Caveat: Long post
This meeting could have happened anywhere in the world.
The building new. Solid, muscular with a large bust of the Buddha in the parking lot balancing its karma. The office white. Stark. The chairs in the conference room business class leather. The air condition primed to perfection. The cast involved local employees of a multinational manufacturer, a multinational ad agency and a multinational market research agency. The conversation built around a globally used model of branding. The language used Queen’s English.
Meeting over, you took the glass and chrome elevator down and stepped out of the building.
Out on to a half constructed concrete road. Another swanky corporate complex dotting the horizon.
Then, as your eyes adjusted to look beyond the shimmer of the sun you began to focus on small shops, folks walking around languidly dressed in simple clothes far from the latest boardroom chic, cycles parked with milk containers perched on them, stray dogs running around with little children playing without a care in the world….a sunny dusty afternoon….a lazy afternoon.
This was at one of the inner lanes of Mumbai, Lalbaug, close to the ITC Central Hotel.
Nowhere is the dichotomy of Mumbai captured as poignantly as it is at Lalbaug. Lalbaug was once the heartland of Mumbai’s textile mills. The manufacturing core of the country’s commercial capital. A commercial area surrounded by the homes of numerous mill workers who lived there.
With the tide of time the Mills of Mumbai lost their place in the sun. The Mills began to shut down and Mumbai, the city of dreams, was no longer a textile manufacturing city.
The mill lands were given a new life as the city showed its global aspirations. The mills were sold to developers who then began to create first malls and then swank residential and corporate complexes – Parel, Lalbaug, Lower Parel or Upper Worli - all home to rather incongruous islands of plush modernity springing up from a decayed past…two worlds not integrated…socially or architecturally.
Two cities residing in one.
But this is a blog about food. Not urban history and development. An internet search will lead you to many experts on the subject. And of late there is a slew of acclaimed Marathi films dealing with the issue.
This post is about the discovery of a lovely little restaurant thanks to twitter and then a spice shop and then a sweet shop…meeting the entrepreneurs who had set up their places half a century back…folks who have lived the history of Lalbaug … an afternoon of discoveries spiced up by some incredible food.
A twitter query asking for ideas on places to eat led to two suggestions.
Sachin Kalbag of Mid day suggested Ladoo Samrat for Maharashtrian snacks. And then a few mentioned Malvani restaurants close to where I was. And then Colaba based food writer, Antoine Lewis, stepped in suggesting the mutton at Kshirsagar.
That seemed like a good call and I headed there. Kshirsagar was just round the corner at S S Rao Road and I found it very easily.
Kshirsagar is one of those nondescript places which you would not give a second glance unless someone pointed you to it. I walked in, happy it was open for lunch though it was close to 3 pm.
The place was packed. As I later found out Kshirsagar is not just a Lalbaugh legend. Folks had come there from across Mumbai and beyond that afternoon. And not just Maharashtrians…I could see a Sikh gentleman in a turban..met a mithaiwallah from UP… the love for the food at Kshirsagar cut across communal boundaries….yet I had never heard of the place till then.
Across me at the table were two young event managers from Thane. Like me they too had come to Lalbaug for work and stopped by at their favourite joint. Turned out that they were fond of Malvani Aswadh at Vile Parle E where I go so often to eat.
Their taste credentials established I asked my table mates, Sachin and Rahul, to recommend a fried fish for me to order. They were quite headstrong about their choice of surmai fry.
I placed my order with the waiter who then asked ‘mutton or chicken’. The restaurant is popular for its meat apparently.
Mutton masala I said following Antoine’s advice.
As we waited the three of us discussed the fish preferences of Bengalis compared to those of Maharashtrians. I pointed out that I am half Maharashtrian now given that I support the Pune Warriors India at the IPL.
“Ah Dada” they said knowingly as they looked at me. Yes, Saurav Ganguly captains PWI now of course.
Sachin observed that ‘Dada’s’ fans are really passionate. And then said that Tendulkar is possibly not that popular at Calcutta.
I explained that it is not so. Tendulkar is held in high regard in Calcutta as he is in the rest of the country. But unlike Mumbai with its Gavaskars, Bedis, Shastris and Vengsarkars apart from Tendulkar…Bengalis have had only one cricketing legend…we can be allowed our Dada frenzy given that.
Then the food arrived and the table talk ended.
I took a bite of the fried surmai, a fish which is not my favourite one. Well, I was sceptical about my order but had put myself in good hands as it turned out.
The surmai (Rs 150 or 3 USD) was sliced thin, thinly coated in semolina and fried … the flavours of the fresh fish took over your palate with a pleasant understated spice background. This was fish fried in its pristine glory. Fried by a cook who respected and loved the fish and had turned out a glorious dish in the simplest of settings.
And then I took my first bite of the mutton masala. The first sensation was that of a walloping heat. The sort of heat that makes you sweat and yet smile in masochistic pleasure. And then I encountered my first bite of the mutton.
The meat was just as tender as the curry was fiery. Balancing each other out to create such a harmonious memorable dish. I just couldn’t get enough of the luscious, sensuous, soft and silky little cubes of mutton. With each bite my smile broadened with ‘love me tender’ written all over my face.
I had my mutton with vade… the Maharashtrian ‘multi-grain’ puri made from a dough of rice, corn, udad daal, channa daal, black pepper, coriander and methi seeds. I’ve had vades before which were too oily. The ones at Kshirsagar were fried just right and the grainy texture of the puris combined so well with the mutton masala. Much better than the steamed rice that came later. For some reason Malvani (Maharashtrian coastal) preparations taste a lot better for me with rotis or vades than the local favourite of steamed rice.
There was also a very sharp coriander and green chilli chutney which was full flavoured and combined very well with the chutney. It had a certain rustic purity to it which transcended to the sol kadi too…everything at Kshirsagar seemed a lot simpler than what what one gets at other restaurants. Spoke straight to to the heart.
Lunch done I met Mr Gopal Totaram Gore at the counter.
Gopal Bhau is the octogenarian owner of Kshirsagar. He set up the restaurant fifty years back. Bringing the treasures of his native Malvan to feed the workers of Mumbai.
The mutton thali that cost me Rs 130 (1.5 USD) today was priced at 80 paisa or 0.8 Rs when he started 50 years back. Gopal Bhau gave me a single toothed smile when I said that he must have seen a lot of changes around him. The latest of course are the pillars for the Metro coming up.
Through the years one thing has been constant at Lalbaugh. Gopal Bhau would come to the restaurant every morning and evening, take out the spices himself, and taste the end product for consistency.
Is it any wonder that the food was so magical? So mythical?
I guess we connected at some level as we spoke in our Maharashtrian and Bengali Hindis. Gopal Bhau suddenly reached to drawers of his table.
“You liked the mutton masala? I’ll show you what goes into it”.
And out they came one by one.
Looking lie a kind wizard enthralling giggling children Gopal Bhau took out each spice out and described them to me. We counted. There were ten at the end. Pepper, cardamom, cloves, large cloves, shah jeeraa, chakra phul (star anise), rampatri, dagad ka phool (pardon my Marathi but I tried to write them down as I heard them).
These would be roasted, ground and then mixed with a mixture of desiccated coconut and crushed red chillies. The coconut didn’t dominate the curry. And then there were the fish curries, which Gopal Bhau explained are low on spice. There the curry mix is made with desiccated coconut, crushed red chillies and coriander.
It was all about the right balance of tastes, textures and colours.
These important life’s lessons parted Gopal Bhau shut shop and walked into the horizon….the 80 year old’s silhouette framed by the pillars of the Metro as two eras of Mumbai were frozen in time for a few seconds.
I walked around. Photographed. Noted the interestingly named ‘Gobbet’ Restaurant. The Bengali derisive word was obviously acceptable in Mumbai.
My eyes then fell on what looked like a spices shop opposite Kshirsagar.
Nanji Gausar Masalewallah.
I walked across to the shop. Turned out that Mr Nanji was there himself. He too had opened his shop 50 years back. Same time as Kshirsagar. He manufactures and sells Maharashtrian masalas and pickles. He buys the raw material and sends it to his workers at Udad at Malvan who make the produce and sends it back to Mumbai.
Proudly Nanji opened each bottle – lemon, mango, mixed, dry mango, green chilli, sweet mango pickles – what struck me was how the shop would be enshrouded with the fresh flavours of pickle each time Nanji opened a bottle. And each was so distinct.
I stood back and took in the pure aromas and colours and tastes swirling around me…awakening senses that have got dulled by processed assembly line modern day spices.
And there was more. Nanji took out the kopre masala made with desiccated coconut, garlic and red chillies and served with vada paos and a fixture in Maharashtrian houses. The spring in the texture of the masala was so intoxicating. And as a contrast to the delicate robustness of the kopre masala was the searing heat of the powdered red chilli based ‘Ghaati Masala
I finally bid goodbye to Nanji but this wasn’t my last stop at Lalbaug.
I left the inner lanes of Lalbaug and hit the main road to Rajesh’s sweet shop. I had promised him a visit after we met at Kshirsagar. Rajesh is a second generation Mumbaikar and owner of a fifty year old sweet shop. A Kshiragar fan.
My afternoon finally ended after we chatted for a while, met his sweet makers, photographed and tasted his wares.
It was time to leave Mumbai and head back to its present.
This one’s for you Rohit. Yes, I had missed writing about places like these too.
The tweets that led to this post: