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Meals on wheels: Kunal Vijayakar on his favourite treats from the street

Maska Maarke: The lure of a good, simple meal often drags me to certain street carts of desire, says the foodie.

mumbai Updated: Aug 31, 2018 20:59 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
Food,Foodie,Mumbai street food
Raju’s Malvani Cart serves hearty, homemade fare in Dadar. Thalis with rice and papad, kombdi vade, Malvani-style mutton, shellfish, chicken liver and fried prawns, all right there at the junction of Anant Patil Marg and Gokhale Road. (Hemanshi Kamani/ HT)

Aren’t streets meant for walking, driving, strolling, cycling, and occasionally for tripping over potholes and open gutters? Polluted, noisy and hazardous, Mumbai streets have become most unnavigable.

The street is something we reluctantly share with everything that isn’t supposed to be on it. Yet we do some unimaginable and some very imaginative things here. The same street that you walk on transmogrifies into a cricket pitch, public urinal, shopping arcade, gambling den, beauty salon, small family business, place of worship, painter’s canvas, shelter, and perhaps most commonly, a food court.

The lure of a good, simple meal often drags me to a hot sweltering street cart of desire. The Nepali faking his origins and serving pretend Chinese food, his crispy noodles flavoured with oodles of soy sauce, garlic, chilli and coriander. Tossed in exuberant quantities of corn-flour and ajinomoto. The sweaty kababwalla skewering, barbecuing or frying meat, liver, kidneys, seekhs, udders, heart, all marinated in the choicest of garam masala — and food colouring. Serving crowds with aptitude and dexterity, but all the while keeping an eye out to make sure he doesn’t get lynched.

The sandwichwalla improvising between do slice pav. Sometimes potato, often onion, a lot of tomato, even beetroot, cheese and yellow aloo sabzi. A thin man in the narrow lanes of Bhendi Bazaar with a rather wide aluminium handi full of Khichda, hunched over an oversized sigdi, ready with a fistful of fried onions, green chillies and mint for garnish. The pav bhaji wala deftly working the muscles in his wrist, brandishing a ladle over a large tava seething with spice and butter.

That fellow whose view is obscured by the crates of eggs piled next to a pyramid of small pav. Beating, mixing, frying, sautéing to produce bhurjis and omelettes. The inevitable boiled-egg seller, so conveniently positioned right outside a desi liquor bar. The golawalla, with possibly the most unhygienic but irresistible rose-flavoured ice-lolly, now available with thick canned condensed milk as well.

Pav bhaji served piping hot, the soft buns slathered in butter.

I look at street food as a gourmet experience, an indulgence and a culinary escape. But to most people street food is a necessity. It’s breakfast because you’ve left home at an unearthly hour. A quick lunch, in the half hour off, on a rushed afternoon. Sustenance on the long commute home. Or just a streetside treat with a friend.

I remember working as a young advertising guy in Nariman Point long before the Starbucks and the CCDs came along. The carts on the streets did full meals (and many still do). Rice-plate with daal and papad. Flaming orange veg biryani with juliennes of unrecognisable vegetables. Grilled sandwiches with mouthfuls of butter and cheese in each bite. White chhole with hot chewy bhaturas served with pickled onion. Mixed vegetable sabzi and chapatti with mango achaar.

Today the action has shifted to Lower Parel (and luckily that’s where I go to work now). The stalls open early as commuters rush out of the railway stations. Hot batata wadas, steaming poha and upma, sizzling medu wada and chutney. Come afternoon, ladies who’ve slaved over chicken curry, egg masala, fried fish and thousands of chapatis line the pavement with their large steel containers and dish out fresh, homemade lunch for peon and manager alike. (These ladies deserve a whole write-up for themselves, and I plan to do one.)

Invention, customisation, cooking on the spot - the story of our street food is a story of passion, resilience and honesty. ( HT File Photo )

Which brings me to the story of a cart, I have now frequented for over 20 years. As the sun sets on Dadar West, a little beyond the Charles Correa-designed ‘Portuguese church’, small fellows carrying huge vessels scurry to reach a hawker cart waiting in the dark. The men start arranging six or seven vessels of different sizes on the cart. They set up a stove on the pavement, topped with a cauldron of hot oil. Stools, plastic tables and chairs appear from neighbouring buildings where they have been stashed overnight.

Once everything is ready, and after a small prayer, the tubelights on the cart are switched on. Suddenly small groups of people who have till then been patiently hovering like moths, scamper towards the light and start ordering food. This is Raju’s Malvani Cart. Raju is actually Narendra Sawant and he serves hearty, wholesome and homemade Malvani food right there at the junction of Anant Patil Marg and Gokhale Road.

Raju’s mother started this food cart in 1986. I clearly remember an old, bent woman carrying heavy utensils and setting up the stall every evening. The food hasn’t changed a bit since then. The all-time favourite is kombdi vade. Chicken cooked in a spicy, thick coconut gravy with the distinct flavour of poppy and roasted garam masala, served with hot masala puris (vade) fried on the spot. The chicken is always ‘gavati’ or country chicken, and you often find hardened egg yolks in the gravy. This is because chickens which have not been manufactured in poultries, but have run around in farms, often have eggs in them.

On the daily menu are also Malvani-style mutton, tisrya suka (clams in dry masala), kolambi Malvani masala, chicken liver fry, kheema, and fried fish and prawns. All this on the corner of a street. You can eat it right there or take it away.

For those who find it tedious eating on the road, or don’t want to wait till the evening for a meal, Raju has just opened a small eatery, right there. He’s fondly called it Raju’s Malvani Mejwani, and the same food, prepared in the same way will be served, he promises. It’s a story I wanted to tell, not just because I adore the food but also because it’s a story of passion, resilience and honesty. The story of so much of our street food.

First Published: Aug 31, 2018 20:59 IST