Kunal Vijayakar looks back at the humble eateries of Lalbaug

  • Kunal Vijayakar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 21, 2016 16:35 IST
Shri Datta Boarding House in Lalbaug (Photo: HT File)

Why do buildings today so obviously bear the names of the people who build them? There’s Godrej Galaxy, Lodha Luxuria, Oberoi Opus, Gundecha Grandeur, Rohan’s Riviera, and the likes. From where we grew up, buildings were simply called Hill View, Malabar Court or Ganesh Bhavan. I’m guessing naming things after oneself has always fed our sense of self-importance. But that aside, all these plush multi-storeyed buildings with glass facades, infinity pools, and four-kilometre running tracks seem to have found acreage in central Mumbai’s Parel area. It’s where the new swish set lives today. Unlike the time when we were young, when Parel was always the place where our staff lived. Okay, my apologies. Let me stop being cavalier and get off my snob-horse. I just want to chat about Parel.

I love the Dadar-Parel-Lalbaug area. While glass and granite may have weaved their way into the fabric of this old mill land, some parts still retain their sandstone carved facades, and a few remaining stone chimneys arise from among the reflecting mirrored surfaces. And in the vicinity lie eating joints that have stood witness to smoke billowing out of these chimneys and the hungry mouths that worked in those mills.

Traditional Maharashtrian thali at Mama Kane, Dadar (Photo: HT File)

For instance, Shri Datta Boarding House, which has been around since 1920. The eatery lies in a small chawl between the Bharat Mata Cinema signal and the Lalbaug signal. It probably dates back to the time before the signals were installed, and definitely before “Bharat Mata” became a controversial call. Originally a khanawal (a home-style eatery), Shri Datta Boarding catered to hungry bachelors who slogged their behinds in Parel’s cotton spinning mills. The cuisine obviously catered to hard-working souls — from the villages of Maharashtra — who missed their home-cooked food. The food itself is a derivative of Malvani cusine, and Shri Datta Boarding is most famous for its kombdi vade and Maharashtrian-style seafood.

Now, here is the problem with most Malvani restaurants in Mumbai. Most Malvani cuisine is coconut-based. A Malvani curry is often slow-cooked meat in roasted spices, ground in a thick paste of roasted onions, with fresh as well as dry coconut. Most Malvani restaurants, like all other restaurants, resort to the Punjabi tawa cooking method. Onions, tomatoes and masala paste sautéed in a frying pan a la portion and then half-cooked meat tossed in and cooked in a few minutes. This method never works. A Malvani curry needs to be prepared slowly, with love. If you run out of it, you run out of it. So be it.

But when at Shri Datta Boarding, don’t restrict yourself to the Malvani chicken curry and vade. Summon up the courage to order the vajri masala. Vajri are intestines. If you like offals and spare parts of the goat, you will like the vajri masala. The texture is a bit like well-cooked calamari, in a dark red masala paste. With the bhakri or chapatti, it’s unbeatable. Be brave by ordering the liver dry fry, tikle gravy fish (fish curry in red chilli and coriander paste with garlic), kalwa (oyster) salad, and wash down with kokum curry. That, for me would be the complete Lalbaug-Parel experience.

Patrons enjoy a meal at Mama Kane (Photo: HT File)

Now, moving from carnivorous food to pure Brahmin bhojan (meals). At the end of Lower Parel, on Senapati Bapat Marg, near Dadar Station (West) is Mama Kane. Started in 1910 by Narayan Vishnu Kane, the original name of the restaurant was Dakshini Brahmananche Swacha Uphargriha (which translates to “the Clean Eatery of Brahmins from the South”). The name itself is a reminder of the parochial eating habits of the Maharashtrian brahmin.

Mama Kane was one of the first restaurants in Mumbai to make and serve batata vada and, till this day, continues to have it on its very basic menu. It has the all-time favourite Maharashtrian snacks like thalipeeth, kothimbir vadi, aluwadi, upwas missal, and sabudana khichdi.

For just Rs 80, it serves a humble Maharashtrian thali, which consists of rice, five puris or chapatti, two bhaajis (curries), one dal, buttermilk, kadhi, papad, chutney and pickle. No dessert.

While for most, Parel seems to be the playground of millionaires, for me it will always be the place of the mills.

Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar.

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