An afternoon with Xanthe Clay at my Fort

With Xanthe Clay & Heathcliff on the streets of Mumbai
Warning: Long post ahead 

Xanthe Clay

Well, this is another Twitter story. Pamela Timms and I know each other through twitter. She tweets as @eatanddust. (I am, er, @finelychopped on twitter). Pmalea is an expat at Delhi who writes a food blog called Eat And Dust. She writes for publications too and you would never guess that she is not a local when you read her write ups.

Pamela wrote to me a few days back asking me if I could hook up with someone called Xanthe Clay who was coming to India to do a story on the local food. Now, I must confess that I had no idea who Xanthe was. More a testimony of the fact that I don’t read as much as I should than anything else.  Xanthe and I exchanged a few mails. She wanted me to show her my favourite eating places at Mumbai. The answer was obvious, take her to Fort.

We met at her hotel around lunch time on Friday. Xanthe told me that she met Camellia Panjabi, the Grand Dame of Indian food writing, the previous day. I felt like an amateur Karaoke singer about to perform after Lata Mangeshkar.

 Xanthe was the only person I know whose name starts with X. As I later found out, her parents had given her a Grecian name. A Google search on the phone the previous night and our chat during the day revealed that Xanthe was a big food writer in the UK. She’s written three books and now is onto her fourth. Her books, from what I gather, try to focus on demystifying and simplifying cooking. “I don’t write about difficult cooking”, she said. Well, that sounded like my sort of cooking. Xanthe tweets as @Xanthecooks She is also a food columnist for The Daily Telegraph in the UK.

Turned out that she personally knew Simon Majumdar, food blogger turned food author turned food reality show judge and someone I admire, for a while. According to Xanthe, Simon was someone who ‘calls a spade a spade’. That’s exactly what I’d like to be known as. That’s why Finely Chopped was born. And yet, Simon is the nicest, and only, celebrity I know and he sincerely answers any questions that I have.  

Well, that’s all about Xanthe professionally. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Xanthe the person is that she is one of the sweetest people you could meet. Extremely charming, gentle and with a very disarming smile. She is just the kind of person you would run to if you were stuck in a room full of bawling Kindergarten kids and didn’t know what to do. She was extremely non-fussed and walked the crowded streets of Fort without a tremor and sampled food and drinks from the street side stalls without flinching.

All of this is real, Xanthe dug in to everything without a second thought

Accompanying her was Heathcliff, the photographer. His work has taken him to all parts of the world. It was amazing to see how he drew similarities with what he saw at Syria when I showed him a Parsi Fire Temple here. Heathcliff too had no hang-ups while trying out the food and seemed to be as into the assignment as Xanthe. It was amazing to see Heathcliff walk around with three bazooka like cameras while I ended up with sore shoulders with my tiny little Sony cyber shot at the end of the day. 


The khao gulley or 'Eat Street' of Fort

I won’t get into the details of the street food because that’s what Xanthe’s article will be about. This is more about what happened that afternoon.

We started our Fort walk with a homage to history. Laxmi Building, and its plaque announcing its inauguration by Sjt Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938. And then 'The Bombay Store' which Xanthe found to be quite ‘posh’. I showed her the ‘Bombay Swadeshi Stores’ plaque and gave her a lecture on Bal Gangadhar Tilak and how he opened this store to take on the British who dumped their goods at India. More than a hundred years back. Thank god for Amar Chitra Katha history lessons. ”The British were the bad guys”, I looked pointedly at the fairy godmotherlike Xanthe, and Heathcliff who was quite an anti-imperialist himself.

We headed to one of the many Khao Gulleys of India that sustained its middle class worker bees. I had discovered this one at Fort on a rainy day on the way back from Puncham Puri. A few centuries back. 

We first bumped into people eating red rice with brown dumplings on plastic plates... I introduced our visitors to the concept of Schezwan...the Indian cousin of Sichuan. "Always red".

Bhel puri stall next, except sev puri photographed better according to our visitors. The bhel was consigned to a corner as we munched on sev puri and ragra pudi and dahi puri. In any case I prefer sev puris or ‘Indian canapes’ as I described them. The unhealthier and more deep fried the better for me.  I gave a free Hindi lesson here. Sukha is dry. Bheega is wet. Khatta is sour. Meetha is sweet. Kam Teekha is less hot. There is a new Vinod Dua in town.

Vada pao shoot followed and then my lecture on the difference between kandapakora ('tomato tomato'). We headed to the Pao bhaji stall to see the making of ‘tava pulao. “Not ‘pilaf’. That’s Persian”. And then a chai stall where Xanthe enthusiastically sipped a glass of cutting chai and learnt about the concept of ‘cutting’. “Half a cup so that you can drink many through the day. Rs 4 versus Rs 8 for a glass”.

Mewad ice cream followed which both Xanthe and I liked. Reminded me of the lunches at Nariman Point when I used to work there. The photographer in Heatchliff made him choose falooda for its kaleidoscopic balance of textures and colours. We then crossed over to the Apoorva gulley. Lunch time was over. Saw the remains in the vessels of a Maharashtrian Moushi’s cart run by the Amres. Two carts down was Swamy who came to Mumbai from Coimbatore fifty years back.  He served more than 38 types of rice at this spot for twenty years now. Heathcliff clicked away at sheera (sweet semolina), upma (salt), idli, curd rice or tair sadam, tamarind rice, lemon rice and sambar rice. And then we set off for cut fruits.

Our street food walk brought us across the various faces of Mumbaikars. Enthusiastic bystanders who joined in the conversation with explanations and suggestions. Street fruit vendors who kindly let us click away without even knowing that we were actually going to pay for what we ate (this was not a PR shoot or a press junket). The odd strain of post Headley suspicion in a vendor and a lawyer who didn’t want to be photographed. The fruit seller who was fine with us photographing as long as we didn’t disturb his work. This was business hour for him in the city’s former commercial centre. And the proud Maharashtrian food vendor who asked me to take our visitors to 'good healths' rather than showing the 'cheap street stuff'. Mumbai is a world city after all.


The bystanders joined in with their suggestions. They were Maharashtrians & told me that Ragda puri is apparently a Gujarati invention...loved by all

'Ragda' or chickpeas

The faluda won Heathcliff's heart

My take on faluda...would love to see Heathcliff's pics

Memories of mewad ice cream

"Rapidex' Hindi lessons

Cutting chai

Swami and his rice cart



With my family at Fort

I was touched by the way I was welcome back by all ‘my people’ at Fort. I had just been there for four months after all. It started right with the parking lot guys. Dipu the sandwich wallah, the last person I said goodbye to when I left Fort a fortnight back. Then the welcoming smell of Ustaad’s jalebis. The Vidya Dairy Farm refused to take money for the jalebis and samosas that they served us. The Prodigal Son had returned. Ustaad who was taking a post lunch break gamely came out and started making jalebis for Heathcliff to photograph. Man, does the old man love the camera or what? Never realised that our Pehelwan was so short. 

We didn’t go to Apoorva or Swaghath as Xanthe and Heathcliff were interested in street food. I took them to Ideal Corner though and I packed dhansaks for dinner. It was good to meet Walter and the manager again. Parvez had just left. The waiters smiled and giggled when I asked them if they’d give me a job. Will there ever be a proverbial ‘rich uncle’ in my life?

Our tour continued and a trip to the paan shop in front of Lalit where the security guards of an unknown ‘important person’ picked me up for taking photos on my second day at Fort. And then we went to the smiling juicewallah where I had a strawberry milk shake after ages. He didn’t approve of Heathcliff’s choice of beet, carrot and apple though.

Our next stop, Yazdani Bakery, where I introduced Xanthe to the Iranis and Parsis. "A bit like the way the Brits look at the French, idiosyncratic, quaint, love food". We chatted with one of the owners, Mr Parvez Irani, whom I met for the first time. He told us about how a Japanese consul member came and told him that Yazdani stood where a Bank of Tokyo branch once stood in the hoary past. And of the German baker who came visiting in the 80s and said that Yazdani made the best bread in the world. Then Tirandaz Irani came to the shop and allowed me into the hallowed baking area for the third time. Xanthe was awestruck, as I was each time that I went in, by the deeeeeeep oven. On the way out she joined the bakers in rolling dough, synchronised as if it was a West End musical.

Ustaad loves the camera. I really miss him

10 kilo maida, 250 g besan, chini, colour...sounds so simple

Took a while before the juice wala gave in to Heathcliff's request of beet, carrot AND apple

The right way to drink Brun Maska

Xanthe Charms Mr Rashid Irani...not the easiest of tasks

The Fire Temple for those who love to bake


'My Fair lady', now playing at Yazdani Bakery

Tirandaz Irani in the corner... this is the third time that he let me into the bakery. Third time that I asked him to

A last walk down the street that led to Fort House. Suresh’s vada pao shops where the vada pao maker remembered me. He got bashful when bystanders told him that his photos would come out at London. The bearded guy at the counter of Fountain Plaza waved out at me as he always did. 

A final sev puri stop. Xanthe said that she had a ‘feeling’ about it. She was right. We had a remarkable sev puri and did a little video clip where I nodded away like a cheer leader while Xanthe described the making of sev puri.




The gentleman in blue most sportingly let us photograph his lunch

Shoo you evil eye

Puris...who could not love them

'Sev' comes to the party


Getting ready for the shoot
 At the Queen's Necklace

Off to Marine Drive where Heathcliff wanted to shoot the sunset. I took a few photos too as I had never been here with a digital camera. Xanthe and I chatted for a while as I got to know about her work. I had done most of the talking so far. “Indian food is about existence and not indulgence. That’s why we don’t focus on plating” and that sort of stuff had made up our day.

Xanthe told me about her belief in blogging as a way to get noticed as a writer. And about how she felt that content was more important than worrying too much about Google searches. An interesting perspective for Heathcliff too who was trying to figure out how to balance a blog with socio political views with a more ‘effective’ photographer’s portfolio blog. 

It was soon time to part but not before I answered Xanthe’s questions on etiquette. “Do a Namaste only to doormen, chauffeurs, etc. If you are meeting someone from the English speaking urban ‘elite’ then a simple handshake would do. A folded hands Namaste would seem facetious”.
  
The Queen's Necklace

Warming up to India

'In conversation with Xanthe Clay' as K Jo would say


Xanthe wanted to know what my favourite from the street food of Mumbai was. After a bit of thinking I said that it would be the ‘Mumbai sandwich’. It was unique and had a sense of buttery indulgence. As I explained, we were extremely loyal to the street food of our little corners of India. As a former Calcuttan my love for phuckas and rolls would never let me get impressed by vada pao, sev or bhel puri. The Mumbai sandwich was suitably neutral and Western and didn’t compete directly with my favourites.

Mumbai Sandwich

And thus ended an afternoon where I got to do what I love the most. Introduce the world to a Mumbai which lies somewhere in between the depths of Slumdog Millionaire and the excesses of Mukesh Ambani’s Antilla. To the real India. A tiny part of it.

The afternoon opened a number of doors in my mind. Left me with deep thoughts. Largely to do with whether any British paper would send Nigella to do a food piece at Mumbai.


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