Kunal Vijayakar on his adventures at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, and what constitutes genuine Mumbai food in a multicultural city.
I was at the Hindustan Times Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) last week. Over the years, KGAF has gone from a collection of art and craft stalls run by genteel women into an iconic cultural wingding brimming with music, art and food. Moreover, it has unfettered itself from its original space (Regal Circle at the southern end to the University at the northern end, the Oval Maidan to the west and Lion Gate to the east) and has spread itself to Cross Maidan, thus including some of Mumbai’s historic sights.
On a cool Mumbai evening, I found myself walking towards the food area of KGAF, through the modern sculptures of Cross Maidan. The approximately five-acre garden is named after a cross that stands at the northern end. Believers who come to pray from all over the city say the cross has miraculous powers. But what fascinates me is what the Oval Committee has done for this open space. They’ve managed to oust the thousands of hawkers who, for years, sold knick-knacks, making those walking to the railway station, victims to unnecessary consumerism and make this green space hawker-free and peppered with art, creating a pleasant setting.
I was at the festival for a chat session with two dyed-in-the-wool Mumbai food experts. Vikram Doctor is a journalist, ex ad-man, does a podcast show, and is a prolific food columnist. With him is Kurush Dalal, a professor of archaeology at the University of Mumbai. But I’ve always known him as the late Katy Dalal’s son (Katy being Mumbai’s most awe-inspiring Parsi caterer). He’s now taken on her mantle, and produces great Parsi food, but knows everything there is to be known about food in Mumbai. The three of us gathered to launch a book titled The Travelling Belly by blogger Kalyan Karmakar. For years, he has pursued the vividness of cuisines and succumbed to the seduction of food. He has also written about his tryst with food all over India. The writing is anecdotal and evocative.
We dive straight into a conversation with the key question — what is bona-fide Mumbai food? After scoffing at the vada pav and pav bhaji, we come to the conclusion that only the food of Mumbai’s original residents can be considered Mumbai food. That means the food of the Koli community, the Agris, Bhandaris, Pathare Prabhus, and Parsis (since a lot of Parsi cuisine evolved after they settled in Mumbai).
After salivating on these cuisines, I hit the stalls: Rajasthani (Aapno Rajasthani Caterers), Kashmiri (Kashmir ki Kahaani) and Koli (Sadhana Kitchen), to name a few. Interestingly, the two stalls that caught my fancy were the Iranian stall serving polow and khoresht e qeyme (a mutton stew with channa). Right alongside, a Kashmiri stall made rogan josh and yakhni. Such a joy to walk on the streets of Mumbai without thinking about vada pav, bhel puri or pav bhaji.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar