Have you seen a recent picture of me? Don’t I look older, wiser and borderline discerning? Also a bit heavier, chubbier and satiated? Sort of like Smriti Irani, moments after she’s finished bashing an English-speaking reporter. Smiling, smug and appeased. That’s what a food writer needs to be. Older, wiser, ample and happy. And that’s exactly what I am. It’s that feeling of been there, done that, and wanting to do it all over again.
If you haven’t guessed already, this is a food column. And we — that is you, the reader and I — are going to have a blast talking about food. For this inaugural column, let’s start with something that is so very Mumbai.
No, I am not going to talk about the vada pav, or be cloying about the misal pav or sabudana vada or poha. Instead, I’d like to bite into a childhood memory, a small crunch of goodness that has endured the test of time. I want to sink my teeth into the crusty, light, flaky, pâte feuilletée, puff or, as we call them, patties or ‘puffs’.
It’s been popularised by the Irani and Christian bakeries of Mumbai, but by no stretch of imagination can we call the ‘patties’ an Indian creation. They’re obviously sired by the French, but are as Indian as the bun maska or the khari biscuit.
The patties in an Irani café or a Bandra bakery, displayed as they are heated in glass cabinets, are usually stuffed with chicken in béchamel sauce (or as we call it, white sauce). You can find them in almost any bakery across Mumbai.
According to me, they are a sociological marvel. Allow me to explain: you can buy a small chicken patty for as little as Rs 7 or as much as Rs 70, depending on where you are. The humble corner bakery makes patties, so does a fancy patisserie in a five-star hotel.
For a lower middle-class fellow who has just alighted from a train after a distressing commute, the chicken patty along with a hot cup of chai in an Irani café outside the railway station is a small respite. For an upper-class Parsi lady, the chicken patty is a light snack along with a boiled egg and mayo sandwiches with cake for high tea at the club.
For me, a chicken patty is an anytime meal. Few things are more inviting than a well-made puff pastry — the sweet, buttery taste combined with exquisite layers of flakiness. When I was younger, bakeries like Cobana (Byculla), Marosa Café (Fort), and Bastani (Kala Ghoda) made the best patties.
Apart from the white sauce chicken variety, there were a few other meats and flavours as well: like a hot batch of prawn patties that would come out of Cobana’s oven at 11am; golden puff pastry, stuffed with tiny shrimp cooked in onions, red masala and vinegar, or the gentle layers of puff curling around a pink sausage available post-noon at Candies, Bandra. Also, not to forget the minced mutton patties with turmeric and red chilli. Even now, these patties come out hot from the ovens of Original Persian Bakery & Store at Grant Road. The chicken patties that an obscure shop called Parsi Amelioration Committee at Tardeo make, are pie-sized and stuffed with chicken and a whole boiled egg.
A good patty or puff is baked till golden brown and is gentle enough to buckle into a shower of small crumbs on your first bite, exposing the piping hot soufflé of chicken or the warm spice of a tiny shrimp rechado or the masala of kheema.
And if it is really well-baked, when you’re finished, everyone knows you’ve had patties, because the tell-tale flakes of the pastry are all over the front of your shirt.
(Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar )