Our story begins in 1957 when the septuagenarian Prabhakar Desai was yet to hit twenty years of age.
He was a coolie in Jhankar radio in Boisar. He quit the job in a short while and was given the task of running Samadhan Bhojanalaya in Goregaon. He used to cook here, serve customers, tried to introduce some Malvani dishes from his native Ratnagiri, now known as Sindhudurg, on the coastal belt of Maharashtra. He ran the business for a couple of years before handing it back to the owners as the eatery didn’t make money. But the seeds of a bigger dream had already been sown.
Prabhakar then left the catering business and became a plumber in Dombivili in the farthest outreaches of Mumbai. He then got some small building contracts there. He made friends with a big builder, Ram Upasane, and increased the scale of his own contracting business. He got into politics with the Socialist party but then later left to concentrate on his business, though ideologically he remains a socialist. He is a Saraswat Brahmin but doesn’t believe in religious or casteist divides. '”To me everyone is the same” he says.
He then headed towards Mumbai in the 70s to set up his construction business. Friends of his, including Shiv Sena supremo, the Late Bal Thackeray, helped him get a plot in Dadar, near Sena Bhavan, to construct. The ground floor of which became the location of Sindhudurg, Mumbai’s first (according to Mr Desai) Malvani restaurant. A dream he had seen while managing the tiny eatery in far off Goregaon finally became a reality in Dadar in the heart of Mumbai.
Mr Desai set up Sindhudurg in 1982 and it was air-conditioned even then. His clientele was primarily from the working class in those days but subsequently became more upscale. Recognising this he started making the food served in Sindhudurg less spicy and oily in deference to the delicate constitutions of his newer customers. In the process he paid off in 1 year the 5 year loan he had taken from Saraswat bank to set up the restaurant.
Prabhakar Bhau, now in his mid 40s didn’t settle then. His friends still call him a workaholic and he has always been one. Cognisant of his debt to the suburb of Dombivili he decided to do something there. He was aware of the fact that there were hardly any educational institutions in Dombivili specially for higher education. He helped set up the Dombivili Shiksha Prasaran which first set up an English Medium School and then a college which he still runs today. Going there thrice a week despite being in his mid 70s now and the huge distance from Dadar.
Prabahakar Bhau slowly trimmed down his construction business and got into backward integration for his restaurant by acquiring a farm in his native village of Bibanev in Sindhudurg. There he has a staff who, using computerised measures, pound out the chilli based masalas used in Sindhudurg and the multi grain flour used to make vade, using automated machines. He has large plantations of coconut, cashew, banana and mango trees. The fruits are harvested mechanically and the coconuts are sent off to Dadar and are the secret behind the freshness of the curries. He decries the lack of interest of today’s youth in agriculture and says “if you don’t remember your father how will you go further?”.
He has no thoughts of retiring and says “I will not retire till I am gone”.
This is the story of a manual labourer turned restaurant manager turned plumber turned constructor turned restaurateur turned educationist turned agriculturist.
No, I have not become a Bollywood script writer. This is the real life story of Prabhakar Desai which he told me in measured, unaccented English while I sipped on a cola at Sindhudurg near Shiv Sena Bhavan at Dadar on a sweltering Mumbai afternoon. The aircon was such a relief.
I went into his kitchen which is just behind the cash counter. I was amazed by how clean the kitchen is. There is no smell of fish or heavy masalas at all. There were three chefs inside preparing the orders, frying the fish, plating the dishes and sending them out. They have been working here from the start in 1982 they told me and were originally from Prabhakar Bhau’s village. Prabahakar Bhau used to go in to the kitchen and help prepare the dishes. He still does that when his health permits. But nothing stops him from waking up at 4.30 every morning to head out to the markets to buy fish and vegetables for the day’s cooking. He is at the counter till the restaurant shuts at night. There to greet his regular customers and to ensure that everyone is fed well.
You love food and want to open a restaurant? Well this is what it takes to be successful.
I saw plates of oyster curries and clam curries and prawn fries being sent out before I settled down with the most popular dish of the Sindhudurg. The surmai thali which is priced at Rs 200 at plate
Fresh, flavourful fish in a light and yet intense coconut based curry made with coconuts plucked the previous day from Desai’s farm. The curry nowhere as fiery as its chilli hued colour suggested. There was a local vegetable dish made with unripe bananas which was quite tasty. Along with this was a bowl of fish stock curry which had a stronger coconut punch and had a higher proportion of coconut juice in it. I often find Malvani curries to be too bland when combined with rice. No such problem at Sindhudurg where the curry flavours burst out brilliantly through the fragrant rice which too was imported from Prabhakar Bhau’s native village. This comes with a light and cooling bowl of sol kadi and pickles made with flavour packed mangos from Desai’s farm.
I had eyed the fresh fish being rolled with rice flour and semolina for frying in the kitchen and tried the fried surmai and fried bombil. Both were out of the world, juicy and the flavours of the fish displayed proudly by the very thin flour and spice casing.
Prabhakar Bhau called for some puri like vade for me and a chicken masala for me. The vade was not at all oily unlike what I have had in other restaurants. The bite of the multigrain flour was very tasty and pleasant and I called for thirds and fourths. The vades are so good that you them by yourself. This combined very well with the chicken masala which is made with tiny and luscious bites of chicken in a curry which look fiery but are wonderfully spiced and have a great texture thanks to the rough bites of cooked red onion mingling with the grainy shredded coconut.
Prabhakar Bhau proudly told me that all the recipes are his which as a child he had learnt from his mother and had over time experimented with to add a touch of garlic here and a touch of hing there and a bit of curd here (the specifics are his secrets which will remain safe with me).
For vegetarians he offers traditional Maharashtrian favourites such as a bhaji made with the banana flower, a flower we called mocha in Bengal.
It took me 17 years in Mumbai and a meeting arranged by my friend and blogger Sassy Fork, who joined us later and finished my fish fry (!), to discover Sindhudurg. Don’t make the same mistake that I did by waiting so long. Drop everything and head to Sindhudurg to get a definitive taste of Mumbai’s Malvani cuisine.
Don’t let the long queues to get in put you off. That’s always a good sign. The CEO of one India’s biggest corporate giants waits patiently on the road in his car for his turn. “These Parsis love their seafood” says Prabhakar Bhau.
No names will be taken though here as Prabhakar Bhau, unlike the PR crazy restaurateurs of today doesn’t believe in trumpeting the august list of his regular customers which range from Bollywood playback singers to actors in Maharashtrian films to cricketers to political bigwigs.
So when you finally ‘discover’ Sindhudurg you can be rest assured that the experience will be legendary as the late Bal Thackeray had said on the commemorative tablet given when Sindhudurg had completed 25 years.
Prabhakar Bhau didn’t let me pay for the bill though I tried to. I asked him about the difference between Malvani and the Goan Gomantak food and he said that Gomantak food is spicier, the fish is more bony and that they use kokum as a souring agent unlike tamarind in Malvani.