The delicious side of Mumbai's Ganesh Utsav

A tale of feasts blessed by Ganpati Bappa
This picture is from the house of Anuradha and Manoj Grover


When the city comes together to welcome its favourite son

The Ganesh festival started sometime back and we are in its second half right now.

I had WhatsApped some of my Maharashtrian friends on the first day of the festival and wrote: "Happy Ganesh Chaturthi," and then cheekily added, "and modak jayanti." A reference to the sweet that is said to be Lord Ganesha's favourite.

One of my Maharashtrian friends gently corrected me and replied, "thanks but we don't wish each other on this day, it's Ganpati's day.''

When I read this, it struck me that we do not wish people "happy Durga Puja" in Kolkata either. Though one does at times say "sharodiya shubechha" or season's greetings during the festival.  This is used in a more formal or impersonal context though. 

My guess is that as the social side of these festivals took over, the original customs and religious implications lost a bit of their importance. Well, there is no time like festivals to get to know more about the customs of others, or even one's own, and to preserve our heritage for future generations.

As for me, I make a beeline for the food served on the occasion and am happy to share what I learnt in the process.

Of feeling welcomed and cherished

While the Durga Puja is largely observed at the community level in Kolkata, many in Mumbai celebrate the Ganpati festival at home too. The duration of the festivities at home is usually shorter than that of the community pujas outside.

There is a lovely practise that I have observed in Mumbai during the Ganpati festival. During this period, those who hold the pujas at home invite guests over to their houses. This allows the guests to pray and pay their respects to the deity along with the family hosting the puja. Prasad, the food offered to and blessed by the Gods, which could be fruits, sweets or even lavish vegetarian meals, are then offered to guests depending on the economic capacities of the hosts and are most gratefully accepted. 

I had the good fortune to be invited by a few of our friends for Ganpati and could visit a couple of homes though I wanted to go to all. This post is about my visits and what I ate there.

Coincidentally, both families were non-Maharashtrians, an indication of the fact that the festival is celebrated across communities in the city. 

A Mangalorean feast on Ganesh Chaturthi with the Pujari family

When Ganpati Bappa met Lord Balaji 

I went to the house of the Pujaris in Colaba on the second day of the festival after having received an invitation from Dinesh Poojari to do so.

Dinesh's father, the late Jaya Pujari, had come to Mumbai from Mangalore decades back. He (JP) used to sell nicknacks on the streets and then saved up and set up an idli dosa shop in Colaba. He then turned this into Gokul, the popular dive bar at Colaba. Gokul was a favoured hangout of mine when I was new to the city. Many years later I got to meet Dinesh and his wife Vinita and got to know the story of Gokul from them and wrote about it in my book, The Travelling Belly.

I felt particularly happy to meet mama Shetty, Dinesh's mom, that day. She had played a big role in supporting her husband when he had set up Gokul.

Mrs Shetty with her daughter in law and her two sons at the start
of the feast at their house

Dinesh and Vinita Pujari who shared the story of Gokul
with me. That's the picture of the late Jaya Pujari at the back
Was an honour to give a copy of my book to the family

Dinesh's wife, Vinita, told me that they had started hosting the Ganpati Puja five or six years back in their house. They pray to both Lord Ganpati as well as Lord Balaji, the deity of many south Indian communities including their own, during this festival.

Vinita told me with a 100 watt smile that the happy and positive vibes that permeate the house during the festival is something that she really cherishes.

Deep inside an ukadiche modak


I had the most amazing ukadiche modak at the house of the Pujaris as part of the prasad. This is a steamed rice flour dumpling where the inner stuffing is made with a mix of grated coconut and jaggery.

You also get varieties of modaks in sweetshops of Mumbai today which have mava (reduced milk) as their base and which have various flavourings added in, These could range from kesar to chocolate and even black currant and lavender. The ukadiche modaks are the ones that are most traditional though from I understand.

The right way to have a freshly prepared ukadiche modak is to douse them with warm toop (ghee) first as Pia Promina Promina Dasgupta Barve had once taught me. I've had some lovely ukadiche modaks made by her over the years.

If not well made, the rice casing of the ukadiche madak can become unpleasantly chewy. When done properly, they can be divine, as they were at the house of the Pujaris. These were made by a Maharashtrian lady who lives near the Citylight cinema at Mahim Vinita told me.

Modak lover Shakti Salgaonkar Yezdani, who belongs to the family that runs the popular almanac Kalnirnay, tells me that when it comes to a modak, "the casing is where most people get it wrong. It has to be soft or moist, or the filling sort of squirts out. The right amount of water and toop (ghee) need to be used in making the ukad. If too much it will be soggy. Too little and they dry out. Also Ukkad need to made fresh."

Well, the lady at Citylight had definitely got it right I think and I have a feeling Shakti would have approved of her modaks.

Paper roll

Eating is serious business


For lunch at the Pujari's we were taken to a large hall in their Colaba apartment where long tables were temporarily set up. I was most tickled to see folks roll out paper rolls, that would act as table cloths, on these. This was just how it would happen in weddings and at community lunches during the Durga Pujas during my my growing up days in Kolkata and I felt most nostalgic on seeing this.

The food, which I confess is what drew me all the way to Colaba after Dinesh had told me what it would be while inviting me, was most magical. It was South Indian, specifically Mangalorean, temple food. It was made by Bhatts or the the Brahmins who live at Matths (temples with community halls). This was from a matth in Mumbai's Chembur area. The Brahmins work in the temple as priests and cook food for religious functions which are distributed at a very nominal price according to Dinesh.

When I later told actress and food writer, Tara Deshpande, about the the food from the matts, this is what she had to say about it:

"There are several branches of Saraswat brahmin- all have different matts (religious hubs). Gauda saraswat, Chitrapur Saraswat are some of the Saraswat branches. The hub of Gauda Saraswat is Goa- Mangeshi and Shanta Durga are our matts or temples. Chitrapur is home to kanara sarawats who also called Bhanaps and Mangalore is one of their hubs/matts. Mangalore has Tulu cuisine- veg and non veg. The veg cuisine is generally called UDUPI and traditionally is satvik (no onions and garlic). "

We had the meal at the Pujaris on banana leaves, again reminiscent of my childhood days in Kolkata. We call it kola paata in Kolkata. Now I know that it is eco friendly too.

Rice was served first. On top of that rasam, a thin peppery lentil broth, was poured on. We were then given pickle and a few mixed vegetables - one was a tendli and black channa curry, one a mixed vegetable korma, there was a sweetish pineapple chutney and some saambar too. Dinesh told me that you mix in the rice and the rasam and then the vegetables and eat. 

"We south Indians mix everything and eat," he told me with a wry smile. 

As a Bengali, who eats everything course by course, this is an alien concept but I got in to the spirit of things and did as told. The food was slightly lukewarm as it had been brought from the temple before it was served. Yet, and I say this with full objectivity,  this was the first time that I had enjoyed a South Indian vegetarian main meal so much.

The food was light, flavoursome and very comforting. There was something about eating food served on banana leaves which made me feel so at home. As did eating lukewarm food for that matter! There were no microwave ovens at home to heat the food when I was a kid after all.

This was comfort food in its purest sense. Even if it was south Indian food, served in Mumbai and to a Bengali.

Desserts of pudan poli, made in the temple again, and payasam was the perfect sweet end to the meal.

pickle first

then the veggies

and more veggies

the full meal

mix everything and eat

dessert
the end

feeling at home
And loads of big hearted Punjabi love at the Grovers

From the South of India, I headed figuratively to the north for my next two Ganesh Chaturthi meals. All in Mumbai of course.

This was at Bandra where we stay. At the house of our friends, the Grovers. We've been going to the Ganpati Puja held in their house for the past few years. They make us feel so at home that we take the liberty of considering their family puja as our's too. K joined me as did her mother. Last year my mother did too as she was in Kolkata. The mummies get special invites on the occasions from the Grovers.

Friends who are family
Anuradha and Manoj Grover


The Grovers are Punjabis. The Punjabis are known to be the sort of hosts at whose houses you don't count the servings of food when they feed you. They feel hurt if you do so. The Grovers live by that credo.

Dinner on our first visit was kulchas made fresh at the landing outside their apartment by a caterer from Chembur. This was served with very nice chhole. The kulcha came in alu and paneer options and with a liberal dose of cheese added on if you so wanted.

I heard Manoj say, 'sab kulche pe bahut cheese dalo' (be generous with the cheese) to the kulcha makers while his wife, Anu, was telling us inside 'ek aur kulcha kha lo' (have one more).


Ek aur lo. Anu with K and my mom in law
Aur cheese dalo

These kulchas are 'worth repeating' as my mom in law would say


On Anu and Manoj's faces I saw the same look of happiness and bliss as I did at the Pujaris. They seemed to be revelling in feeding us all. I felt grateful to be there.

While kulchas are as Punjabi as it gets, the next day at Manoj and Anu's we had freshly made dosas for lunch. These were made at their landing again. This time by the guys from Manju's Dosa Stall at Santa Cruz.

Plain, cheese, cheese masala, Mysore, Chinese, cheese Chinese Mysore masala, you could eat whatever you wanted. 

The start of the dosa opera

Masala time

Fold
Serve

Blessed by Lord Ganpati
Dosa lover since 1981

As I sat beside Lord Ganesha, munching one dosa after another, in the company of my wife and mother in law, both Bombay girls, friends and neighbours, all from the city again, basking in the happy chatter which featured various languages, I realised that is this what I love about Mumbai the most.

I am talking of the generosity of its people and the fact that everyone is made to feel at home here, even when you are miles away from home.

This to me is the spirit of Mumbai and I am sure that Lord Ganesh would be most happy to see this practised so well by his devotees.


Lord Ganesha smiles while the ladies gossip
The return gift came from Amritsar. Loved the laddoos

Add caption
Night one at the Grovers

A Parsi lady who comes to the house of the Pujaris
to see the puja and add to the bonhomie
Useful numbers:

  • The number for Todalkar from whom Vinita had ordered the ukadiche modak: 9930627648
  • The number of Pia for modaks, she is based in Bandra w: 9920370638
  • The number of Manju Dosa for placing catering orders: 9930230304
Modak made by Pia. See the ghee glistening on the top
She made the pound cake too and I liked that even more

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