Our car stopped for a minute in front of the traffic signal at CST on Wednesday morning. I lazily let my eyes wander over the Grand Dame. Taking in the angel at the top, the lions looking away, the intricate designs of the gate, the sandstone. The signal turned green and the car moved on. We passed one stately colonial office building after the other through the very British weather. No steaming cup of coffee could compare to this experience at the start of the day. I realised once again how lucky I am to be working out of Fort for a few months. Mumbai's original mercantile district. I am going to soak in every second here and will share it with you. I am going to be a tourist in my own city.
I decided that I wouldn't pack lunch from home for work for during my stint at Fort. That I would explore the place during lunch time. I realised that I won't be a true explorer if I stuck to my comfort zone. So this time I headed to a place where you would never think of finding a card carrying Bengali. A vegetarian South Indian place.
I looked around. Saw no one familiar. Slunk in.
Anand Bhavan 'Hindu Hotel' was a deep cavernous restaurant. It wasn't air conditioned. Yet it was cool inside thanks to its high ceilings and thick, light green coloured walls. The decor was simple and basic. Utilitarian booth of plain tables and benches. Full of people eating with deep intent and a look satisfaction on their faces.
I asked the young waiter who came to take my order for a menu. He smiled and pointed to the board with the bill of fare hung from the wall. There was no menu card. The list was a mix of the usual South Indian stuff - dosa, utthapa and a few relatively less common names. I decided to try my luck and asked for a thali or set meal.
I didn't think that I would blown by the food. My expectations were low. The end result was a meal which had its moments. But not something I can honestly wax eloquent on.
Here are the good parts. Puris. Piping hot. Gossamer thin. With an interesting hardy bite of wheat unlike the softer flour based luchis of Bengal. Crisp. Sinful. Indulgent. Surprisingly decadent for a spartan vegetarian meal. Reminded me of the B Grade soft porn Malayali film posters that we used to look at surreptitiously during our Malena days at Calcutta.
Rasam in a tiny bowl. I used to think that rasam and sambar were the same thing when I used to live in Calcutta. If I remember right, some of the Tamil friends I met when I was new to Mumbai told me that rasam was more watery than sambar and was an appetiser. I remembered this and decided to slurp up the rasam first before eating the rest of the meal. I took a sip and went 'whooa' like Colonel Slade in 'A Scent of a Woman'. This was a tequila shot. Hot, sour, spicy. It really shook up your senses and gave you a new life. This was seriously powerful stuff. I wish they had served more.
I liked the buttermilk which came with the thali. It was cooling with a wicked bite of green chilly, very sharp and wise bites of ginger and fresh and mischievous bites of coriander . What a wonderfully well balanced drink. I remembered hearing about butter milk being a digestive and kept it for the end.
Here's is the very versatile Pree making her third entry into Finely Chopped in recent times with her recipe for butter milk.
I was indifferent to the stuff that in between rasam and the butter milk. The sludge'ish aubergine based cream thing which I had with the puris didn't inspire any awe. Nor did the rather tasteless sambaar which my East Indian sensibilities guided me to have have with the rice which appeared later, the dessicated coconut and sautéed beans dish, papad and pickle. On the plus side the sambar was not sweet unlike in the Gujarati influenced Shiv Sagar Udipi joints.
Well the meal was an experiment which neither thrilled not disappointed. And what did one loose? It hardly cost anything. Or that's what I thought. Read on. There are perils to vegetarianism as I soon found out.
The thali meal came at all of Rs 33 or less than one US. A wholesome meal for honest workers out on the road. The heavy turnout of eaters ensuring that the food would be fresh and of good quality. A value proposition from another century.
Which was no surprise considering the fact that restaurant was around seventy years old according to Viswananthan, the busy gentlemen at the counter. We chatted for a short while as he patiently answered my questions with a smiling face. He explained the food here is Keralite. On asking he said that their signature dish was 'Pongal' which they serve on Mondays and Thursdays. On asking he said that they did not serve idlis. (Anyone knows why? Do Keralites not eat idlis?) He then went in to chat with some guests who had just come in. They looked like regulars.
I knew that the meal didn't do much for me. But I could also see that there were many who were completely at home here. A welcome refuge in the middle of a busy and hard day. The sort of place which is rare in an increasingly materialistic and mercenary world. A world you can't trust as the sign below outside Anand Bhavan reminds you.
This sign outside the restaurant said, "beware of thieves and armed robbers. Shut the main gate the moment you hear the siren".
I stepped out of this "Hindu Hotel" and was bemused to see a Parsi Agiary or Fire Temple just opposite it. This is the time to put in a good word about the 'religious harmony' of India. But hey, when did Hindus and the benign Parsis have a problem with each other in any case?
I then spotted a juice shop across the road. Not exactly a hole in the wall. More like a shelf in the wall. I thought I deserved a bit of indulgence after my Spartan meal. So I decided to treat myself to a fresh grape juice. The gentleman at the stall put the grapes in the mixer, strained out the pulp and soon gave me my glassful of anti-oxidants. It was refreshing and cool especially after he added some ice. For all of twenty Rupees or half a USD. These roadside juice stalls are not rare in this part of town. We used to go to one run by a guy called Rajesh at Nariman Point when I worked there in the early 2000s. the hawkers there have been cleared out since. The outfit here was more humble than Rajesh's. The gentleman who made the juice, Dilip, said that the stall was set up in 1947.
Which is when it hit me. I looked around the street and realised that a lot of what I saw around me came up just as India became independent. Full of hopes and aspiration of the new nation. The buildings around me saw India grow into a modern nation. Were they happy? Were they proud? Or did they miss the British who ruled the streets and the country?
Done with my bit of pop philosophy I looked around and saw a rather strange pattern forming. You had the juice shop selling what one would assume to be healthy stuff. Next to it was a cigarette shop. Where, apart from gambling with your life, you could buy lottery tickets. And then came a paan shop where you could buy the popular Indian aperitif and digest whatever life threw at you.
The gentleman making the paans, Kapil Upadhyay, happily posed for me as I clicked photos. His colleague, friend or innocent bystander with a big moustache told me that this shop was about seventy years old too. They were all tenants of a restaurant called Lalit. Yes, in Mumbai, even the walls of building are rented out. Mr Moochh (moustache in Hindi) went on to say that the restaurant Lalit was apparently inaugurated by the chief minister of Kerala soon after independence in '47. And that these cheerful little juice and paan stalls were up and running even then.
Gosh it was almost as if I had a meal which was in the making for seventy years that afternoon.
I was brought back to reality in a few minutes. I learnt that no good can come out of eating vegetarian food.
I had clicked quite a few photos by then. People around me got into thick of things. Some posed. Others suggested camera angles and critiqued my photos. Everyone wanted to see the results.
Except the commandos accompanying a ministerial cavalcade which went by. They weren't amused. I had to explain the concept of blogging to them and dish out every visiting card that I had. I was finally let off with a stern warning from the perplexed commandos. "Don't you know what's happening in Mumbai?" I managed to escape Guantanamo Bay by the skin of my teeth.
I had learnt my lesson. I headed to Jeffs and brought home mutton kebabs and chicken biriyani for dinner.