A tale of two cities … BBC Good Good India launch banquet, Mahim Koli Seafood festival

I was at the launch event of the BBC Good Food Magazine India this Saturday.

The first issue of the magazine is out. An interesting mix of fairly world class photography and paper, international cuisine and presentation style with an Indian touch coming in through a fair bit of local content spawned by chefs, food writers and bloggers. With its production values the magazine carries on the movement started by TLC, then Master Chef Australia and recently Fox Traveller on TV. One of opening the eyes of India to international standards in culinary media.

good food

The evening had a collection of luminaries – chefs, restaurateurs, reviewers -from the food world including a couple of Indians with international acclaim. Most of them one recognised from amateurish, specially in the case of those produced in India, TV cooking shows and page three photographs. There were a few Bollywood faces from the recent past and one rather slim current heroine who opened the show. She came for the inauguration, late, and left immediately before dinner started. Well Deepika Padukone didn’t look like she eats much.

Deb, from the magazine, didn’t think much of my suggestion, that Bappida was the ideal Bollywood person to open the show for a food mag, though.

I caught up with photo-journalist and blogger Anish Bhasin whom one knew from the various food bloggers dinners. Then the sit down dinner started. An hour late thanks to Bollywood gang coming late. I have come across sit down dinners in banquets abroad but rarely here. Sit downs make a lot of sense in meets where people don’t know each other. Typically folks at a table break the ice and get talking.

I was at a pretty warm table with Anish and Deepna, the ever smiling Ms Basu the mixologist, the lovely folks from the Singapore Tourism Board who were fellow Ling’s fans and Chef Moshe Shek.

Of all the food honchos there that evening Moshe Shek is the one person I really wanted to meet. I really him admire for the quality of his restaurants, the fact that he pushed the envelope pretty early on and is one of the most unassuming and diffident people one could come across. We’d once bumped into him at his Bandra restaurant where you could have mistaken him to be one of the staff and not the owner had one not seen his photographs. That’s how down to earth he is.

Turned, out as I introduced myself, that he remembered me.

“You had left a very nice comment at the restaurant”.

I am very sure that he would have had a billion customers and a million nice comments.

We spoke for a while on food and cooking. He spoke of various places across the word where he still goes to sharpen his skills in cooking.

I told him what Kurush’s told me when I was planning to bake a cheesecake.

“Don’t bother. Just pick it up from Moshe’s. They have the best baked cheesecake in town” 

Moshe Shek looked at me, smiled and said, “Oh no, you should bake cheesecakes. It’s good fun”.

That’s Moshe Shek for you.

The high point of the dinner was the act by The Three Waiters from Australia. They were quite phenomenal and had us completely taken in. We also had local talent Tanmay Bhat as the master of the ceremony. His interactive stand up act did occasionally elicit answers such as “I really think that love is a more important ingredient than salt in cooking” and “I could cook cook for one Indian it would be Gandhi”…and Indian expat TV show host who probably thought she was at the trials of Miss Universe. Though, to be fair, she didn’t talk about cooking for world peace.

The dinner, designed apparently by two top chefs, was probably spoilt by a chef too many. A pity given that this was for the launch of a food magazine. The menu was supposed to be experimental but the rasam shot was too sweet, mixing tandoori masala with the very delicate Norwegian smoked salmon made as much sense as getting Ben Kinglsey to act in a Bollywood potboiler and the kingfish couldn’t have been more inert had it been in a morgue.

This was a bit of a shame since the rest of the BBC Good food evening…the performances, the collection of food personas, the energy in the room, the liquor, most of the desserts lived up to the billing of the magazine.

Chef Moshe Shek later told me that it is always smarter to go ahead with the chicken at a banquet. Next time.

Two fish dishes, where the high points were the cucumber slices and the couscous that came with them, were very different from some of the very evolved sea-food that we ate at the no frills Mahim Koli Seafood Festival the next day.

There was kingfish which was juicer than a gossip rag of the 80s, fried prawns which purred into your ears in a bedroom voice, plump fried bombil which made a very ‘Dirty Picture’ and a very seductive curry made with dried shrimp. Robust lavani like seductive seafood which fired up up your senses. Cooked by local fisher folks with catch straight out from the sea in a manner that they did everyday.

Or ‘eat in’ as the Good Food Magazine calls it.

My strategy in such events is to always go for the food being fried, grilled, cooked in front of you. It is better to avoid the curries in events such as this festival or even the Durga Puja ground fare as they are often served cold which is something that doesn’t work for me. I felt quite proud when my sixth sense took me to the right stall out of 44 and when I emerged from the sea of humanity with a plate of juicy prawns which to me was the high point of the stellar stuff on our table that evening.

luscious fried prawnsdried shrimp curry   prawn biryani bahkri or local roti juicy kingfish fry more prawns melt in your mouth Bombay Duck fry

The simple Kolis seemed better geared to handle huge crowds than the folks at the Taj Lands End.

And the crowd at Mahim fish festival was huge. Probably more folks at the grounds that day than those who get off at the Mahim train station in a year. Thousands of people happily eating away on the last evening of the three day festival. The field was packed to capacity as was the one at Versova that I went to earlier.  Yet, the crowd was largely Maharashtrian. Not too many across other sections, including those who are into food, knew about it.

I know that the place was packed to the gills, no pun intended, but there could be merits in drawing in people from other communities of Mumbai here. Gives a tremendous opportunity for folks from outside to understand and appreciate the local culture. And what better way than food for this?

Which got me thinking.

The food scene at India is still evolving. Mumbai, as India’s truest immigrant city, has the greatest potential to marry pan Indian cuisines and international cuisines with the local Maharashtrian cuisine.

It would be interesting to see which direction the food map of Mumbai takes in the future.

Would it be the Sydney model of food which spawns from the city’s multiplicity of immigrant cultures? For in Sydney you find food from across the globe dished out by the city’s multi-racial immigrant community….Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Argentine, Brazilian, Portuguese, Indian, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Lebanese and more…you have it all at Sydney.

You don’t see much of this diversity at Mumbai even at a state level. Just a touch of Udipi and Punjabi. Guajarati but that is from next door. Some Mangalorean out of South Mumbai from fifty years back. Muslim, Parsi, Goan but all with a reducing footprint. No Andhra, Kashmiri, Mizo, Naga or any of the other states of India. Even hardly any Bengali despite us being a food obsessed community. And yet all these communities are represented here through immigrants.

International expats are still a lot less at Mumbai compared to large world cities. Chances are that international cuisine here would be cooked up by Indian chefs and moulded for a largely Indian palate and therefore far removed from the original.

The other model, and I am talking from my recent experience of two food obsessed cities, is that of Singapore. You would get the best of world cuisine here at a Clark Quay but this is built on a very strong local food culture. Singapore celebrates its own food and is anything but shy of it … Maxwell Central, Lao Pa Sat, Chinatown, East Coast …the heart of Singaporean food lies in its food carts, hawker centres and hole in the walls. And that’s what food aficionados from across the world, including Bourdain, have fallen in love with.

So what is the model we want to adopt?

High end, international, that frankly doesn’t sit naturally here? Or a food culture built on a strong local food base – Maharashtrian, Muslim…neighbouring Goan and Gujarati and then food of the immigrants to Mumbai that come from all corners of India…and gradually from across the world…

It would be interesting to see how folks like those at the Good Food Magazine feed the emerging food culture of India.

 The Koli Seafood festivals happen at various fishing villages of Mumbai…Mahim, Chembur, Versova etc over winter. The best way to find out about them is look out for Marathi hoardings or ads in Marathi newspaper or to look for tweets etc from folks such as @sassyfork This is her post on the Koli fest.

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