Seeking comfort in Chowpatty's Crystal. Mumbai treasures


Crystal is open for lunch and dinner and is shut on Mondays
The late ‘90s

“You get ghar ka khana (home food) there and the bill is never more than 30 Rs per head no matter what you eat “

This was 1997. I had just come to Mumbai from Kolkata. My college mate, Pramita, had moved into Mumbai a few months before and took me under her wings.

Over the next few months I realized that she was quite right. There was a whole bunch of us who had moved into Mumbai to work from out of town. All living in PGs (paying guest digs) or shared flats. I was lucky. I had access to home cooked Punjabi food at my PG. The rest lived on take outs.

Given this context the food at Crystal was manna. Simple, uncomplicated food…though vegetarian. Great prices. We used to go there every week. I think we did pay about Rs 30 per head.

I shifted jobs and saw that Crystal was as popular amongst people in my new office. I didn’t hang out with them as much as I had begun dating K who worked there. K and I used to go to Crystal pretty often. We used to eat out every night. Crystal was one of the few places where we would finish our dinner within 100 Rs. Up to 50 a head from the 30 Pramita had said in a space of a couple of years.

Then K and I got married. We set up home. Suddenly we didn’t have to go out to look for ‘home food’. We stopped going to Crystal. We passed it be at Chowpatty numerous times as we took Nariman Point to go to South Mumbai but never stepped in.

Then, close to 15 years later, I decided to go to Crystal yesterday on my way to a meeting at Cuffe Parade.

2014



It was 2 in the afternoon and the sun was blazing. I was apprehensive that it would be hot inside Crystal which is not air conditioned. I also wondered if I would have to wait in a queue. Most importantly I wondered if things would have changed.


I walked in and realized that my worries were unfounded. It was quite pleasant inside thanks to the high ceilings, the fans, the open expanse of the sea in front. The place was spotlessly clean, despite the years gone by, the crowds inside and the amount of food on offer.

The first face that registered when I entered was the of the uncle at the counter. He looked the same after all these years. I went up to him. He broke into a Master Shifu-like toothy grin. He remembered me from my many trips before! Though it was at least 13 years since I last came in.



I spoke to him for the first time yesterday. We had exchanged polite smiles in my earlier visits. I got to know that his name is Mr Khanna and that he too lives in Bandra. He was born in Amritsar and came to Mumbai with his father who hailed from Lahore originally. His father set up Crystal 60 years back. Mr Khanna took on the reins from his father. The food served here is Punjabi vegetarian food. His uncle owns a dhaba of the same name, Crystal, in Amritsar. They also have a branch of Crystal in Lower Parel.



Mr Khanna was not the only familiar face that I encountered. I also saw the two waiters who used to be fixture all those years back. They are still there and both welcomed me back with smiles. I asked their names this time. Mohan Singh still has a colourful handkerchief on his collar. Paan Singh, who attended my table, has a beard now.



What has also not changed is the busy crowds of people streaming in. Eating with looks of concentrated satisfaction. This is a place for people who love to eat with no frills attached. There is no more KL Saigal songs playing though. Mr Khanna tells me 'abh sun ne wala kaun hain '(who is there to listen to them).



It had been a while since I was here so I took the menu.  had never looked at the menu before.  I knew my order by heart though. These were dishes Pramita had introduced me to in my first visit and I have stuck to them since.



Actually the dishes I wanted weren’t all on the menu but Paan Singh, with a smile, assure me that they were there.

Chhas (butter milk) to start with, then rotis, rajma, sukha alu and paneer bhurjee.

Paan Singh seated me beside a lady from Delhi and went to get my order. You share tables here if you are alone. Turned out that the lady too was revisiting memories like me. She used to come here 7,8 years back with her husband and kids. We chatted and shared our dishes. I tried the peas and paneer korma from her and it was really nice.



My orders arrived. First the buttermilk or chaas, light, frothy, refreshing with a slight chaat masala punch. Just perfect on a hot Mumbai afternoon.





Then the mains arrived. I was apprehensive. Would I like them after all these years? Would they taste the same? Would my palate which has been exposed to a lot more since then, and is a tad jaded, be underwhelmed? Would I be disappointed? Was the trip worth it?

With each bite I got my answers.

The rotis (chapatis) fresh, thin, hot, straight from the tava. Warm and nourishing. Each bite spoke of a Punjabi gradmother who could have made it and served it to you lovingly. That’s how ghar ka khana like they were. They didn’t add ghee on top which worked for me. I wonder if you can ask for it.



I next tried the sukha alu. Dry boiled potato cubes, cooked in a light chaat masala. Each bite very subtle and fresh. Potatoes are always a sure winner and the very light spice mix made the dish ethereal and yet so comforting. The potatoes were cooked just right and gave in lovingly to each bite. I was in starch heaven.



I next tried the rajma. It again belonged to a dining table in someone’s home. The spices so subdued that you could get the taste and flavour of the rajma (kidney) beans and a hint of tomato. Not oily at all unlike restaurant dishes. A tad under salted just the way I remembered them to be. With each bite I could imagine the tears of joy, out of towners, away from home, living by themselves, would have shed as they tried the rajma.



Last was the paneer bhurjee or scrambled cottage cheese. The name doesn’t speak of the same love in English does it? Well, again an example of great simplicity in cooking. The paneer minced into joyous submission. The spices again very light, near European in their subtlety. Each bite livened up by the textural break provided by the bits of lightly fried tomato and onion. Grandma’s cooking once again.



Yes, the paneer bhurjee, sukha alu, roti and rajma, occasionally black daal, is with Pramita had introduced me to and is what I repeated regularly in my dates with K.

Then I ordered one more dish which we used to order when I came out with larger office groups on the way to catch the late night Crème de la Crème show at Sterling in the 90s. 

The kheer or rice pudding. I did this at the goading of blogger Sassy Fork who had seen it in Kunal Vijaykar’s show and wanted me to report on it.

Interestingly Sassy hadn’t heard of Crystal till she saw the show. Nor had octogenarian Mumbai resident, Jamshed Uncle, for whom I packed some of the food. Nor had one time Mumbai boy, Vir Sanghvi, whom I met after the Crystal lunch.

Which makes me wonder if Crystal is more popular among out of towners than among original Mumbaikars. Among those who miss home than among those whom Mumbai is home.

Anyway getting back to the kheer, Paan Singh got me an overflowing bowl while my table mate tried the nice fruit custard. I took a bite of the kheer. Thick, plesantly chilled, not too sweet…just as it would be cooked at home. Each bite was delightful. While I didn’t finish the rest of the food and packed it, the kheer I just could not resist and finished the whole bowl. My Bengali sweet tooth satiated with Punjabi love.



Putting my Bengali bias for the veg thala at Bhojohori Manna aside, this had to be one of the best vegetarian meals that I have had in Mumbai. The flavours a lot more neutral, underplayed and comforting than the vegetarian food I have had at South Indian, Gujarati and Marathi vegetarian places here. Outside of a Bengali restaurant this is the closest I could come to home food. Possibly closer because the food served in Bengali restaurants is often more complex than what I have grown up on.

As I left, I did the math. The meal cost me Rs 300. With a couple of more rotis this would have fed two at least making it Rs 150 per head. Slightly removed from the Rs 30 Pramita spoke of 14 years back. Yet, one of the best deals around in today’s day and age.



Sepia can be a very misleading colour. Sometimes we tend to romanticise memories. Making things seem much rosier than they actually were. Often getting disappointed when we revisit them.

No such problems with my trip back to Crystal.



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