Tracing Mumbai’s Marathi culinary roots in Girgaon…Vinay Health Home, Sujata Upahar Griha AKA Tambe, Shree Ram Boarding House

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I had not been to Girgaon in South Mumbai till I started writing the Maharashtrian chapter of my book.

Book? What Book?

Well I am yet to share this great news on the blog. So here goes. The kind folks at Hachette India have commissioned me to write a book!!!!

It’s a food travelogue consisting of tales from eating across the lanes of the cities of India. It’s a dream come true for me. I have wanted write a book ever since I am a kid. And food and travel is what I love writing about. I have been a bit muted about the book though I have mentioned it on Facebook on twitter as I know it’s a huge and daunting task. Unchartered territory. Counting your chickens before they hatch and all.

At the same time I must say that I am enjoying every bit of this magical ride and can only keep my fingers crossed that things turn out well. Counting on your best wishes for the same. I guess the book will take a year and a half or so or more from now to see the light of day.

Coming back to Girgaon, I had just blogged about Gypsy Corner at Dadar when a reader, Mandar, commented in saying I should go to Girgaon to check out the Marathi food there. This is not the first time someone had said that and I realized it was time I headed there. Girgaon after all is one of the original Marathi bastions of Mumbai. That’s where the first Govinda dahi handi festival was held for starters.

So I rustled up a troop of Finely Chopped Knights. Indophyles Sue and Nathan, my British friends who love India, and food blogger, Nandita Iyer of Saffron Trail, who was visiting Mumbai from Bangalore. We headed out together to Girgaon from Bandra one sunny morning. We drove down as it was quite hot though some on twitter had suggested taking the train as parking would be tough. Charni Road is the closest station. Vinay Lunch Home, B. Tambe and Shree Ram Boarding were some of the places on my radar thanks to twitter suggestions from folks such as @neetakolhatkar, @dharmeshg, @saeek and @SauravDatta29 who responded to my twitter query on places to eat in at Girgaon.

We landed at Girgaon’s St Theresa Church and asked for Vinay Health Home and were pointed towards Thakurdwar. We drove down roads which were not too narrow surrounded by venerable buildings which I am sure had many stories to tell with the odd high-rise peeping through like a precocious child in a gathering of grown ups.

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Vinay Health Home

Our first stop was Vinay Health Home.

The first thing that struck us when we entered was that the place was spic and span, bright and airy and had a little aircon section too. We sat in the non-aircon section but didn’t feel too hot despite the sultriness outside thanks to the ventilation .

We sat down and one of the group of the ever attentive and polite wait staff came and took our order. I was impressed to see Nandita place our order in Marathi. She had apparently picked up the language when she was in Mumbai and had a domestic help who spoke only in Marathi.

Our order that morning was a mix of Maharashtrian snacky items. Missal pao, thali peeth,  a rather ketchupy patal bhaji usal to start with. All of these were a tad sweet as Nandita pointed out and she wondered if this was to pander to the tastes of a Gujarati clientele. We soon got our answer.

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I had also ordered a poha and was a bit surprised at the soggy texture of the poha. The dish tasted good though the looks had put one off.

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Our last order was the sabudana vada. This dish was perfect. Hot, crunchy, not sticky at all. So good that we ordered seconds. Definitely one of the best I have had.

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On the way out we got speaking to the elderly cashiers at the cash counter who pointed us to one of the owners, Mr Chandrashekher Tembe, who is fast approaching 70 and his cousin and co-owner Mr Ajay Tembe. The cheerful and lively Mr Chandrashekhar sat us down, treated us to delectable mango lassis and chatted with us for a while.

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He told us that Vinay Lunch Home is about 74 years old and was started by his father.

Nandita asked him the secret behind the ‘Health’ in the name of the restaurant and we got to hear the story behind the name.

Apparently when the restaurant was started, in the 1940s, Maharashtrian restaurants were named after their owners. Tambe, Kane, etc. Chandrashekhar’s parents decided to break the tradition by giving it a non family specific name. They zeroed in on the  name ‘Ganesh’, the favourite deity of the Maharashtrians but felt that it lacked punch as a name and decided to name the restaurant ‘Vinay’, another name for Lord Ganesha.

The ‘Home’ part of the name came from Chandrashekhar’s parent’s desire to make their restaurant a place where everyone feels at home. I must say that the way the waiter came and took our order politely and answered our questions and the pleasant atmosphere at the restaurant made this ‘home’ bit come alive.

Which still left us wondering about the ‘Health’ part of the name. Nandita, who is a medical nutritionist, was particularly intrigued. After all, the deep fried, slightly sweet dishes didn’t exactly connote ‘health’ in the modern sense.

‘Health’ Mr Chandrashekhar explained, means that the food served should be hygienic and good for your constitution. He said that folklore went that while doctors would ask you to avoid restaurant food when you are unwell, Vinay’s food is something they recommend when you are unwell! Hence ‘Health’. The extremely clean and neat kitchens and store rooms that Mr Chandrashekhar proudly showed us were ample testimony to the hygiene friendliness of the place. We all agreed that the food felt quite light on the tummy.

We asked Mr Chandrashekhar about the uncharacteristic sweetness in the food. He explained that Maharahstrian food can be of different types according to the region they come from. So the food of places such as Kolhapur and Sangli apparently are spicy. The Brahmin food of the Konkan region, on the other hand, where Chandrashekhar’s family hails from, adds jaggery to food to sweeten it.

A bit like the Ghoti is equal to sweet and Bangal is equal to spicy formula of Bengali food.

He also said that the food at Vinay’s used to be spicier till recently but has been made less spicy off late at the request of customers.

There’s a bit of a story hidden there of the changing demographic dynamics of Mumbai. Mr Chandrashekhar said that the area of Girgaon is no longer a Marathi dominated area. According to him, many Marathis had sold of their houses here as their families grew in size and they moved to the suburbs. Those who came in their place, and could afford the new real estate rates, were apparently the Gujaratis and Rajashtanis. Mr Chandrashekhar said that he preferred using the term Rajasthani to Marwari given the pejorative associations with the latter. One sign of this change according to Mr Chandrashekhar is that where there used be one Jain temple, there are 11 now. He also said that of the 80 families residing in the building where Vinay is located, only one today is Marathi in a building which was once dominated by the community.

This probably explains the tempered spice levels of the food at Vinay Lunch Home.

Girgaon doesn’t seem to be a Marathi dominated neighbourhood any more according to Mr Chandrashekhar and as the board at the door of his restaurant says, ‘all castes and communities are welcome’.

My pick at Vinay Lunch Home are the sabudana vada and the mango lassi.

Our bill came to about Rs 250 and the lassis were a treat.

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Sujata Upahar Griha AKA B. Tambe

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We bid goodbye to Mr Tembe and went in search of another placed called Tambe.

According to Saee Korane Khandekar, the Maharashtrian food blogger who blogs at My Jhola, B Tambe is where Maharashtrians in Girgaon go for their fix of ‘everyday fare’.

After walking for a bit in the scorching sun we found B. Tambe. The only thing is that it is no longer called Tambe. Possibly something to do with the fact that it had been sold recently by the Tambe family as Mr Chandrashekhar told us. Instead, the signboard said ‘Sujata Upahar Griha’.

The mood at Sujata is very different from the brightness and vitality of Vinay Lunch Home. It is dark here, a tad gloomy and sooty, the service indifferent and languorous, the place definitely not as welcoming as Vinay Lunch Home.

The young man at the cash counter told me that Sujata used to be called Tambe earlier. That it is a hundred year old restaurant and housed in a building that is 125 years or so old. Which makes the 74 year old Vinay Lunch Home a Johnny come lately!

It was past lunch time and most people around were still having the lunch thalis of usal, daal, curd, roti and rice. Possibly what Saee was referring to.

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We were not too hungry and ordered for more snacky dishes. Missal, spicier and more office canteen like here, thalee peeth, not sweet this time and served with white butter and poha, firm textured but not very fresh.

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Unlike at Vinay, we didn’t feel like lingering at Sujata and quickly left.

My pick here would be the thali peeth served with the customary white butter. Our bill here was around 120 Rs.

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Shree Ram Boarding

Shree Ram was the third restaurant on my list. Journalist Neeta Kolhatkar had replied to my tweet earlier saying that this is a non-vegetarian place near Prarthana Samaj.

Nandita left for home and Sue, Nathan and I walked down in the scorching heat, past Kothachi Wadi, back to the Girgaon Church and then down towards Prarthana Samaj to find Shreeram Boarding House.

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We entered its musty, dark air conditioned environs. It was past 3 pm.

A Zomato review had said that the place was more of a bar than a restaurant and the reviewer had got it spot on.

The place had the looks of a Heartbreak Hotel with men sitting desultorily at the tables nursing their drinks.

The three of us sat down and looked at the menu which proudly proclaimed that this 70 year old (according to the manager) restaurant is a Malvani place.

However it lacked the peppiness of the Malvani joints of Dadar. It didn’t have the regular Malvani dishes of vade or sol kadi. We placed our order after the manager had to check with the waiter on what fish was available and then got our order wrong. Very unlike a Malvani restaurant.

What we had were a prawn masala with the tiniest prawns in the world, more like potted shrimp used to catch fish as Nathan pointed out and rather forgettable fried mackarels and Bombay Duck (which we hadn’t ordered), both fried in a very thick and crisp rava or semolina coating.

I don’t have any picks here. Our bill with two fresh limes came to Rs 430 or so,

If I was to think back to my morning at Girgaon I would say that with its 70 year plus restaurants it’s a good place to get a sense of the city’s Marathi food roots.

However as a hotspot for Marathi food in Mumbai today, Dadar and the area around Shivaji Park is definitely a lot more vibrant and has a better range of offers.

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