I finally lost my Soam virginity earlier this week.
Soam is a Gujarati vegetarian restaurant opposite Babulnath Temple in Mumbai.
There is nothing in the above sentence to suggest that it is place I would like to visit!
Babulnath is a tad far from Bandra where I stay. If we go to that part of town, then we go down a bit more and head to the Cantonese family owned Ling's Pavilion for the pork belly and prawns. Far removed from the world of vegetarian Gujarati food.
I know non-vegetarians who have recommended Soam me. Prominent among them are Vir Sanghvi and Vikram Doctor, both of whom seem to love Soam.
My friend, Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal, has been trying to get me to Soam for a while too. Possibly for more than 6 years ever since I have known her.
I tried the Soam food at Rushina's book launch party at her mom's place. I enjoyed what I ate. But was still not convinced to go to the restaurant. Not even when some Bengali friends of mine praised Soam on Facebook.
Then, through Rushina, I met Pinky Dixit who owns Soam. Pinky and I made plans of doing stories and shoots around Soam. Each time I sent people to cover it but didn't end up going myself.
Things finally changed a few days back when Rushina and Pinky threw a lunch at Soam to celebrate the Kathiawadi food festival that they are doing there under The Perfect Bite banner. The festival apparently archives traditional recipes from the region.
The lunch was in the middle of a work day and I made the decision to go at the last minute and boy was this the right decision or not.
I entered the restaurant, shaken but not stirred after my cab banged into another car just as I was about to get off. Luckily I was fine. It was almost as if I was destined to go to Soam that afternoon.
The great food and warm hospitality and meaningful conversations made it all worth it.
The restaurant looked pretty bright and cheerful though the decor is fairly basic. There's lots of sunny yellow around and the big windows help too.
We were guests of the owners and well looked after so I can't comment on the service. However, people of Facebook, did praise the service at Soam too when I put up pictures.
Rushina and Pinky explained that Kathiawad refers to the arid regions of Gujarat like Jamnagar. Places where there are hardly vegetables grown except for 2 months in winter. To compensate for this, the local cuisine uses a lot of pulses, condiments, robust flavours and even sev (gram flour based namkeen) which is actually integrated into the dishes to compensate for the lack of veggies.
This struck me as an example of how human beings can win over the most adverse of conditions when they put their mind to it. This great food coming out of the torrid desert is truly an example of what in Buddhism is referred to as 'turning poison into medicine'.
All of what Pinky and Rushina told us about the food through in the sharp, inspiring and distinctive tastes of the dishes that I tried.
There was the tomato sev with a prominent tomato flavour with slightly sweet notes. Not a dish you can forget easily once you have tried it. It is a dish with a point of view.
There was the lasaniya chana batata or black gram with onion and garlic and potatoes which was my favourite that afternoon. I loved the slight fresh and tangy taste to it.
Of course this, thanks to the raw onions in it, and the lasun (garlic) chutney, is not what you should have before a first date!
The sharpness of the kanda gathiya nu shak with chopdas (no relation to 70s actor Prem Chopra I was told) was a pretty exhilarating experience. This is a green onion dish with gathiya sticks and is served with parathas. No pics of this I am afraid.
I wasn't too impressed by the red rice with bhindi ni kadhi as I am not used to such chewy rice. I fee that the thin and delicate curry was overpowered by the rice and didn't combine well. It's a traditional combination though. The Vaal and kand (butter beans and yam) stew were a bit boring too.
There was a nice and flavoursome thick potato and aubergine curry, with a mild sweet touch to it, served with chopda which was pretty good too and appealed to the potato loving Bengali in me.
It's called lasaniya ringna batata.
Their undhiyu which they make with less oil than normal (they have a steamed version too) in Soam and with vegetables imported from Surat seemed less sweet, dark or soupy than the ones I've tried before and was pretty nice. This is part of the regular menu. Winter is considered to be the undhiyu season and Gujaratis get pretty excited about it. I like the dish too. We sometimes buy it from Regal Stores in Bandra when K's mama, a vegetarian Parsi, originally from Surat visits us.
Among the desserts, the golgappe stuffed with motichur and rabdi was a killer because of the three different textures involved, two levels of sweetness and the salt of golgappe. A beautifully harmonious dish that married contrasting experiences.
The sugar free Sandesh left me uninspired though.
In fact this contrast of textures sums up all the dishes that I liked here. The bold flavours which left an impression on you and the contrast of textures which is so rare in Indian food left a deep impression on me.
Do check out this video to know more about Kathiawadi Food
I wonder if my love for the sev element in the food at Soam had something to do with growing up eating muri and chanachur in Kolkata. Something which definitely led to my fondness for the Maharashtrian missal which has chanachur like farsan in it. The jhuri bhaaja of Kolkata is similar to sev after all. Which got me thinking about the influence of mithaiwalas from North India in Kolkata on chanchoor. Or the presence of the Marwari community in Kolkata who have come from Rajasthan and love namkeen. Did that lead to the popularity of chanachoor in Kolkata? I don't have answers to these questions but I feel that there could be something in the DNA of chanachur which is not far removed from that of the Kathiawadi sev which explains why I took to the food at Soam so much. Perhaps I am over analysing things.
They don't serve thalis at Soam and the dishes cost around Rs 200 to 300 each making them more expensive than thali joints if you try multiple dishes. However, thalis confuse me with their plethora of dishes where I am not able to concentrate on dishes that I like and am left in a blur.
The Soam experience works better for me and I enjoyed the food more than I do in Gujarati thali places.
The lunch, along with the warm hugs that I got from Pinky and her mom, made me leave with the feeling that I would come back to Soam.
It was nice to get acquainted with another cuisine of India that afternoon.
This is the beauty of Mumbai of course. The variety that you get here representing tastes from across the country.
Something to feel proud of and take advantage of.
Disclaimer: The meal was by invite and this experience shouldn't be read as a review.
The Kathiawadi festival is on till end November 2015.
You can catch Pinky talk about Kathiawadi food, among other things, in the chat show that I conducted on Diwali festivities across India