Andhra spice and Maharashtrian succour outside Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus... Mumbai food heritage eats at the Grant House Hotel & Aram Vada Pav

Maharashtrian snacks at Aram Vada Pav


Where to have a Maharashtrian breakfast in Mumbai

I recently wrote an article for NDTV Food on places to go to for Maharashtrian breakfasts in Mumbai. As a part of the research for the article, I asked some of my Maharashtrian friends about their favourite haunts for the haunts. Most said that they preferred to eat what they get at home but some did suggest a few options to check out. One name that came up was that of a restaurant called Aram Vada Pav at Fort in South Mumbai. This was suggested by Harshad Rajadhyakhsha.

Harshad is an advertising professional who is also my wife’s creative partner at work and for long has been a family friend. He runs a wonderful photo series titled, ‘A close shave called Mumbai,’ on Facebook and Instagram. He is the one I reach out to when I need any design help. He has, in the past, designed my visiting cards, the poster for my first food walk, and most recently, the cover of my book, The Travelling Belly. I am very grateful for this as I know that he is an extremely busy person.


Harshad Rajadhyaksha checks out the cover he had designed.
This was the first copy of The Travelling Belly
 that I had received


Harshad had honed his design skills at the much revered JJ School of Arts in Mumbai. The college is located near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. One of the places that Harshad used to go during his college days was a place called Aram. Aram, Harshad told me, is located in the Capitol Cinema Building. He spoke fondly of the batata vada, pohe, sabudana khichdi and thali peeth there. Marathi vegetarian snacks, which he insisted, tasted best when paired with chaha or tea. ‘The wonders that chai can add to the enjoyment of Marathi snacks hasn’t been spoken enough,’ concluded Harshad during out chat.

Of being Fort Enchanted 

A couple of days later I did find myself at Fort, my favourite place to eat in Mumbai, and decided that I must go to Aram. I’ve spent a fair bit of time eating at Fort over the years but most of this has been in the area near The Bombay Store and the Lakshmi Building (where I once worked). Hence, I had never been to Aram which is located slightly away from there. Aram, as Harshad pointed out, is one of the very few Maharashtrian eateries in the heritage Fort district of Mumbai, better known otherwise for the plethora of Irani restaurants, Mangalorean seafood places and Keralite restaurants and new European bistros that it hosts. This made me even more keen to try Aram out.

Joining me that afternoon, was Diganta Chakraborty, a young chef friend of mine who is a Indian School of Hotel Management Mumbai graduate, and who has recently just joined a luxury hotel chain, Taj Hotels, as a management trainee. He was in town for a short bit and had brought me some pretty exotic gifts such as an ant chutney, elephant apple pickle and bhoot jholakia sauce from Assam where he recently was.

From Police Canteen to Grant House...an Andhra Love Story


Grant House 20th November 2017


We first went to a restaurant named the Grant House Hotel which was another of Harshad’s favourite haunts during his college days. At that time though it existed as a snack shack located in the compound next door and was known as the Police Canteen. Grant House is famous for its kheema and seafood dishes among its regulars. 



Kheema Pav at Grant House
Kheema Bheja at Grant House


We started with some of the spicy kheema on offer at the Grant House hotel, as well as the kheema bheja fry. In the latter, bits of goat’s brain is added to the kheema and this makes the end taste better balanced. You can have both of these for breakfast too. The recipe at Grant House now has a bit of coconut in them, taking in the local Maharashtrian influence I guess. Their kheema is very popular among their regulars. As I mentioned, it has high on masala and what we had that day was slightly high on salt too. Soak the curry with soft Pav and you will be sorted. The quality of the meat used is good and this is not always the case in places famous for kheema Pav in Mumbai. Hygiene is given high importance here as is the quality of produce used.



The late Laxman Varma


The founder of the restaurant, Mr Laxman Varman, is no more unfortunately. He had passed away 9 months back as I found out. He’d come to Mumbai from Hyderabad and had opened his snack shack in 1950 in the compound where the Haj House now stands. That's where JJ College students such as Harshad used to once go. The late Mr Varma and his sons, Sridhar and Shreekant, then opened the Grant House restaurant in 1996. His sons are now carrying their father’s legacy forward by providing simple and honest, moderately priced good food, built on the promise of good quality produce used. The brothers told me that they go to the Crawford market to buy the fish for the day themselves every morning even though they live at Sion. They get all their spices ground privately and their ginger, garlic and onion paste ground in house in a motorized grinder. 


With Sreedhar and Sirkant Varma and Diganta Chakravorty
Grant House, 20th November, 2017


The robustness of spices used and the freshness of fish bought showed in the surmai Nellore curry from Andhra that I tried that afternoon at Grant House. The curry was tangy and hot, but not unbearably so, and reminded one of the curries in the Mangalorean restaurants nearby. Many of the principles of cooking followed in coastal India are common across the stretch explained Srikant when I pointed out the similarity.
Nellore fish curry at Grant House


Andhra Chicken Curry at Grant House



I had the Andhra chicken biryani at Grant House too and quite enjoyed this. Unlike in the Hyderabadi biryani, where the meat is cooked with the rice, the chicken here is fried separately and then added to the rice. There is an interesting flavor pop to the chicken which the Varma brothers told me comes from the soya sauce (!) that they add to the marinade. The rice was less greasy than what finds in Mumbai and they use long grained rice unlike here in Andhra. That’s what the Mumbai customer wants I guess.

Grant House offers only a couple of non-vegetarian Andhra dishes. You can also try out Gongurra in Juhu for vegetarian Andhra fare. I am yet to go there myself. I plan to soon.

Finding comfort in the lap of Aram Vada Pav


Mr Kaustabh Tambe, the owner of Aram
at the cash counter. He's not always there though 




Our waiter at Aram. The service was prompt and efficient


Diganta and I then walked down to Aram Vada Pav which is located at the ground floor of the Capitol Cinema Building beside a beer bar. 

We were full after Grant House but were keen to eat and discover more. We noticed that Aram has a counter outside the shop where you can buy snacks on the go. There is a section where you can sit inside too and that's where we went.  It was  aounf 3.30 pm and the place was reasonably full. It is not air-conditioned, the seats don’t offer much leg space. The surroundings are quite neat and clean and you do not really feel hot inside. The kitchen is an open one.

We settled down and placed our order with a waiter who was quite efficient and courteous and evidently knew his stuff. We spoke in Hindi. We were quite full after Grant as I had mentioned, but I still ordered a variety of my favourite Maharashtrian dishes. The dishes that we ordered can be had for breakfast or at anytime during the day actually. They have also dishes specifically for lunch on the menu. They shut at 8.30 pm and do not do a dinner service.


Pohe at Aram


I called for the pohe and was really impressed by the texture of the rice flakes. It was fluffy and not soggy or too hard, not over or underdone. The flavours were well balanced with that hint of sweetness that makes a pohe most special in my opinion. Diganta turned out to be someone who is not fond of pohe. I coaxed him to have a spoonful and he said he liked it. The other good thing about the pohe here was that it was neither too oily, nor too spicy. The seasoning just perfect. Very grandma’s kitchen-like. Very simple. Ver comforting.


Misal at Arama

I ordered a misal too. The waiter asked us whether we wanted the ‘regular’ or the ‘teekha’ (spicy) one. I asked him what’s the standard version. He looked at me, sized me up (correctly as I later realised), and got the non-spicy one. The legume curry/ soup of the misal was again, like the pohe, very well flavoured with a good mix of sour, salt and sweet notes and this combined well with the crunch of the farsan sprinkled on top.


Teekha misal at Aram

Emboldened, I asked a for a bit of the gravy of the teekha misal to taste. The waiter got me a small bowl of tari which is added to the spicier misal. This looked red like the lava of a volcano and one tentative sip showed me that it was just as fiery figuratively speaking. I quietly returned to the snuggishness of my regular misal. The tikhat one is the Kolhapuri misal I was told, and needs a bigger man than me to relish it.


Thali Peeth at Aram

The other dish that I tried here was the multigrain, shallow fried flat bread called thali peeth. They didn’t serve it with the white butter which places such as Aaswad do. It tasted nice though, with the slightly spicy green chutney that they gave on the side. This was a wee bit saltier than the other dishes that I had here.

Though I am mentioning it last, I’d actually started the meal with a sheera. This is a Maharashtrian dish that is made with semolina and is a dryish one and sweet too and is had for breakfast. The one at Aram was one the loveliest sheeras that I have had. Sweet, but not excessively so. It was just the soothing touch that I had needed then after the food at Grant House which had packed quite a chilli punch.


Sheera at Aram


I didn’t have the tea though, unlike what Harshad suggested, as I am not much of tea drinker. Instead, I had piyush. It’s a sweet yogurt based drink and is made with liquefied shrikhand. The Piysuh here was not excessivelely sweet or thick.


With Diganta at Aram. Good company makes a meal so much nicer

Diganta and I stepped out, happy with our meal, when we spotted a gentleman at the cash counhter who we were told was the owner. I went up and struck up a conversation with him. He was pretty busy and yet most kindly took the time out to chat with me. He told me that his name is Kaustabh Tambe. His grandfather, Shrirang Tambe, had opened the eatery in 1939. The menu has remained largely since then Kaustabh tells me. I asked him if there was a specific region of Maharashtra that the food at Aram belonged too. “It is hard for me to answer that,” said Kaustabh with a smile and added, “this is the food we have grown up on at home.”


With Mr Kaustabh Tambe whose grandfather
had founded Aram in 1931


I decided to take advantage of the opportunity that I had, and asked Kaustabh a question that had puzzled me of late. That of how thali peeth should be made. Every restaurant that I had eaten it at offered a shallow fried version of the same. Yet, my Maharashtrian food writer and food enthusiast friends, Shakti Salgaokoar Yezdani and Saee Koranne Khandekar, both insist that this is not how it is done in Maharashtrian homes. That the flattened dough is supposed to be dry roasted on a tava and not fried.

What is the real deal, I asked Kaustabh. Kaustabh replied, with a bashful smile, that thali peeths are indeed roasted on a tava at home and not fried. However, he explained, it is not possible to do so in a commercial kitchen as it is time consuming and hence shallow frying is taken recourse to. He did tell me thought that he has a dream of opening a ‘Soam/ Swati-like’ Maharashtrian restaurant which is slightly more high end and evolved than the QSR Maharashtrian restaurants that we are familiar with. He would try to do a home-like thali peeth there when he does. I met chef Tejas Sovani at the Amaranta at the Oberoi Gurgaon a few days back. He is a very talented chef, as his food showed, and is a Maharashtrian from Mumbai and then Pune. He told me that his mother would make him shallow fried thali peeth as a kid. He found them to be tastier, said Tejas with a sheepish smile but then which young boy wouldn't prefer something fried over something roasted. Chef Teja also told me that the thali peeth, like the thepla of the Gujaratis, is used as a travelling snack by Maharashtrians. Those thali peeths are baked and not fried. Adding oil, the chef explained, would add moisture and which is not good when you want a dish to last for long when on the road. Maharashtrian cooking uses a number of millets and goes beyond just wheat and rice. As Tejas pointed out, the thali pith is actually a multi grain flat bread and can be made gluten free too. The spices added to it and the chutneys on the side can make it quite the healthy and tasty alternative that today's health conscious diner is looking for.


At the Amaranta at Oberoi Gurgaon with the super
talented  young chef, Tejas Sovani, who is Maharashtrian
30th November 2017

Kaustabh most humbly accepted my praise for his food. He then sheepishly smiled and told me that he feels that it is duty to tell me that he personally finds the misal at Vinay Health Home to be the best among Maharashtrian restaurants, even over his own one. “We are all friends and I wish everyone well,” he said about the owners of other Maharashtrian restaurants in the city, as I bid farewell to him.

In that one sentence of his, I realized why Aram Vada Pav is such a lovely place to go to, and why the food there tastes so lovely. It’s all the love and passion that goes into running it.


When I came home and sifted through the pictures that I took, I realised that Aram is actually called, Aram Vada Pav. Which meant that I had been to the restaurant and had not eaten its flagship dish. Which also meant that I have another reason to get back soon. 

Not that I needed one!

The meal at Aram cost us all of Rs 182. The Varma brothers didn't let me pay at The Grant House


"You always look so happy when around food," said the missus

The pitla bhakri which the gentleman sitting next to us said I should come and try again some day at Aram:




Appendix:

Phone Videos that we shot:

Aaram Vada Pav:



Andhra Food at Grant House Hotel



Kheema Pav at Grant House:




Posts which could be of interest:


1. When I first went to Grant House
2. When I went to Vinay Health Home
3. When I had Andhra Biryani in Bangalore
4. My NDTV Foods article on Maharashtrian Breakfast Options

Tip:

I am yet to try it out but Gongurra in Juhu offers vegetarian Andhra food in Mumbai
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