Rice plates and rajma chawal: the common man’s meal gets a hip makeover

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 21, 2016 18:31 IST
Pakhala bhat, an Odia kanji (porridge) at The Bombay Canteen (Photo: The Bombay Canteen)

At The Local in Fort, the grungy interiors, a well-stocked, stylish bar and the cool graffiti on the wall stand in contrast to the latest addition to its menu — the rice plate. Introduced last week, it is already a hit among young college students and hungry office-goers who frequent the hip pub. A large plate comes filled with a mound of steaming hot rice, spicy fish curry, perfectly fried fish, pickle, papad, chapatis, all served with a side of nostalgia.

“Rice plates were a popular concept in south Bombay in the ’70s and ’80s. Old-timers will remember blackboards outside Udupi and Parsi eateries announcing ‘rice plate is ready’,” says Meldan D’Cunha (60), owner, The Local and Soul Fry (Bandra). This was a signal to the hard-working men in the neighbourhood to come in and enjoy a simple meal that was reasonably priced and healthy enough to be eaten every day.

Rajma chawal at Grandmama’s Cafe (Photo: Grandmama’s Cafe)

In our gentrified restaurant boom, that hard-working, blue-collar worker may no longer have a place. But, hey, his food, somehow, does.

“A lot of the old timers from the area are calling up to enquire about the rice plates. Last Sunday, we got 80 calls, and 20 people are enjoying the rice plate as we speak,” says D’Cunha. The little-bit-of-everything-on-a-plate concept was popular in south India, where meals often centered around rice. This later got an upgrade as the thali, now popular across the country.

Food we grew up on

Cut to 2016, most restaurants and cafes offer food that seems to please our mobile-phone cameras more than our taste buds. Unimaginable combinations and whimsical experiments are mashed together to create menus that have little to no satiating qualities. Think biryani risotto or pani puri stuffed with butter chicken.

Read more: Manu Chandra: The chef who’s making Indian food sexy

At such times, it is heartening to see new-age restaurants trying to bring back classics (without any molecular or modern Indian spin); this is food with simple flavours that reminds us of home.

“Despite all the current fads and fuss over new-age cuisine, we don’t want people to forget the food of their childhood,” says AbhayRaj Singh Kohli, partner, Grandmama’s Café. Some of the most popular dishes on its comfort food-centric menu are rajma chawal, achari khichdi, kadhi chawal, and kheema pav. “A lot of our patrons have requested us to add classics like these to the menu,” he says. At The Bombay Canteen, pakhala bhat, an Odia kanji (porridge) is served with accompaniments like radish greens and fried curd chillies.

Berry pulao at SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW) (Photo: SBOW)

Nostalgia on a plate

At SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW) in Bandra-Kurla Complex, nostalgia is the biggest draw for its regulars. Right from the Irani Café-style checkered tablecloth to the mawa cake, cookie and toffee counter set up in a corner, everything is a reminder of a culture that’s diminishing. Even the menu offers slices of history through dishes such as berry pulao, chicken dhansak, and salli chicken, of course with a tiny upgrade to justify the multiplied pricing and the upscale setup. So, the bhendi bazaar seekh kebab is served on an aluminium plate instead of a paper wrapper, and the dhansak comes in a stainless steel tiffin box. “Nostalgia has great recall value,” says Mohit Balachandran, brand head, SodaBottleOpenerWala. “The whole concept of the restaurant is built on nostalgia of Irani cafes. Customers are reminded of the cafes they would visit as children when they walk into any SBOW outlet,” he adds. The menu, too, pleases those childhood memories with weekly specials like masur ma ghosht (mutton cooked in lentils), staff thalis (simple rice and curry meals) and an indulgent chicken Sanju Baba on weekends.

For most millennials, when a bite of comfort food is fused with chic interiors and affordable alcohol, it is a recipe for success. But in a city like Mumbai, where a small number of Iranis are still around, the comparison with the original cannot be ignored. “I’d still take a trip to Merwans at 6am in the morning for those mawa cakes,” says photographer Arpita Mukherjee. Certainly, the old has to make way for the new, but when it comes to food, classics will always remain a favourite.

Sai Bhaji at The Bombay Canteen (Photo: The Bombay Canteen)

Try these dishes for a trip down memory lane

1) Nina aunty’s mutton dhansak at Social (below)

Price: Rs 320

2) Berry pulao (chicken or mutton) at SodaBottleOpenerWala

Price: Rs 495

3) Sai Bhaji (Sindhi-style palak and methi bhaji topped with crispy chickpeas, served with methi tamatar rice) at The Bombay Canteen

Price: Rs 375

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