I was at Dadar in Central Mumbai a few evenings back in front of a mall called Star Mall which is in between Sena Bhavan and Plaza cinema. The mall has a Burger King and a McDonalds. I wanted to have an evening snack before heading home.
I looked across the street and saw a small shop which I had often passed by before but had never gone to. I had always thought it to be a sweet shop. This time I noticed that there were people sitting and eating there. I was curious and decided to go in and see what the deal was. Was it just a tea and sweet shop or was there anything to eat there too?
|The Madhura menu|
I crossed over and peered in and saw the menu. They seemed to be offering all the standard Maharashtrian vegetarian snacky dishes – poha, missal, batata vada, kothimbir vadi – the sort you get in places such as Aaswad and Prakash down the corner near Sena Bhavan. I decided to try my luck with the food as I saw that the tiny shop was packed with people who seemed to be eating happily.
The restaurant turned out to be the sort of place where you are supposed to share a table with your fellow diners. Yes, table sharing is common in traditional Indian restaurants even though modern restaurants such as Le Pain Quotidien and The Table have introduced it here as a novel concept from Europe.
An elderly and smiling waiter showed me a table close to the door. The two gentlemen already sitting there quickly made space for me so that I could sit comfortably.
|Poha at madhura|
I was hungry and quickly ordered a poha. This is a popular Maharashtrian dish which, thanks to memories of my granny’s cooking back home in Calcutta, is a comfort dish for me. You can read my recent article on my poha memories for NDTV Food here.
I took a bite of the poha and smiled. The rice flakes had a nice firm texture. The dish was not greasy at all. There was a mild sweetness to the dish and it was seasoned perfectly and had a hint of chilli heat to it. If I was to shut my eyes, I would have thought I was eating this dish in someone’s home. Cooked by someone’s grandmother. Not in a restaurant.
I realised the reason why everyone around me in the restaurant looked so happy.
I was wondering what to order next and began talking to my table mates. The gentleman sitting opposite me, a professor, said he was a regular at this restaurant 20 years back. He now lives in far off Nerul. He had popped in for a snack on the way back home after delivering a lecture on parenting and education in a nearby auditorium.
I realized that I had entered the shop without checking the name. I looked out and saw that this tiny restaurant is called ‘Madhura’.
The professor suggested that I try a farali missal. Faral refers to fasting food. For Maharashtrians, ‘fasting’ for religious occasions, from what I have observed, doesn’t mean abstaining from food unlike for us Bengalis. It’s just that there are restrictions on what they can eat. Farali food refers to dishes made with the ingredients that are allowed on such days. The professor told me that he was not actually fasting and yet had chosen the farali version of the missal at Madhura as it is very tasty.
|Farali missal at mahura|
The farali missal was promptly brought to our table. It looked very different from regular missal, a dish I am fond of. The sauce in the farali version was creamish white in colour and not yellowish-red unlike in a missal. The dish had sabudana or sago beans and not pulses such as matki beans that regular missal has. The dish had potatoes and white deep fried thin potato straw toppings instead of the yellow gram flour based fried crunchy farsan which conventional missal has.
I tried the dish and was floored with the taste. The sauce was mildly sweet and then there were bursts of chilli heat popping up in each bite. The sago beans were properly cooked, not chewy at all. The potato straws gave a nice textural contrast to the sauce. I realized why the professor ordered this dish even if he was not fasting.
While I ate the farali missal, the prof called for a farali thali peeth or the fasting version of the popular Maharashtrian multi grain flat bread, thali peeth. I shamelessly requested to take a photograph of the picture before he and his friend ate it. They indulged me politely.
|Farali thlai peeth at madhura|
I was intrigued by the sauce of the missal and wondered if it had curd as the base. I noticed the elderly couple at the couple and realized that they were the owners. So I looked at them and asked whether the curry had curd in it.
The lady smilingly replied that it didn’t have curd. That the white colour was a result of a mix of coconut milk (or juice, I am not sure) and crushed peanuts. The coconut bit explained the sweetness I guess.
|Shalan and Shankar Velankar of Madhura|
I got to know the story of Madhura from the lady and her husband, Mrs Shalan and Mr Shankar Velankar, the owners of Madhura.
The story of Madhura began 80 years back in Girgaom in South Mumbai when a small restaurant called Kolhapuri Chiwda was opened. KC still exists and is run by Mr Velankar’s younger brother I was told.
The Velankars opened Madhura in Dadar in 1988, close to thirty years back. Mr Velankar, a civil engineer, was in service then and managed the restaurant on the side. While in college, he had gone to London to study in the 1960s. His son, an engineer too, lives in the US now. Mr Shankar runs the restaurant with his wife.
His wife, Shalan aunty, looked at me and proudly pointed to her husband and said, “he has made changes to recipes at Kolhapuri Chiwda and the recipes are his own”.
Mr Velankar said that original menu was sans onion and garlic. He introduced these to suit the taste preferences of the itinerant crowd at Dadar. He also said that the dishes at Kolhapuri Chiwda, like its neighbour Vinay Health Home in Girgaom, was on the sweeter side. He tempered down the sweet notes to suit local tastes. The food in their vegetarian household is sweeter than what they serve in the restaurant.
Well, Mr Velankar's tinkering had definitely let to some really tasty dishes.
The attraction of running a restaurant finally got to Mr Velankar and he took an early retirement and began to run Madhura full time.
This is pretty rare for Maharashtrians who, like Bengalis, prefer to be in service than run their own businesses.
“All these shops on the road are run by Non- Maharashtrians” said Mr Velankar. This despite our being in the heart of a Maharashtrian dominated locality in Mumbai.
I asked Mrs Velankar what else I should try and she suggested the kothimbir vadi.
|Kothimbir vadi at Madhura|
This was brought to my table within minutes of my ordering it. Freshly fried. Intricately flavoured with savoury notes interspersed with sharp tastes of fresh coriander (kothambir) and mildy pungent bites of garlic. The texture was beautiful, crunchy outside and soft and yet firm inside. Probably the best rendition of this Maharashtrian favourite that I have had. I couldn’t finish all the food and packed some for home. My mom in law loved the kothimbir vadi the best too and remember she had it cold and not fresh from the pan unlike me.
Mrs Velankar explained that the kothimbir vadi is made by boiling a gramflour (besan) based dough which is first mixed with chilli, garlic and fresh coriander. The cubes are deep fried when a customer places an order and served fresh. All the food is made fresh daily here.
|Batata Vada at Madhura|
I wanted to try more (!) food and ordered a plate of batata vada. The gramflour batter crust was beautifully crunchy and well seasoned and the potato mash inside was very pleasantly spiced unlike the super spicy vada pav in the sliders that I tried at Bombay Vintage, a new Indian fusion place, the other day.
This was comfort food. Potatoes wrapped in carbs and deep fried. A lullaby of a dish.
|The missal at madhura|
Having tried the farali missal, I wanted to try the regular missal at Madhura too. The curry here was a bit thinner than the one at Aaswad, and had a pleasant slightly sweet tang well complimented by a bit of tanginess and chilli kick. Again very different from the thick and very spicy mutton missal at Bombay Vintage. In fact none of the missals that I have eaten in Mumbai have been very spicy though the legendary one at Mamledar at Thane, which I am yet to try, is supposed to very tikkhat or spicy
The missal at Madhura I happily polished off and what I couldn’t finish, I took for my mom in law who liked it as she did the remaining batata vada.
The missal at Madhura had more of the farsan (crunchy namkeen) than pulses in it. Turns out that they make the farsan in house here and offer it on sale along with other Marathi snacks, spices and sweets. You get these at the Kolhapuri Chiwda too. Mr Velankar proudly showed me his recipe book for the snacks that they sold. He smiled and said that there is no recipe book for the hot meals. Those are prepared from memory, instinct and experience!
|The recipe book|
I bought quite a bit of snacks and masalas for my Maharashtrian friends who said they quite liked it.
The beauty of Dadar is that thanks to the train station close by, you have people from all communities coming here and I met a smiling Bengali couple who came in for chai at Madhura. They too, like me, have made Mumbai their home.
For dessert I had a delectably thick shrikhand which had just the right levels of sweetness and was not overtly sweet or synthetic and had an interesting touch of spice to it.
|Shrikhand at Madhura|
Mrs Velankar told me that they make their Shrikhand in house. The dish takes two days in making apparently. One day for making the curd from milk. Then the curd is strained overnight through a muslin cloth. Sugar and nutmeg (remember the spice notes I mentioned) powder are blended into the resultant mixture and then refrigerated.
I paid my bill, booked an Uber and moved on.
My food bill for the poha, 2 missals, kothimbir vada, batata vada and shrikhand was Rs 209! (January 2015)
I was smiling widely when I got into the cab feeling very at peace.
It has been a while since I have popped into a small place packed with people, run by proud and passionate owners serving food that is freshly made and blessed by years of loyal diners and at prices which allows you to enjoy the food without worrying about your finances.
The sort of place where you are guaranteed to have a happy meal.
|Madhura. Don't miss it|
Madhura is opposite Star Mall near Plaza. It is open from 9 am to 9pm and is shut on Fridays. They serve roti and a daily bhaji (vegetable) at lunch time. The restaurant is no frills, clean and non-air-conditioned. The don't levy a service charge but make you feel fully at home. The owner speaks English and everyone speaks Hindi apart from Marathi. Do check out this article of mine on exploring Indian regional food and try out restaurants such as Madhura for this