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What ‘the’ Bombay food is all about

india Updated: Jan 21, 2011 14:37 IST
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My grandmom used to tell us food stories that then seemed absurd, but now emerge like an gazette of how eating habits existed in this city post-independence. She told us about the opening of a Chinese restaurant called Kamling in the 1940s on the Churchgate strip and how her Hindu upbringing led her to think that Kamling served up oriental portions of cockroaches, grasshoppers and rats. How her credulous beliefs created caginess in a Catholic-run Guerdon’s simple tomato soup, which she guaranteed contained blood. She was also absolutely unambiguous that the Irani-run MG Café used dog and cat meat in their mutton samosas.

Lost in time

Since then, the city has crumbled around us with familiar monuments giving way to atrocious edifices of perceived progress. Gone is Strand Cinema and Majestic Talkies. Gone are Pyrkes and Naaz Café. Gone are Brookland Garage and the French Motor Car Company. Gone are the freshly sliced ham at Café Gallery and the white margarine at Great Eastern Stores. Gone is Bastani & Co, and I now hear the Chinese Room at Kemps Corner too is just waiting to turn into a jewellery shop. As for the Irani cafés, I give them five more years and decree that the PS3 generation will never have dipped a brun-maska in chai.

Gulmarg at Shalimar Hotel, Kemps Corner is one of the last from my childhood that remains. In those days, they had a live band and a dance floor with a singer called Philomena. The floor has given way to accommodate more tables. Gaylord at Churchgate too boasted of live jazz music and dancing. The dance floor here too, may be long gone, but the Chicken a la Kiev tastes the same after 30 years. Horse Shoe shut down to become Delhi Darbar at Colaba and Fredrick’s turned into Ling’s. Both still remain my favourites; the former for the mutton biryani and Ling’s for all the food. Not Just Jazz By The Bay used to be Talk of the Town until quite recently and the RTI Shop at Hughes Road was the one and only slightly upper-class Parsi food restaurant called Landmark. Yet, Paradise at Colaba Market still stands testament after 40 years to the fact that I am probably their best customer of chicken rolls with sweet gooey mayonnaise. Kamling, for the best Cantonese cuisine, has been around since my mother was a child. Though Allah Behli at Nepean Sea Road–Breach Candy Junction is now an optical shop.

City food’s origins

Having by now spent considerable time on my lament, let me attempt to construe what THE Bombay, now Mumbai, food is all about. It’s a bit tricky but I will try. The communities that inhabited this city were the Kolis, Parsis,
Iranis, Anglo-Indians, East-Indians, Borahs and Khojas, Maharashtrians, Pathare Prabhus, South-Indian Hindus and a few others. Most lived in their ghettos that were scattered around the island. The food that was native to these communities, especially during festivals, spilled out onto the streets here.

The bylanes of Muhammad Ali Road, where the Borahs lived, would turn into a gastronomic paradise as stalls selling samosas, cream tikkas and kheema rolls worked through the night. They still do.

The Maharashtrian mill worker and the South Indian Hindu had left their villages and come to the metropolis in search of work. Many lived as bachelors with no kitchen to speak for. They found comfort in home-cooked meals in lowpriced, fixed-menu eateries. The Maharashtrians ate at the Gomantak khanaval (eatery), which served a daily dose of fish, mutton or chicken curry, or the Hindu health/ lunch homes, where the Hindu added to the name meant vegetarian fare. The Hindu lunch homes would do a daily chapatti, bhaji, dal rice and snacks like poha, thalipeeth, missal.

The South Indian Hindu, a rather hidebound, conservative and cautious community when it came to eating out, too needed some food comfort. Places like Modern Hindu Hotel catered to their puritanical needs, where simple South Indian meals were served on banana leaves at a minuscule price.