Indiana Jones and the Tasty Dozen … Valibhai Payawala’s Baraa Haandis, Sancha Ice Cream at Taj, Bohri Mohalla, Mumbai

Taking an archaeologist along seemed a good idea on a trip to dig up the city’s past. And a chef if you wanted to discover it’s food. In Kurush Dalal, son of the legendary late Katy Dalal, we had both. A doctor in archaeology. And a chef. A professional one. Kurush Dalal. A Facebook friend whom I recently met at Calcutta’s Oly Pub for the first time. 

We had long made plans to explore the backyards of Mumbai. Plans which finally fructified last Friday. The day when Saurav Ganguly made his return to the IPL. That’s when Soumik, fellow food commando and one of my first friends through blogging, and I headed off to meet Dr Dalal. Plans involved ‘baara haandi’ in the city’s old Muslim quarters. For the rest I put myself in Kurush’s hands. ‘Kono proshno noi, kono kotha nai’ (no question, no words) as bumbling detective novelist, Jatayu, said to Feluda when they met for the first time in Satyajit Ray’s “Sonar Kella”. 

We picked up Kurush just before the JJ Flyover and then took the first right below the bridge as you faced CST. We were in a car though Kurush said that a two wheeler was a better idea. Little did we know that someone would come and snatch our driver’s cell phone as he was talking on the phone later in the evening on the quiet roads of Bohri Mohalla.

Baara Haandi at Valibhai Payawala

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Three narrow alleys and Kurush asked us to stop and get off. We were at our destination. A single room, garage like place. Simple blue benches. No aircon ac of course but the high ceiling ensured ventilation and one didn’t feel hot inside. The sort of place I would love to go to. Except that this was empty. I would never have stepped in by myself. To me the crowd at a place is a big sign of great meals. I don’t know whether it was the early hour, 8.30 PM, or the fact that Mumbai in its desperate rush to become Shaghai, has left it’s past behind, but something had made this place deserted. Which is why one should eat with someone who is a man of food and loves his origins. For what followed was possibly one of the best meals in my thirteen odd years at Mumbai. If not ever. And as we ate, people from the neighbourhood came in for take aways. The tables began to fill in. And as we ate I understood why Kurush said that a huge queue formed outside before it opened.

Kurush had brought us to Valibhai Payawal. Literally ‘Brother Vali, the seller of trotters’. Kurush was an old hand here and everyone recognised him. Valibhai wasn’t there himself and he apparently is a wizard. So we had young Shahzad wielding the magic ladle that night.
Now this is what I understood of how it works. There are baara handis or twelve vessels in which various pulse based gravies simmer through the day. Kurush tells us to add a pinch of salt as there could be nine or even seven vessels in reality. Come evening, customers come in and specify their cut of cooked meat. Essentially cuts of beef as sublime as meat could ever be. The ‘ustaad’ or artist, in this case Shahzaad, then adds sauces from each of the twelve or nine or seven vessels to the meat. All of this topped with a touch of the red oil which oozed out of the meat while cooking and then some coriander leaves as a final healthy touch. The proportions a secret just as the ingredients are. Well to be honest I didn’t ask them what all went into it. But I am sure that each maestro would bring in his personal touch to it.

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We had three dishes from the Baara handi that night. Pichhouta or oxtail. Nalli Nihari or bone marrow. Boti or chopped meat.

The first bite that I took was of the sauce. It just floated around you like an ethereal raaga or classical Indian musical note.Holding you in its spell. It was food sophistication that I have rarely been privy to. 

Then a bite of the oxtail. Your teeth just sunk in through layers of pliant meat. This was meat cooked in its purest form. Possibly the way food would have evolved from the pure days of our stone age ancestors if society, culture and religion hadn’t messed up things. At Bohri Mohalla’s Temples of Flesh, the man’s hunt for meat had attained Moksha or salvation.

And what do I say about the Nalli Nihari? This dish is commonly cooked across North India with marrow bones where, if you are base enough, you suck out the marrow. At Valibhai’s they had taken the marrow out of the bone and poured the baara handi nectars on it. This was the ultimate sensorial taste experience. The ultimate meat fantasy. The sort which made you shiver in delight. Rivalling a pimpled pre-teens fantasies as he ogled through forbidden well thumbed magazines. Once you have tasted the nalli nihari at Valibhai you can well and truly say, “I have lived”. Yes, I am a bit carried away but that’s the effect it had on us.

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Nalli Nihari
Nalli Nihari
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Putting the Baara Handi together
Pichhota or ox tail
Boti
We had a paya or trotter soup too. The soup silken and very delicate. Over the years I have never developed a taste for the slithery meat of paya. This was no exception. The soup was nice though overshadowed the heavy brocade wonders of the baara haandi.

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I saved the best for the last. No, not more carnage. I am talking of the rotis or bread here which the roti maker was making in front of front of us with aplomb and yet no fanfare. Dough rolled into a huge circle, put into a barrel converted into a tandoor, taken out with his bare hands straight on to our table. Kurush showed us the correct way to eat it. You apparently keep folding the huge round bread as if it was a piece of paper or a bed spread and then put it into your plate. This serves two purposes according to Kurush. First, ensures that it doesn’t become tough to eat an remains easy to eat as it cools down. Second, you can fit the whole thing into the tiny plastic plate that they give you.

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Kurush shows us how to eat our daily bread

Not that one needed to worry about the rotis cooling down. This crisp in the outside, soft and cuddly inside, basking in maternal warmth, roti had three grow up meat lovers crying copiously in sheer joy. Kurush said that he could come here just for the rotis. “Yes” bawled Soumik and me in unison. 

This was the best non oven baked bread in the world. The meal one of the best in my lifetime. At all of Rs 450 (9 USD) including three colas. And it takes a Bengali to notice these things but as Soumik pointed out, we didn’t feel heavy or dyspeptic after this meat fest.

Valibhai’s restaurant is 125 years old. They have used this time well to reach culinary perfection.

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Sancha Ice Cream at Taj Ice Cream

The night didn’t end there. We needed to cool our passions. Kurush had a plan. A couple of lanes and and we were at another hole in the wall. Taj Ice Creams. This was a newer shop. A hundred and twenty years old! Again unimpressive from outside and wouldn’t have caught our attention but for K who, once again, was welcomed in like a favourite son.

Taj Ice cream is run by it’s third generation owner Mr Hatib Icecreamwallah. As had happened in my earlier trip to Bohri Mohalla, my attempts to speak in broken Hindi were answered by well measured English. Well grand old Mr Icecreamwallah, Bohri surnames often reflect the family occupation, was a double post grad in economics from Mumbai University. His desire to do well in life saw him reach Mumbai’s super posh Cuffe Parade where he lives. His sole instruction to Abdul who makes the ice creams at the shop, “don’t skimp on the milk or fruit”.

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Abdul and Kurush showed us how these ‘sancha’ ice creams are made. The day starts with milk being boiled in a huuuuge vessel and condensed in it. Then batches of ice cream are made as the thickened milk is put into a cylindrical canister along with sugar and fresh fruits and plunged into a vessel containing ice and salt. The stuff freezes. And as He said, ’Let there be ice cream’ .

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We tried mango, sitafal (custard apple) and chocolate chips. Sheer creamy delights from the Garden of Eden. But my heart went out to the litchi ice cream that Mr Hatibh treated me too.

It takes a pure heart to make great ice cream.

fresh mango sancha ice cream
Mango ice cream
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On the way out Kurush pointed out his other favourites marked for another night. Many more nights. 

The Indian Hotel. Run by grand old Haji Mohammed and his enterprising band of boys. Kurush loves the rolls here. I pointed out the similarity between the baida roti, egg coated stuffed parathas to Kolkata’s Moghlai Parathas and the Malay Martabak. Haji Mohammad said the answer was simple. The baida rotis of Mumbai were called ‘Burma Roti’ which possibly explained the Eastern connections. The beef tawa rolls made in the Pakistani style apparently. Best in Mumbai according to Kurush. 

I believe him.

Well you would expect fusion in a 'new age' restaurant. It was just fifty years old after all. 

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Pakistan styled rolls
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Burma Roti inspired Baida Roti
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As we headed back Kurush pointed out Tawakkal Sweets where you apparently get the best malpuas in town. Firoz Farsan. “The only place where you get Patrel (colocasia roll) and beef biryani in Mumbai .... all sold out by 8 am every day!! chicken on Sunday mornings :)” as Kurush wrote on the Facebook album from that night.

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Kurush pointed out the Do Taanki kebab wallah who initially started dishing out beef kebabs and parathas at a small temple-like structure in the heart of Mumbai’s red light area, Grant Road. Then the location of the erstwhile Oriental Restaurant. The last ‘Parsi run’, as against Irani, restaurant of Mumbai. The raconteur regaled with stories of his family, of his favourite eats, of the history of his city, the history of my adopted city as we drove to drop him at his headquarters at Mazgaon. An area which was Bandra two hundred years back according to Kurush. A place for diversity with vegetarian Jains living next to meat eating Bohris, and Jewish schools hosting Muslim weddings. This was Mumbai. Shorn of all the dust and grime.

I was privileged to get a glimpse into Mumbai which very few have that night. Conscious that this is not for long. As Mumbai takes fast and ungainly adolescent steps towards modernity as defined by the West, it’s heritage and grandeur will get pushed further and further behind till one day it out of our reach. 

I can only hope that I get to live and experience this magnificence before it becomes history.

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