I still remember the first time I went there.
I had just moved in to Mumbai. More than a decade back. That night we were three Bongs in search of fish. Former college mate Promita and paying guest mate Biplab da. We were at Saayba which was famous for its fish at Bandra even then. Bemused to see people eat fish with rotis. The dialectics of which just didn’t go down with us rice and fish eating Bongs.
I was there a couple of days back with Soumik, another Bengali. One of the first friends I made through the blog. Close to five years after my last visit to Saayba. I don’t think I had gone there after I started Finely Chopped.
And this time we didn’t have our fish with rice. We had it with amboli which is probably a Konkani rice based bread. A lot like a thick soft dosa. At Saayba it tasted the way it would if someone’s grand mom had made it. It just had the warm fuzzy feeling to it.
Lots had changed since my first visit to Saayba. And some hadn’t.
I remember having to queue up every time we would go to this humble family run Konkani sea food restaurant back then. After all these years I still had to stand in a queue. Mid week. In the afternoon. That’s the stuff legends are made of.
On our way out met the busy owners, Mrs Mythali Sawant and her brother Sanjay, who were there supervising everything. Mrs Sawant and her husband started Saayba in 1987. Close to Lucky Biryani, another Bandra landmark at SV Road. On asking I found out that the fare here consisted of Konkani recipes that she had learnt from her mother and her mother in law.
The ambience at Saayba was functional as always. The restaurant was packed. Veteran Hindi film director Shyam Benegal was eating at the next table. Sharing the table with strangers. No hierarchy here. I was tempted to give him my camera and ask him to take our photo. Would have been too cheeky I guess.
The air conditioning a blessing in the heat. The non air conditioned section where K and I used to go in our courting days to save 10 per cent on our sukha mutton and roti bill was now air conditioned too. But closed due to the lack of staff to service the additional section.
There were more vegetarian dishes in the menu now. I remembered a visit many nights back with my first, and only, office ‘gang’. There was only one vegetarian amongst. The rest of us grinned evilly remembering the number of times we had to eat at Crystal, Aswad, Bachelors and other vegetarian places because of her.
Soumik and I started our lunch with drink of sol kadi. This tasted as ‘pure and simple’ as memories of the past always are.
‘Pure and simple’ is a phrase which Anna had used recently in the context of vegetarianism. Ridiculed by us two Bengalis at the table. The accused in the 2 G scam are vegetarian after all.
Saayba is where I had fallen in love with the melt in mouth Bombay Duck or Bombil fry. The sort of stuff that the epicurean hero of Ian Fleming’s Bond books would appreciate. My brother, who had visited me first at Mumbai as a school kid, reminded me of how he had gorged on Saayba’s Bombay duck fry on that trip. Everyone I introduced it to at Saayba had loved it.
This time, unfortunately, the Bombay Duck fry was too salty and oily. Even a touch of lime couldn’t help it. It was all batter and no fish.
Well as Po said in Kung Fu Panda 2 “You've got to let go of that stuff from the past because it just doesn't matter . The only thing that matters is what you choose to be now.” And so we waited for the rest of our meal.
There was the prawn fry masala which my mom fell in love with when I took her to Saayba during her first trip to Mumbai. I think she had it at least five times. I used to pack it and take it for her in my next few trips home.
The masala was still as well balanced. Deep, sober, yet not overpowering. Soumik was impressed. I could have done with a touch of salt though.
The prawns though, as it often happens in restaurants at Mumbai, were cooked till they spilt out all the secrets of the sea. A Guantanamo Bay prisoner couldn’t be more tortured, dead and shrivelled. Felt like I was biting into rubber. And no, not the sort associated with porn. Food or any other.
I wanted Soumik to try a pomfret ‘achari’. I remember the achari preparations at Saayba to be lethal in terms of their heat. Of having a tequila shot like wallop. Even K, who was brought up on a very spicy diet, would buckle down in front of the aachari (pickled) preparation at Saayba. The achari was a masochistic yet memorable taste experience.
Turned out that they had toned down the achari. It didn’t bring tears to my eyes anymore. The taste of ground garlic and green chillies was very aristocratic. It had both Soumik and me silent in awe. Almost as if we had discovered a rare classical music piece.
You took a bite. Ate it. And then felt the balmy heat linger on your tongue.
This dish was special.
I remember bringing my mother in law to Saayba once. She had fallen in love with it. Among other things I ordered the prawn pulao which won over the heart of my rice loving mom in law that day.
Years later Soumik and I ‘discovered’ the prawn pulao during our lunch. The caramelised onions on top the perfect foil for this chubby little pulao which brought an indulgent smile to our faces.I have no idea how but the long grained basmati rice based West coast prawn pulao reminded us so much of the short grained Gobindo Bhog rice Bengali mishti (sweet) pulao that we had grown up on in the East of India.
Unity in diversity as they say.
Bourdain says that a good meal is one that gives him ‘pleasure’.
The food at Saayba that afternoon had its highs and the odd lows.
Yet there was more to it.
Seeing people busily eat around me. Content.
Chatting with a friend whom you can tell stuff you won’t blog about and laugh with till your bones ached.
Remembering many meals from the past. The true ‘happy meals’.
Saayba is the sort of place you come to with an agenda. To eat. It does not matter whether you are a noted film director. Or locals who look like politicians. Or are taking photographs and looking like a journalist.
You will be fed. And then expected to vacate the table for those waiting outside. Nothing complicated here.
The lunch at Saayba gave me ‘pleasure’.
Wine tasting hangover: What didn’t give me pleasure was the wine tasting ‘dinner’ I was invited to at a popular continental restaurant at Bandra that evening. Folks from twitter called in and trussed into a room with poor air conditioning. Given never ending sales lectures on wine with a few plates of stodgy bruschetta, the odd fondue pot with boiled cauliflower and cold green paneer chunks scattered between us. Under cooked kebabs and I got up and left. Swearing never to go to a PR or networking food event again.
When I eat it is for pleasure. Not business.