Best and most memorable meals of 2018? On rediscovering the joys of regional Indian food

Bengali pice hotel meal at Swadhin Bharat Hindu hotel

I told myself towards the end of 2017 that I wanted to spend 2018 exploring parts of India that I had not been to before and get an understanding of the food scene there. I am happy to say that I did manage a bit of that this year.

It started with Guwahati and the nearby Manas Forest Reserve in Assam. Then Mangalore and its neighbouring towns of Udupi and Kundapur in Karnataka. I also headed out to Mumbai’s neighbouring city of Pune to eat. This is something that I had been meaning to do for long but had not till then.

Each trip was so enriching and enlightening and was packed with delicious food. And there was more.

Tekali pitha and cha on the streets of Guwahati

In Guwahati I got a taste of tribal Assamese cooking at restaurants such as the Missing Kitchen where I had some amazing pork dishes with Sisir Kumar, a local foodie. I had momos, which have come to India from Tibet and Nepal and are now so popular here, in an Assamese run restaurant called Chinese Hut (which sold tandoori chicken too!). I was awestruck by how large the pieces of meat in the momos were and was told that it was because they like their pork in Assam and that diners like to see their meat rather than have it finely minced.

I latter learnt in the course of my trip that there is much more to Assamese food than pork or even silk worms (which I had at Manas) for that matter. The 'Assamese', defined as those who live in the plains and in places such as Guwahati, do not eat pork, I was told. Their food, which I tried at restaurants such as Khorika Heritage and at the houses of a couple of locals... Puspanjalee Das Dutta and Mitali G Dutta, where I was invited to, reminded me of my native Bengali food in terms of the simplicity of the vegetable dishes, potato mashes (pitika), tart fish curries (masor tenga) and light chicken curries that were served. As did the breakfast of khoi and pitha and payokh that I had at the Taj Vivanta that I had with Sanjukta Dutta.

Chicken ghee roast at Shetty Lunch Home, Kundapur

Mangalore was a place that I was keen to visit for long as so much of Mumbai’s restaurant industry is run by people who belong to Mangalore. What is their own food like, I wondered. Accompanying me on the trip was the ‘intrepid gourmand,’ Dr Pradeep Rao from Mumbai, who has family there.

I fell in love with the tuppa dosa and biscuit roti, khotto and other Tulu/ Konkani delights that I tasted at a restaurant called the new Taj Mahal Hotel and the lovely filter kaapi that they served. I had the Mangalorean Catholic version of the pork bafad (masala) and sorpotel (rakhti) at Mangalore's Mangala bar and found them to be so different from the Goan and East Indian versions that I had tried before. I ate at the house of Pradeep’s cousin, Shobha Kamath, and at the restaurant called Machali too, and got a taste of how well they understand their seafood in Mangalore. We had gone to Mangalore during monsoon when fishing is stopped here. Which is why we got to try fish varieties such as ladyfish and not the usual pomfrer or surmai and then the dishes such as the squid ghee roast and gaboli (fish roe) ghee roast and the crab masala and in the process realised that the principles of seasonal eating are applied to seafood too and not just fruits and vegetables. I marvelled at how a variety of spices were used to embellish the rather bare stock of seafood at that time.

We went to the Shetty Lunch Home at Kundapur where the chicken ghee roast was invented and experienced the brilliance of this legendary dish. We stopped at another Shetty community run place on the road, called Sadanand and had the poetic kori gassi roti. A chicken curry and rice flour based roti dish which I am told is common place in homes in Mangalore.

Away from the world of meat and fish was the temple town of Udupi where we stopped to have the beautiful goli bhajje and vada sambar, done Kannada Brahmin style, at the Mitra Samaj. The sambar here was on a sweeter side compared to what I had at the Konkani run places such as New Taj.

Misal at Shree Krishna Bhuvan, Pune

Pune was interesting too as a I got a taste of its quaint European influenced quaint cafes and restaurants at places such as the French Door and Arthur’s Theme at Koregaon Park, also known as being the hub of the Osho Commune. Locals such as as Radhika Dossa who has grown up here and my former boss, Rashmi Varma, who is settled here, took me around.

I went to the Camp area in Pune and to places such as Dorabjee and Sons, CafĂ© Yezdan and Husseni Bakery to see the form that the Parsi and Irani influence had taken in Pune and how it differed from  that in Mumbai. I found it to be a far more integral part of the areas such as Camp in Pune compared to what it is in modern Mumbai. Our outing at Camp was led by Jayesh Paranjape and he had started it with us having the uniquely Pune version of the batata vada pav (flatter and covering the whole pav) at JJ Garden Vada pav beside the JJ agiary. 

However, where Pune really came alive to me was when I went to what is called the ‘city.’ The historic Maharashtrian hub of Pune with its grand old buildings and peths and busy streets. I had a Maharashtrian thali at Shreyas for lunch and I found it a most soulful and delectable affair. One of the best thali meals that I have had.

I had the misal at Shree Krishna and Bedekar and found each to be different from the other. Both were served with sliced bread and were quite different from the misals of Mumbai. A reminder of the sheer diversity that exists in Indian food. Giving me company on my city adventures was Neelima Nitin and I got to meet London based Preethi Rajesh, who has just written a book on the food of Marathwada.

Breakfast at Koshy's Bengalurua

It was not just about to going to cities I had not explored before. I went to Bengaluru and savoured the calm of the breakfast at the Keralite family run, Bengaluru institution, Koshy’s. when I went there alone one morning. I also went to Hyderabad and had the hearty and chilli heat packed biryani at Shah Ghouse in the old city and the mind blowing mutton that it offered.

Packed house at Paramount, Kolkata

I made a few trips to my hometown, Kolkata too. I had some new experiences there which excited me. I had the UP influenced Muslim breakfast of dal gosh and kaleji and roti at Sabir’s along with Indrajit Lahiri one morning. I revisited College Street after a quarter of century and took a friend of mine who works in publishing, Debjani Banerji, with me. It struck me that the eateries that we considered a part of the scenery, when we were college students here, are in reality heritage places with many of them being a century or so old. I revisited old memories in the shape of the infusion (black coffee), sandwiches and pakora at the India Coffee House, the grape and daab sherbets at Paramount and the Bengali sweet shop treats of kochuri, shingara and doi at Putiram. I created new memories at College Street by having my first pice hotel experience through the lovely and home-like Bengali food at the Odiya family run Swadhin Bharat Hotel. I had the 'memories of the British Raj' infused cha, cutlet and chop experience at the Dilkhusa Cabin too.

I came back feeling so proud of and thankful of the days of my youth that I had spent at College Street. Realising that I owed so much of what I am today, to them.

I also revisited Aminia and had the excellent Biryani there. Revisiting old high school and college memories. With my best friend from new life, Kaniska Chakraborty and thanks to whom I discovered the machher deemer bora a Chitto da’s at the rather decrepit Dacres Lane.

A few months later, I had another lovely meal with Debjani. This time of delicious Kolkata Biryani & Awadhi kebabs and nihari, at Manzilat Fatima’s terrace outside her kitchen and under the stars, where she offers a home styled dining experience. 

Freshly fried vade, Raju Malvani, Mumbai

There is a lot to discover in Mumbai of course which I have not tried. We do not always have to travel to taste something which we never had before. There is so much around us, as chef Vicky Ratnani once said in a panel discussion at the Dadar Catering College which we were part of. We just have to open our eyes to them.

I got a flavour of some of this at the end of the year when I spent a fair bit of time in Dadar and Parel in central Mumbai. I went to a small eatery called Sahyadri opposite the KEM hospital while doing hospital duty for a friend who was at a hospital nearby. I had the best kothimbir vadi that I have ever had over there and some lovely kharvas, misal and batata vada as well. A few days later, I went to the legendary Raju Malvani Corner cart at Dadar after we went to eat at the new restaurant that the owner has opened close by and fell in love with the bangda fry, the fish curry and the kolimbi (prawn) rice.

I went back to New Martin Hotel in Colaba at the start of 2018 to have a classic Goan Christian meal of excellent vindaloo, steak and onion fry and chops and then later tried out the lovely Goan fare put together by chef Aloo at Lady Baga and was introduced to the ‘Friday curry’ of Goan Catholic homes there for the first time.

A lovely year-end experience in Mumbai was having the Surti Undhiyu from Pinky Dixit Chandran’s Soam Restaurant in Babulnath and Regal Stores in Bandra and seeing how each was unique and had its own merits. Reminding one of the diversity and individuality that is typical of India and Indian food.

When I wanted Bengali food in Mumbai or Kolkata Biryani, then coming to my rescue as always was Amit Roy of Peetuk and Sanjib Das and Siddharth Bose of Bhojohori Manna. We called in from Oh! Calcutta at times. 

Add the amazing meals that we had over a fortnight in Japan and an evening in Penang and an afternoon in Singapore and a dinner at Slink and Bardot in Mumbai and there you have, some of my best meals of 2018. The most memorable ones too.

Sabir's Kolkata

2018 was a year that reminded me that there is so much out there when it comes to regional Indian food in restaurants and that I need to go out and seek them out, just as I had in the past.

I have observed a discourse on Indian food in mass and social media which at times feels frustrated about the lack of regional food eateries in India. I must say that find it hard to agree with this point of view. 

Yes, there was not much out there in the modern urban and fine dining space I agree in terms of regional food before. I think that folks at the Bombay Canteen are doing a stellar job there in terms of presenting regional Indian food that appeals to a contemporary audience and others are following their path. Their chef, Thomas Zacharias, by travelling across the country and chronicling his food discoveries has made regional Indian food ‘cool’ for the young Instagram audience no doubt and that was necessary. Another young chef who has done interesting work in this space for the Instagram audience is Saransh Goila as he too has highlighted a fair bit of regional Indian, day to day food on his food. I am sure there are other examples too but these are the ones that come to my mind among those who have a large social media following.

Stay hungry. Stay curious!
Lady fish fry at Shetty Lunch Home

I think that it is now up to all of us to up the ante when it comes to spreading the Indian food narrative.

For, as 2018 reminded me, India does actually have a plethora of restaurants across the country serving local Indian food. That it is not just Punjabi or north Indian food that defines Indian food. That we should not fall into a trap of lamenting about it being so, and instead should go out and savour the flavours that surround us, wherever we are in the country. And then tell their stories. To our fellow countrymen. To the world at large.

Sounds like a plan? It does to me.

Here’s wishing you all a great 2019.