For an expat dining out in Mumbai, it is all too easy to only frequent well known restaurants and Sunday brunch locations. Ones which can be considered 'safe options' that cater well to our western constitutions. But what about trying out some of Mumbai's more traditional eateries? The kind of places that are part of the very fabric of the city?
Mumbai is without doubt, the most cosmopolitan city in India - but it is also the most itinerant. Over many decades, millions of people have flocked to the city from rural villages all over India, each one bringing their own traditions, faiths and recipes. Nowhere else in India will you find such a variety of regional cooking; rich meat curries from the Punjab; coconutty prawn curries from Kerala; vegetarian thalis from Gujurat; Irani influenced Parsi berry pulaos; the Portuguese balchaos of Goa. The list is endless. The most well known of these food styles can be found at the best Indian restaurants in town. But in order to get right under the skin of itinerant Mumbai you have to dig a little deeper - by going right to the soul of the community.
Last night, Mr Jules and I did exactly that by joining a 'Finely Chopped Food Walk'. Finely Chopped is actually a food blog and Facebook page with a huge following that is lovingly written by Kalyan Karmakar - a guy who works in market research whilst penning all things food related in his spare time. As the blog became more and more popular - and supported by the explosive growth in dining out - he created the concept of the Food Walk. The aim of which is to take a group of people right to the heart of regional cooking; to experiment with cuisine at local restaurants (where you may not even find a word of English on the sign!), to walk around an area and shop for ingredients along the way, and to get people to meet other people with similar food interests. A forum for discovery, discussion and enjoyment.
Dadar was the location of last night's walk - an epicentre for 'typical' Maharashtrian cuisine. Previously, the only Maharashtrian food that we had sampled was of the Mumbai street food variety - Wada Pav, Sev Puri, Pani Puri etc. Nothing particularly 'substantial'. Maharashtrian cuisine itself, being the cuisine of Marathi (and hence Mumbai) people actually covers a wider range of districts - from Nagpur in the very North, to Mumbai and Pune in the middle, Kolhapur in the south and the Konkan coast down the west side of India.
|The group of 14 introducing themselves in Aaswad. |
A mixture of expats and locals
Kalyan at the helm and resplendent in orange
Within 30 minutes of meeting at the first eatery - Aaswad - we had already been introduced to a diverse group of 12 other individuals - including a travel writer, a food blogger, a corporate lawyer and even an American ex-fighter pilot!! A refreshing drink was swiftly brought out to get things started - Panha - which is a mango juice infused with cardamom and saffron. As Kalyan proceeded to give us a commentary on the origins and ingredients of all the dishes we would be sampling, the food began to arrive: crispy and flat Thalee peeth pancake; soft batata (potato) vada fragrant with mustard seeds; rice-crispy like sabudana vada; delicious, sweet mango aamras puri; and lastly, a refreshing amba daal salad. (Some detailed in the pictures below). My eyes were already beginning to feel bigger than my stomach!
|Thalee Peeth - flat and crispy and tasted|
a bit like an onion baji. Dip it in white butter and yoghurt first.
|Yummy Batata Vada broken open - have it with a sprinkle of chilli and a dollop of coconut chutney|
|Sabudana Vada - fried dumplings of sago. Crispy and wholesome|
|Divine Mango Amraas Puri - mango pureed with a bit of milk in which to dunk puris |
- which tasted like donuts but better!
After spending an hour or so at Aaswad, we moved out of the restaurant and across the road to visit a local spice shop. The shopkeeper allowed us to smell the various fragrant spices and tangy pickles and we were even able to taste one or two of them. I purchased a meat rub with a sophisticated hint of star anise - a good sized packet for a mere 35 Rs. A stallholder at Crawford Market had previously tried to rip me off for 300 Rs for a small bag of madras curry powder, so I was even more pleased with my purchase.
|Spice kiosk across from Aswaad - smelling and tasting before buying|
Then we moved on to the next shop - the very charming Kokan Bhavan - which specialises in ingredients from the Konkan coast. In particular, the juice of Kokum which is a berry unique to the region and which is used in curries and sherbets. We bought two large bags of papads for deep frying, a rustic looking mortar and pestle (for grinding our spices properly!) and we were given a bottle of the Kokum juice free of charge. We are going to experiment with this juice to see if it makes a good gin cocktail!
|Kokum Juice - perhaps a nice mixer for a gin cocktail?|
|Spices at Kokan Bhavan|
Next we moved on to Prakash restaurant for a short stop and a taster of 'missal' - a spicy concoction consisting of mung beans, potato, curry powder and topped with sev (crunchy gram flour noodles like you find in Bombay Mix). This was a bit too chilli hot for me but it was nicely washed down with Piyush - a bit like a sweet lassi and totally delicious.
Our final destination (which was just as well as I was almost at bursting point) was Sachin restaurant - serving traditional veg and non-veg Gomantak food. Gomantak is a style of cooking that belongs to the Saraswat community from the coastal areas of Southern Maharashtra and Goa and is therefore very seafood based. First to come out was the Sol Kadi - a salty coconut based drink that most of us unfortunately did not like - worth trying but I think it is an acquired taste. Then in quick succession - prawn fry, Bombay Duck (Bombil fish) Fry, and Sukha Mutton - meat cooked in a most unctuous and deeply flavoured sauce.
|The not so popular Sol Kadi - salty and warm.|
All the while we were receiving a detailed commentary on the food - their origins and ingredients and some of the history of the restaurant owners. Kalyan really knows his stuff and is so enthusiastic about the food, you can't help but enthuse with him! We left the restaurant thoroughly but pleasantly bloated, holding a complimentary box of sweets to have later. We really enjoyed our outing and it made such a change from the usual slump on the sofa in front of a Sunday night movie. Not only that, but we met an interesting and diverse group of people, experienced completely new tastes, found new places to shop and we also came to appreciate Dadar for being a community offering a quality food culture. A place that would have otherwise remained hidden to us forever.
I can't wait to go on another Food Walk. Kalyan also mentioned he may be offering cookery lessons during the quieter monsoon period...watch this space as I will be first in the queue for that!
|We walked past this street stall selling sweet Jalebis|
|Small onions at Kokan Bhavan|
|Sweet stall outside Prakash restaurant|
|Our last stop.|