Meat your heart out: Kunal Vijayakar goes on a burger trail in Mumbai
I have very mixed feelings about hamburgers. While on the one hand I love the idea of a juicy meat patty between breads, I just hate the idea of opening my mouth so wide that my jaws ache. Unfortunately there’s just no other way to eat a burger. It’s got to be negotiated with two hands, an unnaturally extended mouth, sauce slobbering all over your chin and front with your firth oozing morsels of meat and leaf.
We could discuss the history of the hamburger and try to trace its origins, whether to Hamburg in Germany, Boston in the United States or to the beginnings of ground minced meat during the times of Genghis Khan, but I’d rather not. What I’d prefer to discuss is how and when the burger came to Mumbai.
Now I have no documented proof of this, but my grandfather, who was quite a gastronome, talked about Café Excelsior near Victoria Terminus as the earliest joint to serve a burger in our city. Café Excelsior gets its name from the cinema hall, Excelsior, across from it, which was built in 1909. A café opened inside the cinema hall in 1919, to service the needs of hungry cinemagoers. It was here, along with samosas, wafers, sandwiches and soft drinks, that the Irani owners decided to innovate with the offerings and introduce the hotdog, a local Frankfurter sausage in a long roll, and the burger. It was a simple, fried spicy cutlet that resided in a bun smeared with butter, mustard and mayonnaise, a slice of tomato and one of onion.
I don’t remember Café Excelsior being inside Excelsior Cinema (before my time), so I suppose that somewhere in the late ’60s or early ’70s it moved to across the road, where it boldly stands just as I remember it from my childhood, and still serves burger, though mutton and veg, priced at Rs 150 and Rs 100.
The burger soon spread to other Irani-owned steak joints like Touché at Breach Candy. Touché was in a literal sense a smokehouse. By then the sizzler had come to Mumbai and at any given moment, Touché — with a menu that included a Hamburger Steak Sizzler — would be filled with smoke, sizzle and the smell of meat slowly charring. Now here was a true burger. Ground meat, made into a patty and flame broiled, and not just a cutlet.
The fast-food burger chains would invade only much later, but before then the burger would find its way to places like Café Mondegar, Leopold Café, and Gourdon & Co at Churchgate.
But that was then. India is a changed country now, with a sense of great nationalism and pride in things Indian, including tastes and flavours. The big multinational giants may have trespassed into our markets, but at their own peril, because they’ve had to step down from their recipes and bend to curry favour with the Indian palate.
Nowadays, burgers are made from aloo tikkis and from paneer, the reddest ingredient is no longer the meat but the sauce, still, all hope is not lost. The real meat burger is making its way back into our lives, and in the proper way. As happened in London and New York a few years ago, chefs have suddenly found the gourmet in a burger. Realising that the meat of a good burger is actually the meat in the burger, Michelin starrers like Joël Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Boulud created their own renditions, often with luxurious ingredients like foie gras, Wagyu and venison.
In Mumbai, Indigo Delicatessen has made excellent burgers since its birth in 2005, and they still do. The burgers are constructed in the correct proportions, with the meat and bread being proportioned in a roughly 60:40 ratio, and what’s more, you can actually choose the ‘doneness’ of the meat as well. When you want a sweeter and smokier burger, try their Burger with BBQ Pulled Pork. Three Chicks and a Bear do a great burger with blue cheese, and another with home cured salted tenderloin and sauerkraut.
Many years ago, in a small side street of Bandra I discovered Between Breads and their Good Old Classic 10 oz Burger with onion rings and crispy bacon. In Bandra as well, Salt Water Café makes a stupendous Bacon, Spiced Brie, Cranberry Jam Burger with mustard cabbage slaw and fries on the side.
Howra (why is it called Howra?) does unimaginable things with burgers. From what they call the Grand Daddy (which is two buffalo patties with double cheese, lettuce and mayo with BBQ sauce and spicy cocktail sauce topped with caramelised onions) to The Godfather Burger (three mutton patties with melted cheese, caramelised onions, onion rings, jalapenos and a fried egg, all smothered in mustard, BBQ sauce and some really good hot sauce), Howra is just sheer sin.
But I keep going back to two burgers that are tasty and simple. Kobe, which opened in 1975, makes a really humble burger with a crisply blackened tenderloin patty in a buttered bun with mustard, a slice of onion and a slice of tomato. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s a taste from my childhood, but a couple of those small burgers make me feel truly gratified. And the other one is what used to be the Beef Chilly Burger at Gondola in Bandra. Now done with buffalo, its shredded meat tossed in a wok with whole green chillies, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce (I suspect) and shoved between the top and bottom of a buttered bun. It takes me home every time I’m passing through Bandra.