The Sardars of Sion Koliwada. An appetiser of a food walk in Mumbai's mini Amritsar

Half meat portion meat curry and half rice. Rs 140. Sardar Paya House

Mumbai's mini Amritsar/ Ludhiana/ Jalandhar

I had recently written about a trip that I had made to Sion, a suburb in Mumbai, and the life redefining samosas and soothing and soulful Sindhi Kadhi chawal that I had at Guru Kripa and the fish fry and Mangalore gassi marvel that I got to experience  at the Modern Lunch Home there. But there was more to that glorious day which I need to tell you about!

When I made my plans for the trip earlier that morning and reached out to my friend and food oracle, Dr Pradeep Rao, for ideas; he said that I should go to Hazara at Sion Koliwada. I had never heard of the place to be honest. He explained that Hazara is a quarter bar (bars where you can buy bottles and not just glasses of alcohol) which is said to have been the inventor of the fish and the prawn Koliwada

A dish which has nothing to do with the Koli fishermen folks of Mumbai by the way. It is as Punjabi as Daler Mahendi!

The birthplace of Mumbai's fish Koliwada

Pradeep added that there are a couple of other Punjabi run restaurants there; namely Mini Punjab (Bandra has one with the same name too) and Hardeep Punjab. The latter is considered to be the best for food these days according to him. 

Not one to argue with the doc, I booked an Ola and headed out from Sion Circle to Sion Koliwada after my second lunch of the day, even though I was more stuffed than the standard issue five star hotel bed mattress by then. Interestingly, my cabbie knew where Hazara was and did not need to refer to Google maps. Something which is rather rare these days as the new breed of cab drivers of Mumbai seem to even less than Jon Snow when it comes to directions.

I have a hypothesis about why our driver knew of Hazara. Could be because of the fish koliwada of course, but I think that it is more likely because the area seemed to be a cab hub/ adda. I saw a number of cars parked in the area in front of Hazara. Largely outside car repair workshops, flanked by a Gurudwara at the start. Hence chances are that the driver knew of the place through work. 

What I saw reminded me of the 80s when most taxis, in Kolkata and Delhi at least, were driven by Sardarjis. One hardly sees any now though with folks from UP and Bihar having replaced them it seems, including in Mumbai. 

Welcome to Sion Koliwada. Mumbai's mini Punjabi Town

The Koliwada area looked a tad dirtier than the lanes that dotted Sion circle. Lanes which I had walked down earlier in the day. Those were neat and clean and had trees lining them. This looked slightly unkempt with open gutters and piles of garbage. It seemed a bit out of place compared to the area around the Sion cirlce. 

From what I gather, 25 buildings were built in this (Koliwada) area in 1957 to house refugees who had come into Mumbai from undivided Punjab during the partition. The surviving members of whom and their descendants live here now. I read that there is a dispute going on among the local residents and the government as the latter wants to tear down the buildings and redevelop the area. I wonder if a bit of the dishevelled state of the place is due to this impasse. One needs to study this more in detail of course without reaching such a conclusion of course. 

I got a glimpse into their lives when I walked into a small market that lies beside Hazara. The Punjabi Colony Market is what locals call it I was told. I saw a little shop selling paraphernalia for bhangra bands and then another, a grocery shop, that sold flours, pickles, papads and wadias which would make you feel for a moment that you were in one of the shops near the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

How's the meat?

What caught my attention in the market was a tiny corner shop where  I saw a Sardaji (Sikh gentleman) patiently churning curries that lay inside vessels placed on hot coal fires before he scooped out some food to serve. Yes, this was Pappu Payawala himself. I had read about his shop, Sardar Paya House, on the internet that morning. 

The place intrigued me and I decided to stop here and have a plate of mutton and rice. So what if I had eaten two lunches and was on my way to the third? 

One had the option of taking half plates thankfully.  I went for a half plate of meat (mutton/ goat meat) and plain pulao rice (pav is available too). 

There were a couple of benches by the cooking station and I decided to sit there. Looked more ‘atmospheric’ than the tiny, dingy room inside. 

“How is the meat,” asked an elderly Sikh gentleman who settled down at the table beside me. “Not bad at all,” I replied.

“Good then I will go for that and not the chicken today,” he said. He added that he had been coming here for decades to eat and found the quality consistent. He waited patiently for his food. Our conversation ended once our food arrived. The meat demanded our attention.

Meat curry and rice at Sardar Paya House. Rs 140
“Is the place overrated,” some asked me later on social media when I put up pictures of what I ate.

Well, here’s the deal. My order of half plate got me two pieces of mutton. Neither was very tender to be honest. Neither was too tough. Each piece had a reassuring bite to it which encouraged you to finish them, which I did. 

The curry had a home-like, onion based gravy taste with a sharp chilli/ pepper punch. It reminded me of the mutton curry that I had at Sardar Meatwala on the streets of Delhi’s Sadar Bazar a couple of weeks back. 

The dish did not give me any heartburn. Or an upset stomach. 

Seemed like a good deal to me. And that too at Rs 140 (with half a plate of rice). Add to that the thrill of discovery and a liberal dash of personal history.

 That's the paya being dished out

I spoke to Pappuji on the way out once I was done with my meal. He told me that he starts preparing for the day by 7 am before he opens for business. He does not open again for dinner so lunch time is when you have to come here to eat these slow cooked wonders. 

He told me that his name is Lucky Singh but is known as Pappu Singh. That his father, the late Sardar Singh, had started the business in 1974 or so and that Pappu had joined him soon after that, when he was much younger. The signboard has both their names today.

There is a larger proportion of Maharashtrians than Punjabis among his clientele said Pappuji. His business catered to all and not just his community it seemed.

Stopping at his shop made me really happy. I was stuffed after this of course. However, I soldiered on for you. I had a date with some prawns after all.

Mutton makes everything right

Punjabi prawnography

Koliwada means fishing village and is named so after the Kolis of Mumbai.  I guess that when the Punjabis of Sion introduced their fried prawn and fish dishes, they named it Koliwada after the area which was their new home. I went into Hardeep though and not Hazara that afternoon to try the prawn koliwada

An oasis of air-conditioned bliss

It was well past lunch time but both restaurants were still open. Hardeep looked nicer and brighter. Remarkably clean compared to its surroundings. The d├ęcor was reminiscent of some of the better maintained dhaabas that you will see across India. Functional yet warm. It evoked a sense of familiarity. 

Truth be told, I loved the blast of air-conditioning that refreshed me the moment I walked in. The loo (men’s) was very clean. There were a couple of families having a late lunch and one middle-aged couple too enjoying kebabs and beer. 

It was the middle of the week that day and yet you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a Sunday. That is how languorous the vibes were. The service was very prompt though.

Inside Hardeep Punjab. The restaurant is quite spacious and bright too

I had a massive glass of chhaas (buttermilk) which rejuvenated me while I waited for my plate of prawns koliwada. My order took a bit of time to come. It was obvious that they were cooking it from scratch. 

The serving that arrived was very generous in terms of quanity. The plate cost Rs 400, but the size of the prawns was impressive. The odd ajwain hit with each bite took me to places such as Makhan and Beera in Amritsar where I have had the fish fries of Punjab. Punjabis are not that experimental with fish of course. In Amritsar they use cubed fillets of the fairly neutral tasting sole and singara fish. 

The use of prawns was obviously a Mumbai inspiration for the Punjabis settled here. De-shelled and deveined of course.  I cannot imagine the Punjabis chewing on the head and brains and the tail of a prawn, unlike say a Bengali or even a Maharashtrian. That would be expecting a bit too much!

The prawn koliwada at Hardeep Punjab. Rs 400

What I must stress on was that the frying of the prawns was just perfect at Hardeep. 

They were not undercooked. Nor overcooked. Each prawn was so juicy. 

Interestingly, a bit of corn flour had been used to bind the masalas on the fish here unlike at Modern Lunch Home earlier, where a bit of rava had been used. 

I had just 3 or 4 prawns as I was rather full and had actually ordered them just because I wanted to taste them when freshly made. 

I packed the rest and took it home and K and I had them after reheating them on a pan, at least seven hours after they were cooked. They still tasted so good. The cooks at Hardeep had done a stellar job. Through the frying of the prawns, they had shown that the sardars of Sion had well and truly assimilated into the rhythm of Mumbai!

It is no wonder that the prawn koliwada is a dish that is much loved in Mumbai and is now associated strongly with the city.

A day well spent

Is it even possible to say goodbye to the Sion Koliwada? 

A couple of hours is not enough to do justice to the Sion Koliwada I realised that afternoon. This is not just because I did not eat at Hazara or Mini Punjab that day, or try more dishes at Hardeep. Internet reviews recommend the chicken chaska kebab at Hardeep which apparently has cheese smothered on kebabs. Ok then! 

Nor was it because I had not been to the famous chhole bhature place which is supposed to be located close by. Nor to the chhole puri place.

It is actually because I feel that it is really worth spending some time there. To get to know the stories of a community who had lost their all, who came to a new place and then, instead of dwelling on the past and cursing what happened, worked hard to make themselves a precious part of the fabric of their new home.

I am sure that there are many life’s lessons to be learnt in that.

I have to go back to Sion Koliwada


Here's a video that I did at the end of the Sion outing 

Posts that could be of interest:

1. Guru Kripa

2. Modern Lunch Home
3. Makhan and Beera fish
4. Puran Sigh dhaba at Ambala, famous for its meat curry
4. Sardar meat wala at Sadar Bazar

Sources referred to:

Free Press Journal