Fort by night. A Mumbai Food Walk

Tea and stories from The Travelling Belly in the Sodexo CXO Food Walk

Welcome to the 'Fort Enchanted' club

It is no secret that the historic district of Fort is my favourite place to eat in Mumbai. 

Most of my food walks are conducted here. I feel that spending time at Fort is a nice way to understand the spirit that lay behind the foundation of modern Mumbai. Every alley, building, lane and signboard there has a story of its own. It is almost as if the precinct is a living museum. 

There is such lovely food of offer there too! Served by a number of local restaurants ranging from hole in the wall ones to those who have grown with the times and have become iconic today. It is also home to some of the most brilliantly fresh and consistent street food options that you are likely to find in Mumbai. Most of the eateries at Fort had come up to meet the needs of those who worked here and you could say that this is the food that once fuelled the commercial capital of India.

Why 'once' you ask? Well, as it is in most large cities across the world, Mumbai too has been decentralised a bit over the years and office areas have moved out of the South Mumbai hub of Fort, Churchgate and Nariman Point to places such as BKC, Andheri East, Powai, Lower Parel, Ghatkopar, Malad and so on. 

Fort today is a lot sleepier than it once was though its charm is yet to be matched by any of the new CBDs. 

Fort also becomes a ghost town by the time the sun sets, what with its worker bees heading home after COB (close of business). 

There is a certain sense of peace and tranquility that sets into the streets of Fort post dusk. This period of lull is a lovely time to soak in the sepia tinted atmosphere in the lanes of Fort which are then lit up by yellow street lights. The restaurants here are emptier at this time, the street food stands almost gone for the day, but the menu at Fort at night remains just as fresh and vibrant and diverse at night.

The merry Sodexo CXO Food Walk group

We set out on a food walk last Saturday evening to explore some of the epicurean delights of Fort and with me were a mix of senior corporate executives from across the city and their families. The walk was sponsored by Sodexo and was part of the Sodexo CXO Food Walk  series that we conduct together for their clients. 

The atmosphere, funnily enough, was more like that of a school picnic than that of the average office workshop or networking meet. Taking the school analogy further, it reminded me of times  when we would get to go on school outings in 'coloured clothes' and not have to wear our uniforms.

The walk, which was meant to be a two and a half hour one, extended to almost four hours as our group gamely went across Fort, eating long the way, and also taking in its surroundings in a way they never had in the past. 

We made four stops and in the process got a flavour of some Parsi/ Irani, Mangalorean, Gomantak Goan coastal and Keralite food, all in the heart of Mumbai!

Welcomed by the Irani Bakery Flavours of Jimmy Boy

Chicken puff and akoori, Jimmy Boy

Our first stop was Jimmy Boy. I normally take people here to try the Lagan Nu Bhonu or Parsi wedding set meal. When alone, I occasionally go there for the dhansak. 

Since we were here fairly early in the evening this time, we had some delightful and freshly baked chicken puffs for tea, which were recommended by their manager Sherzad, instead of a full meal. The chicken puffs that we had could match up to one of the best I have here, including the ones at Kyani. We washed this down with some Raspberry drinks which is a fixture at Parsi weddings and Navjotes. Then followed a creamy and spicy akoori (the Parsi garam masala and chilli powder based scrambled egg) served with pav. 

We ended the first chapter of the walk with lovely milky, sweet and buttery Shrewsbury biscuits, which stood for everything that would give your dietitian sleepless nights and which your grandma would love to feed you, and we had some chai along with it.

Our menu at Jimmy Boy that evening was rather symbolic given that it was a bakery when it had first come into existence in 1925 and was known as Cafe India then. It became a full fledged restaurant in 1999 when the name was changed to Jimmy Boy. Puffs and biscuits and chai would be more representative of its earlier menu you could say.

Impromptu book reading at Jimmy Boy from
 The Travelling Belly

Mangalorean kori roti at Modern Lunch Home.

Our next stop, Modern Lunch Home, too was of symbolic value in a manner of speaking. Let me explain why. 

If the first chapter of the restaurant history of modern Mumbai was written by the Iranis who had opened their cafes here in the mid 1800s, the Shettys of Mangalore could claim to have written the next chapter with them taking over many Irani restaurants in the years after independence and setting up their own places there. Many of Mumbai's famous seafood restaurants such as Trishna, Mahesh and Ankur had started off as simple lunch homes serving fried fish and curries which then later offered alcohol on the side and that is when business really took off. Many of these seafood joints, in turn, had started originally as restaurants serving vegetarian snacks and tiffins!

Fort still has a few examples of the original lunch homes left and one of these is Modern Lunch Home in the lane opposite Ideal Corner. You will find it busy through the day with people dropping in a for a quick drink and some fried fish. The current owner, Mr Vincent Fernandes, has owned this property for a decade now though the restaurant is more than twenty years old. He welcomed us with a smile during the walk and managed to fit our largish group in the air conditioned section during the walk.

With Mr Vincent Fernandes of Modern Lunch Home

Modern Lunch Home is where I was introduced to a dish called kori roti in 2010 by a Twitter friend who worked here. It's a fascinating dish where a thick kori gassi  (chicken or kori in a grated coconut, curry leaves, tamarind and whole mustard seed based curry) is served on crisp, khaakra-like, rice flower rotis. The beauty of this Mangalorean dish, as Amba who had introduced me to it had pointed out, is that the texture of the roti keeps changing from crisp to chewy to soft as the curry seeps into it and therefore your eating experience changes over time to while having the same dish. This the sort of play with food and textures that you would expect from famous modern international chefs perhaps, but was practised here by Mangalorean grannies for ages apparently!

For the vegetarians in the walk, there were gossamer thin neer dosas and vegetarian gassi.

Seafood for the soul at Sandeep Gomantak

That's the prawn masala to your right. Vades are at the bottom. Kombdi or chicken
 at top. The pink drink is the sol kadi.
The coconut and ginger chutney was very refreshing too 

From Modern Lunch Home we headed to Sandeep Gomantak for some 'local' fare. Gomantak food comes from the coastal Konkan coast of neighbouring Goa. To outsiders, the food will seem similar to what one gets in the Malvani restaurants which you find in areas such as Parel in Mumbai and which offer food from the Konkan Malvan coast of Maharshtra. Both use a fair bit of coconut in their dishes given that they are coastal cuisines. Kokum is often used in both as a souring agent. Seafood features liberally in both. 

Sandeep Gomantak has a near forty year old lineage of serving food that is of great quality and yet affordable and which speaks to both the tummies and the hearts of those who eat here. The same family has another smaller restaurant called Pradeep Gomantak which is run by other members of the family.

At Sandeep Gomantak that evening we had freshly fried and plump juicy bombil or Bombay Duck and summer is the season to have it. 

We had kombdi vade too. This refers to a thick grated coconut based chicken curry (kombdi) served with flavour-packed multigrain puris called vade. The vades have a lovely texture and are a pleasure to have by themselves too.

Suvodeep of Sodexo couldn't stop
admiring the prawns

Interestingly enough, if you order prawns or crabs in Gomantak or Malvan restaurants then you will be served small prawns and small crabs unlike the much larger crabs and prawns that you will be offered in restaurants such as Trishna and Mahesh or even Jai Hind and Gajalee. That is because the Gomantak and Malvani restaurants of Mumbai still cater to locals who eat here everyday and try to keep the costs of the dishes affordable while the fancier Mangalorean places with their focus on tourists and the experiential dining section, can command higher price premiums.

At home at Sandeep Gomantak explaining the intricacies of Gomantak food
to folks who originally belonged to Rajashtan
We wanted  to try some prawns here and were told that we were in luck as there were just a couple of servings  of prawn masala left which we quickly ordered. The prawns here, like in an any Gomantak restaurant looked tiny and were covered in a thick brown masala with the odd black bits of dried kokum sticking out. What made the prawns at Sandeep unique though were that they were soft and juicy and not overcooked at all AND that the flavour of the prawns had permeated into the masala instead of it being the other way round as one often finds at such restaurants  

We washed all of this down with one of the most sublime, subtly flavoured and thin sol kadi drinks that I have had.

The Taste of Kerala and God's Own Kitchen

From row 1, left to right
Appam vegetarian stew,
Mutton sukkha
Malabar porotta, salad

A short walk from Sandeep primed us for our last stop, the Taste of Kerala. This decade old restaurant stands where a vegetarian restaurant was earlier run by the same owner. It was packed even on at the late hour (9.30 pm) on a Saturday and we took the entire non-airconditioned section for out group rather than wait to get places upstairs.

The advantage of sitting downstairs, as we found out, was that we got freshly made appams almost as soon as they were taken off the wok or kadai. We had these with a light and very summer appropriate, coconut milk based, Keralite stew.

There was more food that followed and the finale happened appropriately with some decadent Malabar porottas and a spicy mutton sukka (goat meat slow cooked in grated coconut, chillies and curry leaves) where the mutton had been cooked till tender submission. 

Then out came little bowls of payasam or coconut milk based kheer to end the walk. 

Thus ended our four hour long trawl and what made it a success was definitely the unflagging energy and enthusiasm of the participants, the hard work which the team at Sodexo had put in to make it work and above all, the magic of the people and the food of Fort.

Here's a little phone video that we shot in the occasion with Sharon of Sodexo most kindly doubling up as the camera person for this:

The Fort by Night Finely Chopped Food Walk was part of a series that I do for Sodexo which is called #SodexoCXOFoodWalk and entry is by invite only. 

I do hope that you found the information in the post useful and tempting enough for you to head out to Fort to eat too. You won't regret it if you do.

That's our April 2018 Sodexo CXO Food Walk Group

That's the Sodexo team who worked behind the scenes to make this happen

Surprise book signing at the end thanks to the Sodexo team ordering a box of them.
I couldn't have asked for a better gift on World Book Day which fell on the same day