delicately sweetened and baked like a chapatti. “What is the funda behind all the Maharashtrian balance of spices and flavours?” I asked. I was dismissed with, “There’s no funda, only the French have fundas about food. We Indians like good taste.”

We decided to call it a day. Plans to attack Mangalorean food at Ankur were wilfully dissipated by our stomachs. At 9 pm, someone said, “But you haven’t tried Chello kebab.” At Maker Towers in Cuffe Parade, I was introduced to the Iranian dish—mildly-flavoured boneless chicken, generously coated with rice cooked in milk and dry fruits. Milk, butter and cream are heated and half-cooked rice is added to it, with cashews, almonds, raisins. The chicken is marinated in 11 spices, subtly balanced, and the rice brought to its soft creaminess is used to coat the grilled pieces.

I walked into Mangii Fera just by chance. Waiting for the others to join me, I took in the buzz, how people were dressed. Suddenly my crushed white linen dress didn’t seem out of place. In Delhi, it would have. My friends joined me. “Mumbai fine dining is different from Delhi fine dining,” I took off in my oh-so-disgustingly-snobbish tone. The Gujarati boys retorted, “This is Satish Shah ‘su che’ fine dining, not Shobhaa De ‘faaiinne’ dining. C’mon, you are in the purist Gujju area of Mumbai. This is as fine as it gets.”

The chef produced his best—very Indianised version of Italian. Prawns in parsley and garlic butter, and a Bruschetta which was a hybrid changeling between a roadside bakery pizza and an open cheese sandwich. The Gujju took on a French accent, “Ze prawns are stringy here.”

We tripped and tasted Polenta Casatoria, Dijon Pomfret, Rissotto Fungi Pomadori, Chicken Cacciatora and sea food pasta. It twisted into a meal which was sparkling only in conversation. Someone piped in, “The desserts served at the Marriott’s buffet are not to be missed.” Gullible me went along. The desserts were not worth wasting calories over.

To walk through the colonnades of Ballard Estate is to walk into another age. A step into Britannia & Co and you are transported far and away, to a charming world that seems more to belong to a post-World War era. The faded green-checked table cloths matched the dirty green walls; patches of chipped plaster on the ceiling could have told a hundred tales. White boards on the walls with chipped tiles announced the specials for the day. Old wall fans whirred and rustled up the air, as if careful not to disturb the decor, which was the grain of the place. Cartons of Kinley mineral water bottles lay stacked on a shelf next to our table.

The famed berry pulao was placed on the table. Boman Kohinoor, the owner’s wife, had worked in Tehran for seven years. She learnt to cook the zireshk pulao and improvised it by adding kebabs and masalas. Berry pulao is Persian, for which the barberrys are specially imported from Iran. A charming Parsi gentleman with an air of old gentility about him, Boman gave a feeling of still living in colonial India. His accent, mannerisms and English diction qualified as ‘old world charm’. His father, Rashid, had opened Britannia as a Parsi food joint in 1923, the year Boman was born. “I wanted to become a doctor. My father died, leaving me with eight brothers and sisters to take care of, so I was compelled to join here.” He continued to count 10-rupee notes to return change for a bill that had just been paid. “Ek, doh, teen, chaar, paanch, there you are,” he motioned the waiter in black bow tie, white shirt and black pants.

The berry pulao lived up to its reputation. The barberries add the extra zing to the rice. The sali chicken and dhansak came as a must-do, but the caramel custard was to die for. There are certain desserts that are basic and you can’t get bored of them. There were rumours of Britannia being sold. Boman said, “My two rascals wanted to sell this place even before I kicked the bucket.” The deal fell through and I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from all of Bombay, which can boast of a culture of food fidelity. Boman spoke in slow, measured words, “Bush and Dick Cheney have eaten here. Y’know Abhishek Bachchan? He comes here for lunch.”

That evening, walking around VT station, we decided to stop for our evening fix—vada pao. I took in the notice on the wall: ‘Aaram vada pao. Eating House Grade II. 8.30 am to 9 pm. Sunday closed. Please take care of your luggage.’ My friend put his arm around me and joked, “She’s mine, my luggage.” The vada pao came with pohe, dahi misal, sheera and kharvas. Kharvas, a light sweetened, cardamom-flavoured milky cheese set in a perfect square, is ideally made from the first milk given by a cow after she’s delivered a calf.

“Shall we go to Samovar, its peaceful. I want a break from the noise,” my friend said. I was aghast. “No, I love the noise, it gives me a sense of a terrific food culture. I simply love the fact that everyone shares tables here, you don’t know who it is you are sitting next to and having your meal. It can be just about anyone–a Best bus driver, a dabbawallah, a supermodel!”

“Ooohh, so ‘she’ actually ‘shared’ a table, our Madamoiselle! You are slumming it here, aren’t you!” my friend mocked me. The vada pao with its gram flour batter, spicy potatoes went down rather quickly.

A pre-dinner halt at Olympia was next on the agenda. The moment they saw a woman dressed in spaghetti straps, the waiters ushered us upstairs. “Ratan Tata takes his tiffin from here,” the waiter whispered in my ear. I looked at him, puzzled. Why was he telling me this? A friend tittered, “You’re like a journo with that bulky bag and a diary in your hand.”

The brain masala and bheja fry brought back memories of my mother lightly sautéing brain and the fat spluttering around it in caramelised bubbles. She’d simply season it with salt and freshly-pounded black pepper. To retain its soft creaminess and not let the masalas overwhelm the mild flavours is important. “It’s always tasted like this here,” I was told.

There was some inane talk of a pet rooster who loved chicken tikka while sitting at Ankur for a late dinner. It was getting sillier by the moment—chilled beer adding to the bursts of nonsensical laughter. Thumbing through the menu, I pointed at the grilled lobster. A friend who had painstakingly mapped the eateries gently reminded me, “We are here for Mangalorean food, remember?”

So came on the sannae with yeti gassi—a prawn dish. Mangalorean special prawns with grated coconut and strong spices. Fish karavali in spicy red gravy. Massa anjadina with neer tella. Vegetable gassi.

Mangalorean food is localised by the Konkani belt, by Kerala’s borders and also has some Portuguese and British influence. Though, frankly, I couldn’t spot the British influence since there is nothing bland about this food. There is the red-hot fieryness of chillies, the pungency of dry coriander, sharpness of black pepper and lots of coconut. And there’s fish, fish and lots of fish.

Two hours spent at Theobroma that afternoon had vanquished all desire for any dessert. After a full meal of berry pulao and caramel custard, the two of us had sat with a lemon mountain cake, vodka chilly cheesecake, blueberry cheesecake and chocolate nutty pudding lined up on the table. We chatted about graphic novels and animation movies and looked longingly at the banoffee high, tiered temptation, orange mousse and rum-soaked cake with truffle sauce. But there are abdominal limitations.

Walking past Leopold, which is now a tourist attraction since 26/11, I thought to myself, “Will be back for a drink before the forage at Olympia surely.” Friends called and listening to me rave about Theobroma said, “We are headed there, go grab a table.” On came the millionaire brownie, fruity blondie, the chocolate croissant, ambrosia and coffee this time.

For the ‘last lunch’, I was told we would head to a typical Malwani place. Highway Gomantak, in Bandra east, can be seen from the highway, tucked away in a corner among decrepit buildings. Wrought-iron grills posing as airy windows, potted plants leafing through the curls of black metals. We were seated right next to the kitchen. The menu card is painted on a series of continuous white-enamelled boards, running across the length of the dining room. Tables are arranged like any other dhaba—edge to edge, and you can overhear conversation at the next table.

We’d had to wait here as well. All that time, I was busy taking photos of the menu posters outside and peeping inside—my curiousity naked and unselfconscious. We launched into plates of bombil fry. Deep-fried and coated in crisp batter, the fish broke in the hand—soft, plaint, melting in the mouth. Small wall fans whirred, adding to the noise and clatter. My eyes took in the menu: pomfret kaliputi, mori masala—Rs 65. “How can baby shark be available here and that too for such a price?” Turned out to be mackerel, which isn’t one of my favourites. The rhythm and beat of reading the menu—bangde tikhale, kurliya masala, tisriya masala—interspersed by the clang of utensils, waiters in maroon shirts and shorts running to wait on tables, carrying dishes, scurrying back to the kitchen with empty plates and chewed up bones, was like a leap into a living food culture.

Our second course was pomfret fry followed by mussels, crab curry hot, with red chilly and oyster masala in coconut. The crabs came in their shells—“That is the fun part, if you don’t chew on the claws and suck the juices out, you haven’t done it all.” I pried open a claw, it jumped from my hand and slithered on to the table’s edge. In seconds, though, I was chewing on the crab like a pro and fingering the oysters expertly. I don’t know what delight it gave me, but I made my friend take pictures of our plate piled up with fish bones, oyster shells and claws.Fried prawns, surmayee and chicken liver came next. Then Keema masala and i—not too spicy, but flavourful. We ended with another round of bombil fry. No place for dessert again.

Soon, I was back home in Jaipur, to a watermelon and tori-ghiya-tinda diet. Bombay, meri jaan!