Note: this post is not sponsored by Pepsi. The title of the post is taken from Hanif Kureishi’s excellent coming of age novel with the same name
Everything looked the same.
The same dimly lit cavernous room. Fan swirling languorously. The high ceilings, from times well before there was air conditioning, ensured that it was pleasant and balmy inside even as the sun raged fiercely outside. The same heavy low wooden chairs. The same tables shared by strangers. The same fair complexioned smiling gentleman at the gate shepherding people to tables. The same old waiters ensuring the people were fed. People who were eating with a look of contentment mixed with concentration. This was a place for serious, no nonsense, unapologetic eating.
Lucky Hotel. A Bandra landmark. Years back I had found much to my bemusement that ‘Lucky Biryani’ was actually what you would call out to when you wanted your taxi to stop as you entered the subrurb of Bandra from South Mumbai.
This was the same Lucky where I used to come every Sunday for lunch more than a decade back.
The time when the nineties were still refusing to go. I had moved cities. Living alone, away from home for the first time. New to the grown up world of employment. New to being a “Paying Guest” from being the pampered first born at home. Sharing a room for the first time in life. With Varma the good natured CA from Hyderabad whom I really bullied. ‘Guests’ of Hindu Punjabi family where the boarding included vegetarian meals, anathema for a red blooded card carrying Bengali. And, in the spirit of the horrid toilet humour of the movie “Delhi Belly”, ‘Indian toilets’ which I was not used to.
Sunday lunches at Lucky those days were my attempt at seeking routine in a life of chaos and discovery. I would pick up the local tabloid, The Mid Day, and walk in. Place my order of a chicken biryani and a Pepsi. Eat it in silent solitude while reading the papers.
It’s been more than a decade since then. My Sunday lunches at Lucky stopped though I would often pick up packets of biryani to take home.
Then I returned to Lucky a few afternoons back.
I knew that things had changed even though they looked the same. Lucky had a pastry section outside, a garden section inside and an Air-conditioned section too which looked so uncannily 80s. I had gained more than my fair share of kilograms since the days of those Sunday lunches. I had become a Mumbaikar.
The bottles of Pepsi were replaced by cans. The biryani that used to cost Rs 60 (1.5 USD) then was Rs 130 (3 USD) now in the same non AC section. And was served in a copper pot instead of a plate!!!!!
The stocky gentleman at the door ran up to me as he saw my look of bafflement as I asked the waiter about what happened to serving biryani on the plate. The gentleman explained that they served the biryani in the pots now to ensure that it remained hot and quickly offered to take it back and serve it on a plate. I declined the offer.
Well the price and dinnerware might have changed but what hadn’t changed since 1997, and over the many occasions that I have eaten here since, is the taste of Lucky’s landmark biryani.
I was flummoxed the first time I had biryani at Lucky. The grease, the masala, the huge quantities… there were dialectical differences between the demure, delicate, rice, meat and potato, masala free biryanis of Calcutta and the seemingly heavy set Mumbaiya biryani which overwhelmed and overpowered every sense which was once teased and tickled by the more elegant biraynis of Calcutta which saw its origin in Lucknow. The Mumbaiyya biryani, like the city, is full of blood, sweat and tears in full technicolor 70 mm Bollywood trappings.
As I got over my shock caused by the loud biryanis of Mumbai and begun to accept my new city I began to appreciate the finer points, and I use the term very generously here, of the biryani at Lucky. To start with, the rice was nice and firm unlike the stodgy slushy stuff that I had suffered through in the equally famous Noorani biryani at Haji Ali. Nor is the biryani at Lucky swathed in rocket fuel as the throat burning stomach churning fare at Jaffer Bhai’s, the other Mumbai biryani icon that I discovered later, is.
I began to like the slight tartness to the taste of Lucky’s biryani. the fact that it included potatoes even if not like the near baked potatoes in Calcutta biryani. over the time I learnt that you could ‘customise’ your biryani at Lucky. You could ask for ‘less’ masala. You could ask for leg pieces of chicken which are always juicy, falling off the bone at Lucky’s. And extra potatoes. Mumbai, unlike the sulkier Kolkata, after all is where the customer is the king.
And, to tell the truth, I find the biryani at Calcutta a bit bland now and need a side dish to go with it. But you won’t catch me admitting that in public.
On the way out this time I spoke to gentleman at the gate. We had had transactional exchanges before but had never talked.
I found out that his name was Mohsin Hussein. He and his family own and run Lucky. A restaurant his grandfather had opened seventy three years back. ‘At the time of the British’ as Mohsin pointed out. Which possibly explains the roominess inside. I wonder how much the biryani which cost Rs 60, in 1997, cost 73 years back.
Mohsin’s grandfather had come to Mumbai from Iran. A country I had lived in for a year when it was still very Western. A country that Mohsin visited in the 90s well after the revolution and came back from unimpressed. Mumbai was his home too. Mohsin and his family are Muslims from Iran not to be confused with the Zoroastrian Parsis and Iranis of Mumbai.
I asked Mohsin about the style of biryani at Lucky. He didn’t have any romantic or legendary tales. No, this was not his grandmother’s recipe. Nor the recipe of some unrequited love that his grandfather had to leave behind at Iran. There was no romance or razzmatazz in this story.
This was dum biryani. Cooked in the ‘layered’ style of Iran. Something my parents had learnt from the biryanis they had eaten at Iran and made in the Japanese made rice cooker which they bought there. The birayni whose burnt layer, ‘takid’ as it was called in Farsi, I used to gorge on.
At Lucky the biryani was made in vessels that could feed sixty people at a go. Mohsin told me that ‘biryani’ was a term used in Iran too.
On the way out I pointed out something that I had observed over the years to Mohsin. Lucky was never shut during the period of Ramzan unlike other Muslim restaurants such as Olympia at Colaba or Rajasthan at Khar.
“Look around you. Our customers are from all communities,’ said Mohsin. “This is Bandra. It is cosmopolitan. Every one comes to eat here. We can’t afford to keep the place shut at any point.”
Yes, Lucky, at the mouth of SV Road where Bandra begins, is as good a welcome as any to Bandra.