Lucky Peach, our favourite food magazine, is putting out its last issue this month. Although the magazine had a relatively short run of six years, in that short period, it changed food media forever. It showed us that food writing need not necessarily fall under two polar camps — restaurant reviews or personal essays, but could instead straddle everything in between — from rating supermarket ramen varieties to guides on making fruit preserve at home. Most importantly, it gave permission for food writing to be technical (without being inaccessible), irreverent and cheeky. The most iconic pieces in the magazine’s short stint however, were the city guides that informed the reader on the best places to eat, in each particular city.
As a hat-tip to the magazine that changed the world's perception of food writing, The Goya Journal asked some of the most distinguished voices from each major city in India to put together a city guide for the hungry traveller.
When I was little, I never thought that one day, I would grow up and make my living writing about food. What I ate was buried so thickly into my consciousness, that I never sought to articulate the way I felt about it, the way it made me feel. Yet, I have always poured my love for my city, into its food. It has always been food's myriad flavours through which I have traced the contours of my city: A plate of fried bombil at Malvan Kutta. A wibbly-wobbly caramel custard at Britannia. A lacerating spicy, chicken roll at Tibb's. This, then, is my (inadequate) homage to some of the restaurants that have shaped me.
It was August in Mumbai, and the sky was a soup of gray. Rills of water striped the roads. Cool panes of rain washed over the city, gilding the dusty browns of summer-weary trees. Through all this pageantry, a woman sat unmoved, a woman heavy with child. The woman ached for only one thing — a frankie.
Soon after she ate the frankie, that woman gave birth — to me. And twined with the gift of life, she apparently also gifted me an unquenchable desire for the frankie.
But the frankie doesn't need my origin stories to sell itself: unctuous, masala-moistened mutton or chicken wrapped in paratha, it makes for an unostentatious yet toothsome snack. It all began when young Mr Tibb, inspired by the falafel, sought to recreate an Indian version. He succeeded in spectacular fashion, dotting the city with Tibb's kiosks; thus clearly proving that Mumbai's inhabitants agree strongly with my mother and me.
Getting there: All over Mumbai.
Acharekar's Malvan Kutta
AMK is not the place for decorous restraint; all dieting resolves flee from me when I am faced with its seafood thalis. The bombil comes cloaked in a crusty mantle of semolina. The Prawns Fry offer up crunch and then chew, in one mouthful. Nimble little mandeli fish are flung into bubbling oil, only to emerge crisp as kindling. Alongside, a katori of sol kadi, lashed with garlic and stained with kokam acts as an emollient to the heat of the spices.
On Sundays, a clot of chatty customers (mostly from neighbouring buildings) furs over the footpath, while the wait staff obligingly hands out chairs for the elderly. Inside, the food is unshowy, the decor even less so. Forego all manner of cutlery - tear and dip and scoop and plunge with your hands. It's the most satisfying way to eat.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/Ln1uCEU21Vp
My uncle bears the inextinguishable marks of a gourmet - a broad waistline, and apple cheeks. A veteran of the food industry, all his trips to Mumbai are punctuated by family visits to Swati, where we dispatch in quick succession, the entire family of Puris — Pani, Dahi, and Sev Batata. Each mouthful is a vivid symphony of crunch and cream, salt and spice and sourness.
But Swati beguiles with so much more. For instance, the panki, soft, lacy savoury rice flour crepes, wrapped into the folds of a banana leaf and steamed. Or the homey fada ni khichdi (khichdi made from cracked wheat). Or the superb handvo. But definitely not the dhansak; Swati's version is abominable.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/5AbK86KChSz
With every bite of food at Paradise, I imbibe the flavours of remembrance. Long-forgotten dishes, found in the pages of my old Time & Talents cookbook, come to life here. Russian Salad. Pilaf Russe. Viennese Mixed Grill. Mutton Salad. Out of the kitchen tumble a brace of Chinese dishes with names like Kowloon Chicken, Peking Rice, Cantonese Chicken. Paradise is a restaurant out of its time. (But there are also Sizzlers, for the modern soul.)
Wedged in between all this is a Weekly Menu, stuffed with all manner of Parsi delicacies. Having never yet plucked up the courage to order the Buccaneer's Delight Sunday special (surely, I am not worthy?), I content myself with the prawn curry rice, the sali marghi (a gravied chicken heaped with crisply-deep fried potato matchsticks), the papeta ma ghosh (potato cooked with mutton). This is comfort food for me, food designed to sate my cravings for my grandmother's kitchen.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/FGptQhmGMj12
Everything about Britannia feels like a tableau from a lost world. Its dusty chandelier beams its light down on the checked tablecloths and bentwood chairs that are so typical of an Irani cafe. Ceiling fans stir the soupy Mumbai air. Foggy portraits of Britain's royal family hang on peeling walls. Once there was even a pet rooster; now there are dogs and a cat. Britannia is, at once, a stirring monument to memory, and a gigantic cliché.
Born nearly a century ago, Britannia is most famous for its beri pulao — a gently-spiced chicken or mutton pulao speckled with fried onions and tart barberries. But I've always gone for its glorious Fry Bombay Duck. Parsis don't flatten the bombil before frying. The result is a plump bombil, flayed by the hot oil, with a crisp carapace and a wobbly belly within. And afterwards, there is always the caramel custard.
Getting there: https://goo.gl/maps/XoueorQyAFD2
Radio Goya goes behind the scenes on the city guides, to get the low down on what didn't make it to print. To listen to Meher Mirza skip to 13:27.
Meher Mirza is an independent writer and editor, with a focus on food and travel. Formerly Features Editor at BBC Good Food India, she has written for international publications like Food52, Roads&Kingdoms, Extra Crispy and Paste. She loves anime, animals and artsy things but also comics, technology and death metal.
Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.
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