Mumbai's home cooks come to the fore... Small Fry Co, Meal Tango, etc

Pathare Prabhu home cooks: Soumitra Velkar with his wife, Manju & mother, Surabhee

There is a certain sameness about most new restaurants opening in Mumbai.

The thing is, most of these offer international cuisines. There’s a lot of Asian…Thai, Chinese, a bit of Korean, Burmese and Malay too on offer. Some local interpretations of European café food as well. However, there is hardly anything new coming up offering Indian food here. 

I wonder why new restaurants in Mumbai (barring Masala Library & the few Bengali ones like Boda, Ithi & 25 Parganas) have singularly stayed away from serving Indian food. Do they feel that Indian and local Marathi food will not sell in Mumbai or command the sort of prices that they have in mind? Which is rather sad given that Mumbai as a city sees a confluence of people from across India plus has some rich indigenous races to such as the Pathare Prabhus, CKPs, Kolis and East Indians. Yet, neither is the diversity of Indian cultures present represented in the city's restaurant scene, nor are the various races indigenous to Mumbai present there. Very different from earlier when Irani cafes, Mangalorean places, Udipi  and Gujarati vegetarian ones and Malvani places sprung up by the dozen in Mumbai.

Does that mean that we should now be resigned to eating Korean cooked by Indians, vegetarian Asian food or American fast food chain burgers and donuts in Mumbai?

Well, the last year has seen a quiet revolution which slowly but surely offers us an alternative. This is that of the emergence of home cooks throwing upon their houses to patrons and offering food from their hearths.

A  few folks like Perzen, the Bawi Bride, started doing pop ups serving Parsi food in their houses. I had attended one hosted by Perzen and you can read about that here.  Then there was Rhea of Gyan Factory who organised a home cooked Assamese meal with Gitika Saikia who since then has been pretty active in the Mumbai pop up scene. You can read about my lunch at Gitika's place here.

One of the most interesting efforts in this space has come from the Small Fry Co. They have hosted pop ups featuring foods from different cuisines…Assamese, Mangalorean, Sindhi, CKP, Keralite are some of the ones that they have done. They offer a platform for home cooks to cook the food they cook at home but now for guests. For people with an inclination to explore such food, willing to pay for it. While I have not been to any of these meals yet, I have a group of friends who have been to quite a few of the Small Fry events and have enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

I got in touch with a couple of folks who have attended these. 

This is what Benaifar Nagwaswalla, who has attended quite a few of the Small Fry pop ups, had to say on the overall experience:

"The pop-up home cooked meals are a great way to discover, taste dishes of various communities. I
enjoy them because I have come to know of dishes that you generally will not get in restaurants. 
Also, most of the times it is because you are not aware of restaurants that serve this kind of food.

I had not tasted a Sadya or Assamese or Sindhi food till I went for these pop-ups. While I have eaten Manglorean food before again the flavours were so different and there were dishes that I had not tasted earlier.
All these meals have a special touch as many of them are family recipes that the cooks share with eager foodies. To me the reason why you go for these are:

a) Well priced meals - you get to taste a variety of dishes at a reasonable cost. It's unlimited so you can enjoy servings of dishes you liked.
b) Authenticity and flavours - home cooked meals have special flavour that you rarely find being replicated in restaurants. They sometimes come with a story and you get to know more about the food and the person who cooks it. You connect with the food rather than just ordering off a boring menu card.
c) Meeting people - you get to meet people who bring their own perspectives to the table about the food they are eating. You are having like-minded conversation with others who also enjoy eating and discovering new things.
d) Convenient locations - Thankfully I have not had to go beyond Bandra and as townie as it sounds sometimes its just about going to a place which is close by for a good meal

Blogger, Sassy Fork, who has also attended quite a few of the Small Fry events, spoke to me about her experience. "They have a variety of Indian cuisines including lesser known ones such as Chitrapur Saraswat Bhramin ones which is amazing. It's a great way to connect with people from different parts of India and try out dishes not available in restaurants. Ingredients are often sourced from the places of origin of the cuisine.

They have two seatings in a day though which doesn't leave one with enough time to connect with everyone attending the event."

The Small Fry events are held out of home but in non restaurant unconventional venues. Some of the patrons have had a problem with the occasional floor seating or food served cold at an event but on the whole are willing to overlook these discomforts for the larger experience.

Another interesting option in this space is Meal Tango which, from what I understand, helps you connect with local hosts who cook meals for you, for a price, in their homes.

I experienced one of the Meal Tango meals recently when Sassy Fork, invited us to a meal that she booked through Meal Tango. This was a lunch at the house of Soumitra Velkar.


Soumitra is a trained chef and is a finance professional by day. He has recently begun hosting lunches for Meal Tango. Soumitro belongs to the Pathare Prabhu community. He, along with his wife Manju and his mother Surabhiji, prepare Pathare Prabhu meals. 

I was quite looking forward to the prospect of relishing this meal after my memorable first Pathare Prabhu meal experience at Bimba Nayak’s home. The Pathere Prabhu community is among the earliest settlers in Mumbai. Yet, their food is not available in any restaurant in Mumbai. Invitations likes these to people’s homes are one’s only options to try out PP food.

Soumitra with THE Foodie, & his fellow pathare prabhu, Kunal Vijayakar
 The afternoon turned out to be one of great food. My particular favourites out of a long array of delicious dishes were were the bombil (Bombay duck) bhaji, the baked mutton mince puff, the cabbage with prawn bake, the Bengali mangshor jhol like mutton curry made with potatoes, the taste breaker sauce of pineapple and coconut milk, the curry made with the spinal bones of ghol fish with the ever so enticing bites of ginger and the chik or khadvas, the local custard made with the cow’s first milk, intricately flavoured with cardamom and saffron which was a wonderful and cooling end to a hearty meal.

Here are some of the dishes that we had.

Bhanole: Cabbage with prawns

Mutton gode curry with sambar masala

Baked mutton puffs: khimyacha shingdya

ananas sambhana: pineapple & coconut milk curry

Katyachne bhujne made with spinal chord of ghol fish

Home made chik or kharvas
What characterised the food at Soumitra's, like the earlier Pathare Prabhu fare in Bimba's, was the minimalistic nature of the cooking. Unlike other Marathi cuisines such as Malvani or Kolhapuri ones where the taste of heavy spices and coconut often can dominate the dishes, this home cooked PP meal was pretty light. The taste of the produce used, whether the prawns or the bombil or the mutton or the ghol fish, was showcased in its full glory thanks to the delicate balance of spices used. Truly an artistic experience. Despite the menu being so extensive, one didn't feel bloated or heavy at the end.

For more detailed descriptions of the dishes with their local names check out the posts by Rhea and Sassy Fork on the lunch.

What I will remember the afternoon for is the easy going conversations that flowed among a diverse group of people united by their love of food. Since Sassy Fork had booked the lunch exclusively for us, her friends, most of us knew each other. In the group was also Kunal Vijayakar, who used to host the show Foodie and is coming up with a cook book now, and belongs to the PP community.

Soumitra, his mother and his wife looked after us the way people do when guests come to their homes. A warm experience very different from that of a restaurant. As relaxed as a good Sunday afternoon lunch at someone's house should be.

We even have a family photo to show for the experience

This was an afternoon which well summed up the beauty of such pop ups, supper clubs hosted by amateur home cooks in non-commercial settings. A very pleasant alternative for those jaded by the sameness offered by restaurants.

Yes, the home cook revolution in Mumbai is definitely here to stay.


Benaifar said…
Great read Kalyan! What you say is so true we are enjoying international food but missing out on our own diverse cuisines.
suvro said…
Really wonderful description. Is there a source for some of the recipes for people like us who are across the world?
Unknown said…
Thank you so much sir for telling us about home cooks and meal tango thing.very few ppl know about it.also its true that nowadays mumbai restaurants are reluctant to sell indian origin food.thank you once again for the nice blog
Unknown said…
Excellent article! Well done to Soumitra & Manju!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thanks. There is an ancient pp cook book which most families have but I don't know if there is anything in the public domain
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thank you. glad you liked it
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thank you, Yes they did a great job
Soumyadri said…
Those mutton puffs resemble empanadas, their South American cousin. Any thoughts on the origins and where the empanada family tree branched off, perhaps?
Unknown said…
Enjoyed thoroughly. So well captured.
Megha said…
Hi Kalyan Great article. You mentioned there were some new bengali places in the city like ithi etc- have you tried any? would love to know your thoughts!Thanks
Kalyan Karmakar said…
they are quite popular in Maharashtra. Wonder if there is a link
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thanks Gitika and keep the Assamese flag flying
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thanks Megha. Not been to the ones in New Bombay I am afraid. We are quite fond of Bhojohori Manna and Bong Bong
Anonymous said…
The tip of India's diversity lies in its food. And these regional food are still to be captured either in writing or as documentaries. Go straight to our "aaji" or our rural dweller in the village. I am trying to learn as much as I can from people who are deeply rooted to traditional regional food. There is a lot of medicine in our way of cooking and in the food.

Good luck