Will the real slim Shetty please stand up? Shriya Shetty's Shetty Lunch Home Festival at the Bombay Vintage Restaurant

The jackfruit payasam ice cream

Let's start with dessert

‘The jackfruit payasam ice cream is based on my childhood memories of temple meals at Mangalore. They served the coconut milk based jackfruit payasam at the end of the meal on the banana leaf on which you had already eaten. So when you scooped up a bit of the payasam with your fingers you also took in a bit of the remnants of sambar, the sabzis, the rice, the salt, the fried chillies in the same mouthful!’ 

As I took a bite of the this dessert, which was made with scoops of creamy jackfruit payasam flavoured ice cream (made by the Taj Ice Cream folks who supply the ice creams at the Bombay Vintage Restaurant) and which had candied jackfruit seed chips and jackfruit pickle too, I was teased by flavours of jackfruit, coconut milk, salt, chilli heat, tart... all at one go. There was a reason why this seemingly strange melange made absolute sense to me, as I realised later in the day.

This is because it reminded me of my childhood in Kolkata and of wedding meals served on banana leaves where you would have the savoury stuff and the mutton curry and then the chutney and then the mishti doi, and where the sweet yogurt would take in all the flavours that preceded it and a bit of the yellow colours of the food too. Especially the garam masala heavy jhol. I used to love this finale to the 70 mm blockbuster meal and still remember it fondly.

Chef Shriya Shetty outside the Bombay
Vintage Restaurant, Colaba

This conversation took place towards the end of a tasting of the Shetty Lunch Home & more food festival menu at the Bombay Vintage restaurant at Colaba that I went to on a rainy Monday afternoon. A menu put together by chef Shriya Shetty. A former Mumbai girl who now lives in Mangalore. 

I first met her at Mangalore last year and that is when I got to know her interesting story. She told me that she was always interested in food and which is why she decided to intern in the kitchens of restaurants such as Ellipsis in Mumbai and then Gaggan at Bangkok after she completed her B Com in Mumbai instead of joining the corporate world or studying further. She learnt her cheffing skills while working at these kitchens as she had not gone to culinary school. She came back home to Mumbai after a while and then headed to Mangalore which is where her family's origins lie. In Mangalore she had set up a bakery with her partner Varun. The bakery offers western breads and confectionery in a sleepy town where this is still quite novel.

"Why don't you do something on Mangalorean food based on your modern sensibilities and on what you have learnt while working with these pathbreaking chefs," I asked her the day we met in Mangalore.

Shriya said that Mangalore is still a very traditional market and offers very little scope on this front. She did say though that she spent a considerable amount of her time in Mangalore researching the food of her ancestors. Trying to get to know more about her roots which she, as someone who grew up in Mumbai, was not too aware of.

With Shriya and Varun at the Bombay Vintage before
they headed back to Mangalore after putting the kitchen
in place for the festival here

I was thrilled to hear about the Mangalorean food pop up that Shriya was doing at Mumbai, almost a year after we met, and was keen to see what she had come up with. 

No, I am not claiming any credit for what she has done in case you thought I am saying so. I was just excited about it. Her passion for both food and her culture was infectious after all and I had a feeling that Shriya would come up with something good and that is exactly what she seems to have done.

The menu for the festival at the Bombay Vintage
a restaurant which showcases regional Indian food
and gives a platform for pop ups too

Shriya told me that she was presenting food that belonged to the Shetty community of Mangalore in this festival. A community to which she belongs. One of the primary communities that make up the melange of modern Mangalore.

Interestingly, the Shettys are credited with having driven the second stage of the restaurant industry in Mumbai in the years following India's independence. Following in the footsteps of the Iranis who had started it all off in the mid 1800s.

I doubt if many among the new generation of Mumbaikars would know about this. I did not myself to be honest, when I came to the city in the late 1990s. This was before the era of food blogs and Instagram and the internet and there weren't too many places where you could learn about food barring the occasional newspaper article. I would eat at Shetty run places such as Mahesh and Apoorva at Fort and relish the squid butter pepper garlic (could not afford crabs as a trainee or eating at Trishna for that matter) there. The only 'Shetty' I had heard of back then was actor Sunil Shetty! I later learnt that he too belonged to a family of restaurateurs. He later opened restaurants of his own. It was even later that I learnt, thanks to Vir Sanghvi and his book Rude Food, that the dish of butter pepper prawn/ crab/ squid preparation that we ordered at such places was as 'Shetty' as Bruce Lee (to paraphrase him wildly).

With the city expanding its limits, I feel that it would only a very few in modern Mumbai, especially among the younger folks, who would be familiar with the food of Shetty lunch homes of south Mumbai or their history and this is what adds to the significance of this festival. Shriya has also introduced some dishes that are inspired by Shetty traditions, including temple meal dishes and dishes from home kitchens. This food would have a uniqueness of its own compared to what you get in Shetty lunch homes.

Tasting India with Mangalore as an anchor

The temple thali

There were more stories earlier on in the meal apart from the jackfruit payasam  one that I told you ab out and more dots that were connected through Shriya's food. Take for example here temple food thali which had a smattering of salt.

"You are meant to sprinkle the salt at the beginning to ward off the evil eye in a Mangalorean temple meal," said Shriya and then with an impish smile, "and add it to the food if it lacks salt."

"Did you know the Bohris (who came to Mumbai from Yemen via Gujarat) start a meal with a bit of salt too?" I replied.

As my friend, Mustafa Icecreamwallah of the Icecreamwallah ice cream company confirmed, "the scientific reason behind having a pinch of salt at the start of a Bohri thaal is that it cleans the tongue of bacteria at the start. We also dab a bit at the end if the salt in the food was less."

The salt was in the temple tacos which I will talk about later. The thali (mensakaay oota) i the picture above had a pineapple gassi in it. A fairly rare Indian savoury dish made with a fruits It reminded me of the anarasher chaatni of Bengal. The ghee rice with cashews of kishmish reminded me of the kishmish badam pulao of Oh! Calcutta in Mumbai, just  as it had when I first had it at the Shetty Lunch Home in Kundapur where the ghee roast is said to have been invented. 

There was a tendli bhaaji with cashew nuts in it which I am sure would have worked for Shiv Aroor too (check the blog post on tendli at the end for more on this). I was thrilled to see jackfruit papad in the thali. These were sourced from the same 90 yr old grocery shop Shriya had taken me to at Mangalore. I had bought these for my friends but had not tasted these then. I tried them this time and loved the slight sweetness in the crunchy papads and could not get enough of them.

Biscut roti. 

We had the biscut roti which I remembered having with filter kaapi at the Taj Restaurant at Mangalore. It is made with semolina and you stuff in coconut chutney and tamarind chutney and the first bite took me to Shyam Sweets in old Delhi and the halva and potato curry stuffed semolina dough based nagori halva that I had there. 

Shriya told me that biscuit is pronounced as 'biskut' in Mangalore. Which is what we do in Kolkata too!

Kori roti/ rutti

There was the kori rutti on the menu  of course. A dish I first had at the Modern Lunch Home in Mumbai and later at a place called Sadanad just outside Mangalore. A dish that you will find made at all Mangalorean homes.  One where you pour the coconut based kori (chicken) curry on crisp, near papar-like, rice rotis and eat it while the rutti changes texture from crisp to gravy soaked and soggy.

"Don't use your knife and fork for this," chided Shriya gently as she urged me to dig in to the fish with my finger. I quickly changed tracks and followed her lead. The curry reminded me of what I had at Mangalore but the chicken had a slight chicken tikka in a butter chicken like feel, which I found both novel and strange and addictive too.

"The chicken used to be cooked on wood fired ovens in Mangalore. We have tried to recreate that by smoking it and by using country chicken that has its own unique texture," explained Shriya thereby bringing the food of the Punjabis and Madrasis (as all south Indians were called in the politically incorrect days of my childhood) together in one bite of her kori rutti. Incidentally, we pronounce roti as ruti in Bengali.

Peelakay salad

Talking of Bengal, I was so happy to find slices of fresh ripe jackfruit (which are in season) in the pelakaay salad which also had pickled raw jackfruit and jackfruits seeds in it too. The latter two were the warmer elements of the salad and I felt that the heady sweetness of the ripe jakckfruit beautifully balanced the nuttiness of the seeds and the meatiness of the unripe jackfruit.

"Wish you had put more of the ripe jackfruit," I said.

"We did at the start, but many customers complained. The said they could not stand the strong aromas of ripe jackfruit," said Shriya.

"Indians said so? I can understand foreigners saying it," I said incredulously.

I have fond memories of having ripe jackfruit at my grandmother's house in Kolkata in the mid 80s. I've bought ripe jackfruit sold by thelawalas in Bandra after coming to Mumbai. My friend, Kaniska Chakraborty, told me that Tagore (Rabindranath and not Sharmila for non-Bengalis reading this) apparently loved jackfruit payesh. 

Which is why I was surprised to learn that not all Indians, my wife included, do not like ripe jackfruit. Yes, India is a very big and diverse country and you should never to generalise things here.

Prawn sukkhe

I tried a bit of the prawn sukkhe, appreciated the fact that the prawns (bigger ones than what are used for the dish in Mangalore said Varun) were not overcooked and marvelled at how prominent the hit of coconut flavours in it were.

"Is this cooked in cocnut oil," I asked, remembering what my friend Dr Pradeep Rao had told me about Mangalorean food

"Yes," said Shriya. Toasted whole mustard seeds and urad dal completed the base of the dish.

The fact that she had not flooded the dish with masalas, unlike what is done in restaurants, meant that I could fully get the flavours of the coconut oil and that made the dish distinctive to me. As did the pairing with the smaller than normal balls of the pundi, rice dumplings with which it was paired.

Surmai fry masala

I loved the tartness of the tamarind and tomato masala paste on the surmai fry masala that I had but what made the dish for me was the excellent quality of the fish that they had sourced. The chefs at Bombay Vintage clearly revered their fish. Fishing season is on a break over here so the fish was sourced from outside and yet was so fresh. The masala paste had slightly high salt note which was tamed by the kappa ruri (rice and coconut dosa) served on the side.

Chicken ghee roast pav

The dish Shriya feels connected most to on the menu is apparently the chicken ghee roast pav.

It is only after she went to Mangalore says Shriya that she saw the reverence with which the ghee roast is held there. She has now developed her own ghee roast masala in tribute to that.

What Shriya missed from Mumbai, her hometown that she has left behind, in Mangalore is the pav as she told me. So she made it in her bakery in Mangalore and has put in a ghee roast pav in the menu in her festival with some Lebanese tzatziki (hung curd dip) to balance the ghee and with some pomegranate added in, Mumbai dabeli style.

To me the dish once again evoked memories of my childhood in Kolkata when my mother would shallow fry soft buns on the tava and serve it with chicken curry, omelettes or tomato and cheese. The buttery taste in the toasted pav, which came from the ghee of the ghee roast, triggered the memory of simpler times when butter, oil, gluten and refined flour were not considered as enemies of the state.

The real Shetty experience?

Temple taco

I tried more dishes in the meal than I feel comfortable handling normally. This is not a review of course. It cannot be one when a friend calls you over to try her food. I must say that while I have eaten at quite a few, I am no Shetty lunch home expert. However, what I can tell you is that while I had more than ten dishes, I remember the taste of each individually and that's quite a testimony to the chef.

You might not always have the company of Shriya to guide you through this meal at the Bombay Vintage as I was lucky enough to have, but I do hope that these stories help if you do go there.

Let me sign off with one more story. That of her temple taco where Shriya has tried to recreate the experience of a Mangalore temple meal in a bite. The closest I had come to this till date was when I was treated to a meal cooked by priests in a matha in Mumbai by the Shetty owners of Gokul Bar at their home in Colaba on Ganpati.

Shriya has served an urad dal papar as a taco and in which one has to add a kokum saar (clear soup) drenched rice which reminded me of a rassam rice because of its tanginess, black gram that reminded me of a sambar because of the spices in it, there was a karela and jaggery pickle which added a touch of bitter sweet, then fried chillies for heat and of course curry leaves for how can any dish be 'south Indian' without it?!

What I marvelled at was how each of the taste elements sprung up on me one by one and in that came through the genius as well as love of the chef for the food.

The gadbad ice cream is one dish that did not work for me here. It is meant to be served in a tall glass where the scoops of ice cream and fruit mix together to make it a happy mess. Serving it in a bowl to make it a sharing portion robbed it of its magic in my opinion

You cannot of course expect to have an exact replica of the experience that you would get in a Shetty lunch home in the pop up at Bombay Vintage where even the ambiance is very different from that of Shetty Restaurants. Bombay Vintage has retro fittings, air-conditioning, clean toilets, comfortable air-conditioning, pretty porcelain China and valet parking. A far cry from the original 'lunch homes' which were just that. Places where immigrant Mangaloreans who worked in south Mumbai could eat lunch and perhaps catch a drink to before heading home. Yet, it would be fair to say that the chefs of Bombay Vintage, who are all Maharashtrian, have gone out of the way to understand the nuances of Shriya's food and that the management (one of the three partners, Sumit Gambhir, is a Shetty) has backed them in this effort to deep dive in to a very important aspect of Mumbai's culinary legacy.

Dining with Shriya, clicked by Varun

Similarly the food in the festival cannot be a replica of the Shetty lunch home fare either. After being in Mumbai for more than half a century, the Shetty lunch home owners have been influenced by what the customer here wants after all. 

Shriya on the other hand has travelled in the reverse direction while trying to discover and understand the culinary heritage she belongs to.
The food in this festivals settles comfortably somewhere in between the two tracks is what I feel. What you can look for in this festival are the core flavours of Mangalorean food. A taste of which I got when I went to Mangalore to eat last year with my friend Dr Pradeep Rao. Like Shriya, he too is Mumbaikar of Mangalorean origins.

Food is about memories they say and though the menu, chef Shriya has bared her heart and that to me is the start of any great story. Or dish for that matter.

My jackfruit payasam moment