Monday, February 11, 2008

Bombay notes (emphasis: food)

Had an even better time in Bombay than I did last year – spent more time getting to know south Bombay really well, imagining how charming the place must have been like decades ago when my mom and her family lived there (more on the nostalgia angle in this post). After a few last-minute uncertainties, Abhilasha managed to come along too, which was good. We walked a lot – from the Radio Club, where we were staying, to the Colaba Causeway, to Kala Ghoda and around Churchgate. Visited the Haji Ali shrine too. Met old and new friends including Amit, Chandrahas, Sonia, Peter, Rahul, Soumik, Praba and Paromita.

The two panels I was on went off as well as could be expected, given my fear of these things, and the David Sassoon Library garden was a friendly setting. The first panel, on online writing, was enlivened by Time Out editor Naresh Fernandes’s snarky and ungenerous views about blogs, especially the ones that “amount merely to public diaries”. Naturally, this meant lots of tiresome generalisation. Naresh did sweetly admit that he liked a couple of blogs, including mine, but he made the all-too-easy mistake of referring to my blog as simply an extension of my journalism. Whereupon I pointed out that the posts that are extensions of the journalism are usually more indepth and more personally satisfying than the versions that appear in print (a reflection on the many limitations of mainstream media in India – inadequate word-counts for reviews, incompetent sub-editors, etc) and that I’m more proprietorial about them than most of the stuff I’ve written for official publication. Also, that I do write “personal diary posts” as well; wonder what he’ll think of this one, for instance!

Technically speaking, I was the “moderator” of the second panel, about banned books, but my task was made very easy by my fellow panelists. Manjula Padmanabhan, whose dark and subversive writings I’ve long admired (and who included me in this Suki comic strip a couple of years ago), wrote a short script that enabled us to begin things on a strong note. Devangshu Datta, Amit and Chandrahas managed the rest, with erudite views on a number of topics (including
the availability of gay porn at the Ahmedabad railway station, which DD was surprisingly knowledgeable about).

Most importantly, food tourism happened. Here’s the list:

- Mahesh Lunch Home and the revolving restaurant Pearl of the Orient, repeated from last year. Discovered sumptuous crab claws at the latter (the name is misleading; the meat of the dish is what I assume to be the crustacean’s forearm or calf region, or maybe the biceps – though given the size of each chunk, it would have had to be the sumo-wrestling champion of crabs).

- At one point we were greedy enough to have a 12 PM brunch at Café Leopold (yes yes, the Shantaram one) on the Colaba Causeway, only an hour or so before meeting someone for lunch. Abhi had Akuri, the Parsi preparation of scrambled eggs, while I settled for something so boring that I’m embarrassed to mention it here.

- Mutton dhansak at one of the Kala Ghoda stalls. This was – ahem – at 7 PM, a couple of hours before a lavish dinner at a maasi’s house: home-made tandoori pomfret and around eight other superb dishes, including a versatile salad made by Dayal uncle, who is a true artist in the kitchen and will make us many fine meals in the future (and who is hopefully reading this post).

- Excellent beef steak-and-fried egg sandwich at Café Churchill. Perfectly done – none of the ingredients was excessive relative to the others – and just the right size. And the thing was priced at just Rs 110! In a Delhi café (say, The Big Chill), something of comparable quality would have been Rs 200 at the very least. (In general, food prices were to die for. I also can’t believe that it’s possible to take a cab a short distance and pay a fare of Rs 13. I’m assuming that all this talk about Mumbai being expensive to live in is entirely because of the rents.)

- The best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had – light, tender, not too strong – at the Cricket Club of India. With an outstanding Orange Nougat for dessert.

- But the pick of the foodie experiences was probably our lunchtime visit to the Irani café Britannia, which has been around since the mid-1920s and is among the few surviving Irani joints in the city. It’s a ramshackle sort of place to look at (the “High Class Restaurant” written in fading letters on an old and rusty signboard seemed ironical when we first saw it) and we were told it runs on the whimsies of its octogenarian owner – opening for only a few hours at lunchtime, staying closed on Sundays, and if two people show up early when they’ve booked a table for four, they might not be allowed to sit down until the others arrive. Despite this, it has a huge and loyal clientele, and the food made it easy to see why. We had two of the staple Irani dishes – Sali boti, which is mutton topped with lots of potato straws and best had with a warm, soft roti, and the berry pulao, both delicious. (Couldn’t figure out the provenance of the little berries sprinkled on the rice, but were told later that they are still specially imported from Iran.) I’m not a big fan of caramel custards, but experts in this field claim that the ones served here are incomparable.

Eighty-five-year-old Boman Kohinoor still takes every order himself, being nervous about entrusting this delicate task to anyone else, even the younger family members who also work here. It was fascinating to see him doing the rounds. When he took our orders, every sentence was preceded by a businesslike “Now!” or “Listen!” When we ordered the fizzy Pallonji raspberry drink instead of the fresh lime water he had suggested, he gave us a faux-suspicious look. “You guys Parsi or what?!” he croaked, “Parsi means raspberry.” After he was finished, he beamed round at us all, called us “good girls” and “good boys” (one of my uncles is over 60) and tottered off to the next table.

One last thing that has to be mentioned, because it was a motif of the trip and because I’m still shaking my head about it: this utterly bizarre rumour spread by shivering Mumbaiites that their city is in the throes of winter. They should have been in Delhi on the night of February 1 when my brother-in-law’s wedding ceremony was held outdoors and guests were dropping like Bedouin in Greenland. People, I accept that your city (the southern tip of it anyway) is the greatest in the world, but your definition of cold weather merits you the appellation “Wuss”. And no, this isn’t Delhi-chauvinism. The moment we stepped out of the plane at the Indira Gandhi airport, I commenced a sneezing fit that still hasn’t fully ended. These things can't be faked. (The idea that Mumbai had a meaningful winter this year will be debunked at greater length in a subsequent post.)

P.S. Turns out even sophisticated cities have unintentionally funny signboards. Like this one:


  1. I was at the "Banned!" panel discussion and found it great fun. And it is nice to be able to put a face to your name.

  2. I can't believe you left out the all-too-real fake dissenter! I'm heartbroken. ;)

  3. Mumbai has a noirish charm that no other city in India has, to my knowledge.(I am a Delhiite)

  4. That was a nice sum-up of your Mumbai sojourn. Missed your daily posts but you made it up with an excellent round up.

  5. Mahesh Lunch Home is definitely the middle-class seafood lover's Mecca. And good steak for Rs. 110!!! Wow, I now have one more eatery to visit, which would mean ever lesser time with family and the million friends I have in the city. Aah, but who cares when it involves matters of the stomach.

    I don't want to spark off the Delhi-Bombay debate, but I consider myself a Bombayite and accept that most Bombayites feel their city is the best in the world, even if they have never traveled anywhere else.

  6. that's because Bombay rocks and Delhi sucks. Why do you think the migrants can't get enough of us :) They're too star struck :)

  7. Can't help but respond to the weather comments.. 8 or even close to it is cold by the regular weather we experience here.. :) certainly made mumbai more palatable..
    and on eating, I still think Mumbai has more options.. in types and price ranges.. than Delhi. Although I was made to believe it was the other way around when I lived in Delhi..

  8. It dropped to 8.5 degrees in the first week of Feb in Mumbai and by anyone's standards, that's winter weather. never mind that Mumbai only has it for one week - still! don't take our winter woes away from us and don't forget we have not heard of wool so we also experience puzzlement at what to wear!!

    ** not sure if puzzlement is a word but it expresses itself well

  9. Cool, Bombay (I still resist to call it Mumbai) is still a great place to be especially, the Town area or South Bombay.

    Jai, What was your impression ("Aankhon Dekha Haal" if any) about the xenophobia that had reportedly consumed Mumbai last week.

  10. Yes I have been hearing the same frm junta frm Dilli. But I guess for Mumbaiites we have had a meaningful winter :)

  11. >The idea that Mumbai had a meaningful winter this year will be debunked at greater length in a subsequent post.

    Raj Thackeray was right. North Indians are biased. Try facing the rains of 26 July and see how "strong" your Delhiites are. Selfish Delhiites and other Northies dont realize our spirit when faced with adversity and you can only sneer. Mumbai contributes half of Indian taxes which is eaten up by the corrupt Delhiites.

  12. The great Jabberwock getting into the mundane Bombay vs Delhi discussion ! You should have been in Shimla on 1st Feb as I was and then experience -3 degrees with snowfall. Also what were you doing at the Haji Ali Shrine?

  13. Hi,
    The best place for gay porn (specifically male-male) is Ahmedabad Airport not railway stn. I've spent lots of time there waiting for delayed flights.

    The "taxes" Bombay generates are a myth - it is the registered headquarters of many companies - and so, the taxes are paid in Bombay.

    The profits that are taxed are actually generated across the whole of India.

    I come from Calcutta and consider both Delhi-ites and Bombay-ites insecure wimps when it comes to weathering hardships such as commuter trouble and rain-flooding.

    Also Calcutta has better and cheaper food than either place.


  14. DD: sorry, my mistake! Airport, not station - that's a big difference.

    You need to treat me to a minimum of five excellent Calcutta meals to validate your claims about the food.

    Shwet: not giving in. Delhi still feels colder than Shimla. About Haji Ali...wife wanted to go to drape a cloth on something inside the shrine, so I tagged along. Not a bad place at all, mostly dignified and no-frills, though I wish it had been less crowded. And there was a TV serial shooting going on somewhere inside.

    Anon 2: don't malign us. we don't eat taxes, we eat butter chicken (priced at Rs 300 or more).

    Vishesh: I lead a sheltered existence. Didn't experience any of the xenophobia.

  15. Curlygirlie: yes, that was a recurring theme everywhere I went - that Mumbaiites don't have any wool. What do you do with your sheep then?

    Bluespriite: I think Delhi has comparable range now after the foodie revolution of the last 3-4 years, but it seems to be restricted to the plush eating places so far - to my mind, there aren't enough small restaurants that serve good-quality food. And everything is so scattered.

  16. Perverted Bengali DD peddles gay porn while sneering communistically at Bombay's capitalist spirit....I wudnt justify it with remarks.

    Jabber Wock- U seem decent enough person who is maybe young too realize. Your butter chicken is paid by the sweat of hardworking Maharashtrians in the middle class.


  17. Anon 2: not so young. Definitely not as decent as I seem. And as long as the butter chicken doesn't actually contain the sweat of Maharashtrians (hardworking or otherwise), all is good.

  18. Hee hee! we eat them!! Did u not eat lamb/mutton anywhere in Bombay?
    This is in reference to what we do with our sheep!

  19. Why are Bongs so bloody partisan in their outlook towards other Bongs? Only writing by other Bongs is good. Only films made by Bongs are worth watching. Only food cooked in Calcutta, that filthy sewer of a city, is worth eating. Only Bongs can write, despite the truth that there isn't ONE decent Bong writer on the planet today. And yes, Bongs simply MUST write in English, becosh bongoli ishn't goodh enof phor dhogs ebhen. This would be ridiculous if it wasn't so comical :)

  20. You know what is so different about your blog? I always wait for posts to accumulate unread, then after the enforced separation, I visit it one fine day and gobble all of them down at once. Your blog has the feel of a book of terse essays, or something close.

    DD: I come from Calcutta and consider both Delhi-ites and Bombay-ites insecure wimps when it comes to weathering hardships such as commuter trouble and rain-flooding. Though I know how bad Calcutta can get, I doubt if I would compare things between Bombay and Calcutta. I love them both. About Delhi I don't care.

  21. Your post was one of the best on the gastronomic delights in Mumbai ever !!! Well it's always nice & easy to wax eloquent about your city & it's quirks but it's even nicer to read the same from an outsider's point of view (please don't take offence to the the word "outsider" in light of recent events happening in Mumbai ;) ) And as regards the winter this year, I agree it's not a patch on dilli ki sardi but hey, it's Mumbai's coldest in 45 years !!! So reason enough for us Mumbaikars to go berserk :P

  22. Oh We Calcuttans (most of whom are non-Bongs) are perfectly willing to concede primacy to other cities in areas where we obviously lag.
    For example, Bombay obviously does chauvinism better and Delhi tops in road rage. However Cal happens to be the best in terms of food.

  23. DD, I bow before your incomparable flame-baiting skills.

  24. Sumant: you haven't seen DD at his flame-baiting best. He's only flying at quarter-mast here.

    (Btw, I had no idea there was going to be a fake dissenter at the panel. That was you, right?)

  25. Ooh, flame-baiter :) That's what may have have driven his ugly cat to death then :) Good riddance to one less Bong animal. If it were to grow up to be a cat, it may have migrated to Mumbai to beg for a job.

  26. Anon: your attempt to hit the right raw nerve is wa-aa-y too transparent. Might have helped if the comment had been wittier, but in that case you wouldn't be a troll, right?

  27. Eh? The Surd comes to the rescue of the Bong for no apparent reason? How migrant losers from Dilli and Kal-kutta bond :)

  28. Defending the honour of a great metro by anthromorphising and insulting a dead cat with a few grammatical errors thrown in? Ten on ten for chauvinism, zero for imagination and a minus for Mumbai's educational system.
    Congrats Jai, you're stealing rediff's trolls!

  29. Jai, I cannot believe you stole my itinerary!
    I'm even more dismayed that we agree on so many points (Mahesh, Churchill, Britannia et al)

    Oh well, I shall be in Bombay soon, albeit briefly.


  30. The next time you are in Mumbai you should definitely make a visit to Jimmy Boy (which is currently my favourite Parsi restaurant). Their Jardaloo Sali Boti and Keema Pav surpass even Britannia's, difficult though that may be to believe.

    And if you're in the Fort area on a Thursday lunchtime, make your way to Cafe Ideal and have the prawn patty there.

  31. I really like Bombay and the food experiences it has to offer! Britannia is nice but I have a soft spot for Cafe Ideal - the place is so quaint and their 'laganu custard' simply to die for! Note there was no mention of authentic street food - 'ragda pattice' or vada pao or bhaji pao. And the street-side toasted sandwich packs in more stuff inside it than a filled to bursting ambassador!!

    You might also like to browse the second hand books outside Churchgate - overpriced but worth a look anyways.