The funny thing about writing about the cuisine of Mumbai is that, in the minds of most people, the city’s greatest dishes are its street food specialities: pav bhaji, the Bombay sandwich and of course, bhel puri.
And yet, everyone who lives in Mumbai will tell you that his or her favourites go beyond the food of the streets (which, in any case, is not such a sensible option during the monsoons) and include restaurant dishes. The problem with that is that many of these dishes belong to other cuisines: great Gujarati farsaan, a tangy mutton biryani or a spicy prawn curry, for instance. But all of us who grew up in Bombay/Mumbai regard these dishes as our very own, arguing that even if they are part of say, Hyderabadi or Lucknowi or Malayali cuisine, they’ve become Bombaywallas or Mumbaikars by adoption.
In that sense, the food of Mumbai is like the citizens of India’s greatest metropolis. I’ve always thought of Mumbai as a melting pot that has yet to reach boiling point. Once the food in a pot begins to boil and overcook, it turns into a mush where the ingredients lose their distinct identity and become part of the mushy whole.
But Mumbai’s melting pot has yet to reach that point. It contains a perfect curry in which you can taste the flavour of each ingredient.
So the food of Mumbai is its own. But you can always trace the regional origins of each dish even though it has now become part of the city’s cuisine, and we claim it as our own.
Vikas Khanna, the chef of New York’s Michelin-starred Junoon restaurant and the host of Indian Masterchef has suddenly emerged as one of our most prolific authors of cookbooks. His latest is called Savour Mumbai. Chauvinist that I can sometimes be, my first reaction when I saw the book was: what does Vikas know about Mumbai? He is from Amritsar, studied in Manipal and found fame in New York. His connection with Mumbai is restricted to a brief spell as a trainee (two months) at the old Sea Rock and then, a year or so in the kitchens of The Leela.
Dishing out books: Vikas Khanna, the chef of New York’s Michelin-starred Junoon restaurant has emerged as one of our most prolific authors of cookbooks (Photo: Ajay Aggarwal)
But Vikas has anticipated such criticisms. His book does not contain his own recipes. Instead, he has gone to some of the city’s best-known restaurants and collected their recipes. He has also gone to the most famous street food stalls and persuaded them to part with their secrets. So this book is unique. I don’t think anyone has ever collected so many classic Mumbai restaurant recipes and presented them as beautifully as Vikas has done in this new cookbook.
Of course, every Mumbai chauvinist has his or her own prejudices. So many of us will quibble with his choice of restaurants. Why Goa Portuguesa for instance and why not one of the little Goan Catholic places that serve a much earthier sorpotel and a tastier vindaloo? Why Kebabs & Kurries? What is so unique to Mumbai about that restaurant’s murg gilafi seekh? If you are going to use one of the recipes from the ITC Grand Central’s kitchens then why not the Bohri biryani? (So good that I have it packed and carry it all over India). And you could argue that the food of the Gujarati Muslim communities (the Bohras, the Khojas, the Memons etc.), which is what gives the city’s non-vegetarian food its unique character, is under-represented in the book.
Moreover, why is there no Gajalee, the best restaurant in Mumbai for Malvani food? The original recipe for the fried bombil that you now find everywhere was perfected by Gajalee’s cooks.
I love the food at Oh! Calcutta but I’m not sure that the cuisine of a national chain of Bengali restaurants belongs in a book about Mumbai’s cuisine. I have another quibble: one of India’s most famous dishes, Chicken Manchurian, was invented in Mumbai in the Seventies and should have been part of the book. You could argue that it has been excluded because it is a Chinese dish. But as anybody who has tried it will tell you, there’s nothing Chinese about it. (One of the people credited with inventing it, Nelson Wang, has joked “if Chairman Mao had eaten it, he would have shot me!”)
But these are merely my personal prejudices so you should not pay too much attention to them. And there are dishes in the book that entirely capture the flavour of Bombay/Mumbai. I’m impressed that, as a Punjabi raised in Amritsar, Vikas has gone beyond the fat and stodgy samosas of his childhood to discover the secrets of Bombay’s delicate patti samosas. My parents used to eat them at the old MG Café on Queens Road when they were courting and, for decades, those samosas were also the most popular snack at the old Bombellis in Churchgate. As Vikas says, you can buy the casing (the patti) ready-made now, but few restaurants bother to do so. Instead you get humongous Punjabi samosas at most places and the patti samosas (which I am guessing have a Gujarati Muslim origin) are only available at a few old-style restaurants (Vikas’s recipe is from Good Luck) and some clubs. But if you’ve eaten a crisp patti samosa you will never really enjoy a Punjabi samosa again.
The original recipe for the fried bombil that you now find everywhere was perfected by Gajalee’s cooks
There is also a recipe for the Frankie, Bombay’s answer to Calcutta’s Nizam’s Roll. When I first ate a Frankie in my teenage years, nobody in Bombay had heard of Nizam’s or even of a kathi kabab roll. We thought the Frankie was a Bombay creation inspired by the Middle East – which it probably is – and I am guessing that Frankie was a brand name. The original was served at street stalls that called it Tibbs Frankie after the man who invented it (Amarjit Singh Tibb). Vikas’s recipe is not the Tibb’s original but is from Wraps and Rolls and he claims it is outstanding. But I’m still nostalgic for the real thing and the old posters outside the stalls which had a photo of a cheerful woman declaring: “I love Frankie and so will you!”
Frankie was Bombay’s answer to Calcutta’s Nizam’s Roll. The original was served at street stalls that called it Tibbs Frankie
One of the most startling gastronomic phenomena in Mumbai over the last two decades has been the rise of the so-called coastal sea-food places. Gajalee is still the best and many of these restaurants are owned by Bunt families from Mangalore who started out running vegetarian idli-dosa places before discovering, to their surprise, that the citizens of Mumbai would pay huge prices for fresh seafood. I remember Mahesh Lunch Home in the Fort area from the late Seventies. It was then an unpretentious and reasonably-priced place with delicious food. Now it is a huge restaurant empire with many branches and the food has been suitably Mumbaified. Vikas includes the recipe for their delicious Crab Butter-Garlic, a dish that is as authentically Mangalorean as Chicken Manchurian is Chinese. I guess that makes it a great Mumbai invention.
Vikas’s recipes include all the great Mumbai street food staples. His bhel puri recipe comes from Vithal (in the Fort area) which claims to have invented the dish. For his pav bhaji, however, he has moved away from the street vendors around the stock market and the cotton area who first popularised it and chosen a recipe from Mumbai’s most famous pav bhaji place, Sardar at Tardeo. Vikas says that the Sardar version has less butter (only four tablespoons! Ha!) which may be true of the recipe they gave him but does not accord with my memories of the butter-soaked pav-bhaji they actually serve.
But the book’s real triumph lies in unearthing a good recipe for the iconic Bombay sandwich. It is very hard to explain to out-of-towners why people in Mumbai crowd around roadside stalls to eat what is, basically, a potato-tomato-cucumber sandwich.
But the Bombay sandwich is a dish of genius. A few years ago, Camellia Panjabi was invited to speak at a top foodie symposium in the West and she devoted her entire presentation to the Bombay sandwich, while the world’s culinary legends listened spellbound. Western sandwich chefs simply do not understand the secrets of masala and texture in the way Mumbai’s roadside vendors do.
I’ve included a few of Vikas’s recipes here, including the one for the Bombay sandwich. They are terrific. But to eat the real thing, you must go to the source.
Bombay Sandwich (Makes 4)
* Green chutney
* 1 cup fresh coriander, roughly chopped
* ¼ cup fresh spinach, roughly chopped
* 1 ½ slices white bread
* 1 tablespoon butter
* 6-7 green chillies
* ½ teaspoon lime juice
* For the green chutney, combine all the ingredients (the bread bulks up the chutney) and grind to a fine smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
* For the sandwich masala, combine all the ingredients in a blender and grind to a very fine powder. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. (This can be stored in an airtight contain.)
Ingredients Sandwich Masala
* 3 tablespoons cumin seeds, lightly roasted
* ½ teaspoon clove powder
* ½ inch stick cinnamon
* 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
* 2 teaspoons fennel seeds (saunf)
* 2 teaspoons black salt
* 2 teaspoons dried mango powder (amchur)
* 8 slices white or brown bread, crusts trimmed
* 8 teaspoons butter
* Green chutney (recipe above)
* 2 cucumbers, finely sliced
* 3 teaspoons sandwich masala (recipe above)
* 1 onion, sliced into fine rings
* 3 potatoes, boiled and finely sliced
* 1 small beetroot, boiled and finely sliced
* 3 small tomatoes, finely sliced
* To assemble the sandwiches, lay the bread slices flat on a chopping board and apply some butter and green
chutney on each.
* Arrange a few cucumber slices on 4 bread slices and sprinkle over with some sandwich masala. Arrange some onion rings and potato slices over this and sprinkle over with some more masala. Arrange some beetroot slices and tomato slices over this and finally sprinkle over with some more masala. Place the remaining bread slices butter side down on the vegetable topped slices, cut in half and serve with tomato ketchup and green chutney.
Note: If you like the sandwiches toasted, spread both sides with butter and place in a toaster grill, or in a hand-held sandwich toaster, and toast till both sides are crisp and golden brown.
Coastal Prawn Curry (Serves 4)
* 2 large onions, roughly chopped
* 3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
* 2 green chillies, roughly chopped
* 3 tablespoons oil
* 1 sprig curry leaves
* 1 tablespoon ginger paste
* 2 tablespoons garlic paste
* ½ teaspoon garam masala powder
* 2 teaspoons coriander powder
* 1 teaspoon cumin powder
* 2 cups coconut milk
* 1 kg large prawns, peeled and deveined
* 3 tablespoons cream
* Combine the onions, tomatoes and green chillies in a blender and blend to a fine paste.
* Heat oil in a pan; add the curry leaves and when they begin to crackle, add the ground paste and sauté for a minute.
* Add ginger paste, garlic paste and powdered spices and fry till the oil floats on the surface.
* Stir in the coconut milk and bring the curry to a boil, stirring continuously.
* Add prawns and salt and cook till prawns are tender. Remove from heat, stir in cream and serve hot with steamed rice.
Recipes courtesy Savour Mumbai by Vikas Khanna
From HT Brunch, August 18
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch