Eating Bombay: India’s Cultural Capital Looks Forward While Honoring the Past
Originally published in Spanish in Food & Wine; see link
Mumbai is living a culinary renaissance. India’s financial and entertainment capital, which is still affectionately referred to as Bombay, the British moniker, saw over 40 fine dining establishments open their doors in 2017. In cities from Mexico to Prague, chefs are increasingly conscious of global trends while returning to the roots of their cuisines—and there are many of them in India, at least 2000 distinct styles of cooking, according to restaurateur Sandeep Sreedharan of the new hot spot Curry Tales.
On the one hand, Mumbaikers, as the residents of this sprawling urb are called, love tradition. There are atmospheric 100-year-old “Irani” cafés, like Kyanni & Co. and Britannia, set up by Parsi immigrants, whose dusty ceiling fans spin lazily while customers seated at marble-topped tables sip good coffee to chase house-baked sweet breads and lunch on fusion middle eastern/Indian food such as berry pulao. These stalwarts sit side by side with the decidedly euro-centric Café Le 15 where French pastries and cappuccino are offered or the tiny, brightly decorated Raju Ki Chai around the corner, which manages to pay loving homage to the common tea stall and pushcart fast food with a knowing wink at kitsch pop culture. At the same time, old factories house architect-designed venues like Masque, The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro where forward looking, foreign-trained chefs examine specific regions, turn classic dishes inside out incorporating modern cooking techniques previously unknown here and take advantage of superb local/seasonal/sustainable materia prima.
It’s a daunting task for a non-resident food writer to delve into the city’s seemingly endless eateries. There are humble stands turning out perfect, crepe-like dosas stuffed with spicy potatoes, myriad hole-in-the-wall ‘dhabas’ where curry masalas are made to order and breads are hand-formed and fast-baked in wood-fired ovens near the entrance. Welcoming regional restaurants, some in business for decades, prepare delicately accented rice dishes from the snowy northern state of Kashmir or creamy fish curries from Calcutta. And the Indian public, once less willing to experiment, is now open to the expertly prepared pan-cultural cooking of The Table or the Mediterranean oriented Olive Bar.
The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro look backwards while embracing innovation
Both The Bombay Canteen, hidden amongst less gastronomically experimental establishments in a refurbished textile mill and the recently inaugurated O Pedro take on a difficult challenge: that is, to present regional Indian cooking in a contemporary yet relaxed way. The original concept of both, to embrace tradition while turning it inside out, was that of the renowned New York-based chef Floyd Cardoz, now director of that city’s trendy Paowalla.
The daily operation of the Canteen, whose menu is multi regional but concentrates on the west coast, is in the capable hands of young CIA-trained Thomas Zacharias, who was born in the southern coastal state of Kerala to Christian parents – a fact that is significant as Christians in India have no food prohibitions. At O Pedro, Hussain Shahzad, synthesizes Portuguese-influenced Goan cooking, little known beyond the borders of this small coastal state.
Zacharias explains “We don’t have enough restaurants in India that pay tribute to the diversity of cuisine in this country. I have traveled to at least 25 different cities and regions known for their cooking and there is incredible food that you only find in people’s homes. So we wanted to do a restaurant that showcases the diversity and nuances of Indian food. We thought, why take ourselves seriously, let’s have a little fun; let’s do things like Indian tacos but food that still has context, that maintains the integrity of the dish from which it is inspired.” His food is indeed playful, at times provocative, but serious thought—and technique—are behind every dish that arrives at the table. On a recent visit, that taco, whose contents morph with the season and whim of the chef, manifested itself as a “kali mirch chicken taco,” filled with a spicy blend from the city of Lucknow where subtle yet powerful Mughal influenced spicing is taken to a high level of sophistication. The “tortilla” was made of earthy garbanzo flour and fenugreek leaves. It was a Mexican taco in name only, but it was good.
At O Pedro, a newcomer that pays homage to the Portuguese-settled state of Goa, the décor is meant to recall a colonial Goan home. Once again, a romanticized past is evoked but the thinking in the kitchen is pure 21st century.
Nothing I eat here reminded me of Portugal, nor of my preconception of Indian food for that matter. The dishes embrace an odd outsider version of Portuguese cooking – chile is used as are tomatoes, olive oil, pork and beans. And coconut is ever present. There is a conscious nod to the British: Devilled eggs seasoned with coconut curry are prominently featured. Veal ‘prosciutto’ – house cured tongue served with pickled gherkins, onion salsa and garlic mustard aioli is a gussied version of something Cardoz ate growing up. No dish, however western in concept lacks an Indian touch; the spice market is always present.
Cardoz sees a correlation to what is happening in India to Mexico and Peru; he points out that “we are trying to rescue dying traditions, in a manner accessible to a 21st century public.”
Chef Zacharias explains that “…all our food is related to some context in India – there’s a story behind everything. We don’t want to turn our backs on the past; we embrace what’s happening around the globe. People return because they feel safe yet challenged.”
Curry Tales: A Gatekeeper
Curry Tales’ hot pink neon sign belies what is happening therein. It may not look like a typical venue for fine dining but this funky spot that opened last year offers some of the most interesting food in town, concentrating on the state of Kerala and Karnakata.
Director Sandeep Sreedharan always harbored a passion for food, even as he toiled in the world of finance. We chat over a plate prawn Biryani made with a special pearly Keralan rice that looked dull yet was surprisingly nuanced and a kingfish filet rubbed with tomato, tamarind, mustard, ginger, garlic, curry leaves and cumin then wrapped in a banana leaf like a tamal. Sandeep became more and more animated as he told me that “…I promote coastal cuisine. This is a homey concept, very specific. It includes a lot of flavors: even if you want to cover 100 km you could probably do a million dinners.” At Curry Tales, presentation is honest, spicing generally subdued. It’s food to savor and enjoy, not intellectualize. Sandeep muses that “someone has to be a gatekeeper for regional cuisines; I have a lot of knowledge which now I can share. That’s the “Tales” part of Curry Tales; that has been my journey.”
Shree Thaker Bhojanalay: An endless feast
At the highly lauded Shree Thaker the brightly florescent-lit stairway is decidedly unpromising. The old man guarding the doorway signals us to ascend and we enter this bustling bastion of traditional eating. This immensely popular restaurant offers only one thing but that thing is infinite. A thali is a full meal, served on a round tray, comprising many little dishes. Shree Thaker does one of the best in Bombay. I sit with owner Gautam Purohit whose father, Maganbhai Purohit, who died last year at 96, opened a small fonda in 1945 offering familiar food to traders from the northern state of Gujarat. “As a child, I watched him plate the meals and his passion rubbed off on me,” he explains, as dishes are ladled out onto small metal bowls on my tray, one after another. Gautam took over as his father’s health waned and he has not only preserved the integrity of the kitchen but has upped the ante, tweaking recipes and using only the best ingredients. He explains that ‘Bjojan alay’ implies an inn where food is served, Shree Thaker was the name of the man who sold out of the original locale. My tray is eventually loaded with, amongst many dishes (I lose count but there are at least 25 items), fragrant potatoes stewed with tomato, creamy moong dahl aromatic with umami-filled asafoetida a dried resin, peas with fresh cheese and fenugreek leaves, breads made from wheat, millet, corn and sorghum, two rices, papadum, coconut chutney, green coriander chutney, mango pickles and a salad of shredded raw papaya with tomato and the tart dried fruit, kokum. Flavors are subtle, every dish is lightly but distinctively spiced: cumin, turmeric, dried ginger, cinnamon stand out. As I clean my little dishes, waiters return and refills are offered - if one refuses more, one is made to feel as guilty as if a jewish grandmother was present. Purohit sees himself as maintaining a tradition in the face of a globalizing restaurant scene: “…we’ll return to this kind of food; this is like a staple, you’ll never get bored with it.”
Where it’s all heading:
Of the future, Cardoz predicts that young Indian chefs will increasingly need to be introspective and look toward the cultures they are rooted in for inspiration. They will find that “…you can’t just keep on borrowing; you need to realize that you don’t need to go outside.”
Sandeep of Curry Tales concurs: “Whatever kind of food you are making, your childhood memory is strong - that is what drives fashion, innovation. I think all the great chefs from India should follow their memories, to produce great Indian food not just one-dimensional and predictable. Its not just about belonging it’s about a sense of responsibility.”