Chasing Mumbai’s immigrant food cultures….Sindhi, Assamese, Parsi to start with

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This Saturday the Mint Lounge carried an article on how Asian food is getting popular in Mumbai.

Yes, Mumbai today is all about Mamagoto, Sing Kong, Yautcha, Ping Pong, Hakkasan and the like. Which works for me as I like Asian food. The other restaurant trend in Mumbai with The Table, Ellipsis, Nido and so on is ‘modern European’.

What pains me though is when people ask me about what’s new in Mumbai, specially visitors from abroad, apart from the odd Masala Library and Neel, I have nothing much to say when it comes to new and exciting Indian restaurants here. Which is a shame. To start with Mumbai has a rich heritage of Maharashtrian food ranging from Brahmin vegetarian cuisines, the meaty delights of Kolhapur, the seafood treasures of the Malvan.  And the ‘local’ food in Mumbai is a lot more than just Maharashtrian.

Mumbai is pretty unique as a city as it is an immigrant’s city. People from all over India have come here to make the city their home. In world cities like Sydney and London this has led to a rich array of immigrant food-based restaurants. Yet, where are the Oriya, Assamese, Manipuri, Meghalay, Coorgi, Chettinad, Himachali, UP Kayasth, Andhra, Bihari the list continues, restaurants in Mumbai? Surely there are people from all these regions here in Mumbai. Kashmir and Sindh and even Goan have just one or two restaurants with Parsi, Mangalorean, Gujarati, Udipi represented some what by establishments opened decades back in Mumbai. The only new regional ‘wave’ that I seem to have picked up, and that’s because my eyes and ears were open to it, are a few Bengali outposts in the distant suburbs.

As a food blogger, I get invited to lot of restaurant openings. To  be honest I rarely feel inspired enough to travel in Mumbai, which is a such a pain to travel in, to try out European and Asian made by Indians food for an event.

A good home cooked meal is a different affair though.

Sindhi with Nisa Aunty

Couple of Sundays back I travelled to Oberoi Splendour at JVLR to my friends Suprio and Dolly’s house. Suprio’s mom in law and Dolly’s mom, Nisa Dadlani was in town. Nisa aunty had offered to cook a Sindhi meal for me. Even though it was vegetarian, the lure of a home cooked regional meal lured me to distant Andheri E. What makes Nisa Aunty’s cooking unique is that she is a Sindhi who lives in Chile and her cooking influences come from across the hemispheres.

There was the famous Sindhi curry, and after so many years in Bandra, living next to the Sindhi bastion of Khar, I finally tasted Sindhi curry. A very silken experience with a tamarind induced tartness, besan based, cooling in summer loaded with veggies, combined well with rice and sweet boondi. Nisa aunty and Dolly had also made sel, a Sindhi dish I had not heard of, which consisted of slices of potatoes dry cooked in a lovely coriander chutney. She’d also made a lovely alu bhindi which had the purity which you get only with a good home cooked meal. To complement this Dolly had made a very cooling and delectable dahi vada.

Gitika Saikia’s Assamese

Last Saturday I went all the the way to Malad where Gitika Saikia, was putting together an Assamese meal (at Rs 2,000 per head for the meal) in her house under the aegis of Rhea Mitra Dalal’s The Gyan Factory.

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Gitika is quite a bubbly character and regaled us with stories of Assam including of the interesting ‘courier’ service that works to get food stuff from the North East to different parts of the country (the pick up point in Mumbai is Kalina Univ), she put together a power point on the tribes and food culture of Assam. Though she has lived in Mumbai for 16 years her heart lies in Assam and the condiments in her house (dried fish, bamboo shoot, boot jolakia, sesame paste pickles) are procured from Assam and she comes back with lauki (gourd) and papaya when she comes back to Mumbai from home.

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My earlier experience of Assamese food was at Axomi in Bangalore. You can read about it here. While that was a restaurant meal with a million courses, Gitika’s was a private, home cooked meal spread over three four courses and was more memorable and fully worth the cost of the lunch and the travel in my opinion. Once again, like in Axomi, I looked for similarities with Bengali food through the meal.

The first course alu pitika (mashed potato with onion slices and seasoned with mustard oil) was the same as the Bengali alu sheddo and was served with a very Asian sticky rice and a generous dollop of ghee.

I also tried some of the condiments with it.

This was food that talked to your heart.

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We then switched to basmati rice and the main courses appeared.

Khar, masoor cooked with shredded lauki and seasoned with water filtered through the ashes of banana roots. Reminded me of the Parsi masoor.

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Then there was pabda, a fresh water fish that my mom and K love, steamed for 1.5 hours in a bamboo stem in some mild herbs. The flavours very clean, the taste of the fish highlighted over anything else, a very delicate rendition typical of the East so different from the masala doused preparations of the West and South of India.

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Next on was mas (fish) tenga, made with rui. This reminded me a Bengali rui curry made in the house of folks like my Didu. (Didu is getting her eye operated today so do pray for her please.)

The mas tenga was slightly sour. I thought the tanginess came from tomatoes but Gitika said that this was thanks to the fermented bamboo shoots. I plucked a peti piece and was quite happy.

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The ‘last’ dish was posola murgi…tender and tiny bits of chicken on the bone cooked with bamboo stem. I put ‘last’ in quotes as the Assamese apparently don’t have any order of having fish and meat but as a good Bengali I started with the small fish, then moved onto the large one and ended with the chicken. The posolo murgi turned out to be my favourite that afternoon as I am a meat eater. The finely chopped banana stem reminded me of the thor (the Bengali term for it) that Didu used to cook.

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For desserts their were pithas, chewy rice paper rolls ( a distant cousin of plumper Bengali peethes), lovely chilled coconut laddoos similar to Bengali gurer nadu and a savoury garlicky little bread.

Gitika explained that Assamese don’t really have a culture of desserts after meal and usually have desserts with tea.

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Parsi at Rita & Farhad’s

My immigrant food trails didn’t end with this as the next day we went to Rita and Farhad’s at Novrozebaug for a Parsi meal. Rita’s dad, Dadi pastakia, a great cook is no more, but Rita carries on his tradition of hospitality and Ranjana, the cook trained by Dadi, carries on his legacy. You can read about Dadi here.

For starters we had traditional Parsi pattice with Rita’s twist of chicken bacon and cheese added to it.

For our mains we had the Parsi fav of (potato) curry, rice, boiled eggs, chicken kebabs and kachumbar which made for a lovely dinner, and since home cooked, quite somnambulant despite the heat outside.

In case you are wondering, tomorrow I am headed to Dadar to get a discourse on Maharashtrian vegetarian food at Gypsy Corner and then see Malvani food getting prepared in the kitchens of Sindhudurgh.

When it comes to the variety of Indian food, it is all there in Mumbai if you wish to seek it out.

Or you can go suck on a dim sum.

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