Muscle Memories from Mumbai

Vidya Balachander revisits old neighbourhood favourites from a city she called home for 15 years. Despite how much has changed, she finds that food tethers her to the city in ways that extend beyond flavour. Like the heart, the tongue is a muscle that remembers.

Meandering through Bandra on a visit to Mumbai recently, I came to the realisation that my knowledge of the suburb was guided not so much by the achingly hip restaurants or fashion forward boutiques that seem to spring up there every week. Instead, it was intimately informed by the chaat walas I had come to frequent when I lived there — now over a decade ago — and afterwards. 

My pulse quickened when I spotted the guy who stands in a shady lane just off Turner Road, his cart always spotlessly clean, the better to blend into the tony neighbourhood, proudly bearing a certificate from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. A little further down the road in Pali Naka, a congested junction that has a disproportionately high density of eateries, I thought about Punjab Sweet House, a local chaat institution that has outlived transient food fads with its perfectly golden, crisp-edged samosas. Not far from Mehboob Studio, a legendary film studio-turned-performance venue, at the head of a quiet street that once led home, I searched for the cart where I often coped with the frustration and freedom of living alone in the city — with plates of chutney-smothered dahi puri.

Mumbai street food

Three years ago, when I moved to Colombo, my relationship with Mumbai changed in a fundamental way. In the beginning, I visited so often that I could have cheated myself into believing that I had never left. Each time, I would return with a suitcase full of food: paper-thin theplas that I could eat for breakfast, peppery banana chips to cheer me up at teatime, boxes of syrupy jalebis and once, overcome by nostalgia, even a packet of fragile, flaky khari biscuits that promptly turned to dust. Food was my umbilical connection to the city that had nourished, nurtured and challenged me for half a lifetime — and it was a tangible way to cling on to everything familiar and comforting.

Over time, my death grip over the city has loosened to a companionable embrace. My suitcases are no longer heaving with the edible proof of my longing for Mumbai. I gave up on the ephemeral pleasure of watching a khari biscuit crumble soggily into a cup of chai or praying that a packet of pani puri shells survived the flight intact. (They don’t). I had never imagined that it was possible, but I made peace with the fact that Mumbai was not going anywhere, even if I had moved away.

Now that I have just enough distance from Mumbai, it doesn’t feel so much like a minefield of emotions as a map of memories. On my most recent visit, a couple of months ago, I wandered through the cobbled backstreets of ‘town’, as South Mumbai is locally known, mentally checking off all the landmarks I had affixed to it over the years. Not surprisingly, many of those landmarks had to do with food.

One weeknight, my best friend and I drove down the bejeweled Queen’s Necklace and headed to Shiv Sagar, an Udipi restaurant — in local parlance, a south Indian fast food joint that serves idlis, dosas and generic dishes such as pav bhaji — that attracts crowds of late-night feasters. Across the road from the city’s landmark Chowpatty beach, Shiv Sagar is an unremarkable hole-in-the-wall by day that acquires a mysterious draw by night. It stays faithful to the Udipi formula of friendly pricing, sweetened sambar and geographically vague innovations that you’d never find outside Mumbai, such as ‘Mysore sada’ dosas, smeared with a fiery garlic chutney on the inside. Like most Mumbai conveniences that are delivered to your doorstep, a big part of Shiv Sagar’s draw is the luxury of being served ‘gaadi mein’ — or in the comfort of your car.

Many years earlier, when we were still college students, I had laughed at my friend’s fondness for idlis — they were on my family’s breakfast table several times a week. (Besides, having been spoilt by my mother’s deeply savoury, tamarind-enriched sambar, I couldn’t get my head around what passed for it in Mumbai). “Just wait until you’ve tried Shiv Sagar’s idlis,” she had mock challenged me. I no longer remember if it was the warmth of our friendship or the undeniable appeal of a plate of freshly steamed idlis dunked in a large pool of coconut chutney that changed my mind — but an outing to Shiv Sagar became synonymous with that charmed and carefree phase of our lives. This time around, in addition to idlis, we also ordered a ‘pizza’ — a home-style creation of sweetened ketchup on a spongy, readymade pizza base topped with a mound of shredded Amul cheese. It was an instant throwback to the early aughts, when our first tentative trysts with pizza came by way of store-bought crusts and the reassuring blandness of processed cheese.

Idli at Shiv Sagar, Mumbai

A few days after the Shiv Sagar outing, I satisfied a simmering craving for the rich, regional Gujarati cuisine that Soam specialises in. A short walk from the rambling bungalow where my friend Shivi and I first shared a room as penniless producers with a business news channel, Soam was our go-to for ghar ka khaana when the pressures of a loony landlord became overwhelming. There was something comforting about the restaurant’s no-fuss decor, family-style tables and sharing platters of simple but deeply flavourful food, served in metal thalis.

At Soam, we would have our first introduction to little-known regional dishes, long before it became the dining trend du jour. We would always order the fada ni khichdi, a decadent, ghee-soaked dish made of broken wheat — the kind of food that could cure a broken heart — with an extra helping of pickled chillies. Given our abysmal cooking skills at that time (not to mention a kitchenette with dubious plumbing), this khichdi was the closest we could get to comfort food. This time, I broke pieces of crumbly, shortbread-like biscuit bhakris, cooked with dollops of ghee, and dunked them in a pool of dal dhokli, a rustic dish made of uncooked, wholewheat roti pieces simmered in sweet-spicy dal. Around me, large families cheerfully bonded over plates of panki, thin, fermented pancakes steamed in turmeric leaves and dhebras or chewy puris made of bajra flour and studded with sesame seeds. With each comforting mouthful, tasting exactly like I remembered it, I felt the familiar tug of memories I had made here.

Image credit:  The City Story

Image credit: The City Story

In 2011, it was entirely by chance that I ventured into food writing. Being a part of the BBC Good Food India team was at once a steep learning curve and a gratifying one. Our tightly knit team survived long days and nights in the office thanks to a healthy sense of humour — and the occasional outing to Kala Ghoda Cafe.

Tucked deep in the heart of Kala Ghoda, the heritage precinct that lends the cafe its name, Kala Ghoda Cafe started out as a tiny establishment with room only for a couple of tables and a vertiginous mezzanine level. It was a compact space with an equally concise but well-executed menu of hearty and healthful salads and sandwiches. We were all fans of the cafe’s always-dependable coffee, the toothsome multi-grain bread baked in-house and large helpings of the salads to offset our otherwise indulgent eating.

Having turned its lack of space into a unique asset, Kala Ghoda Cafe was the quintessential Mumbai cafe. It has now expanded into a much larger space with warm lighting and a cheerful, Irani cafe vibe. I lingered long after I had met a friend and former colleague there, savouring my usual cappuccino with a side of crisp cheese straws. I spotted many familiar faces among the waitstaff — and they recognised me as well. I marvelled at the fact that although so much had changed, so much else had stayed the same.

Kala Ghoda Cafe, Mumbai

I had always feared that if I left Mumbai, the city would somehow race ahead without me, leaving me lost and floundering in its wake. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Food has a surprising way of tethering us to places. You may lose touch with it — like you might with swimming or cycling — but muscle memory ensures that you never forget. The tongue — like the heart — is a muscle after all. It remembers.

Vidya Balachander is a freelance journalist currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Formerly the features editor of BBC Good Food's India edition, her writing has appeared in publications such as NPR's The Salt, Roads & Kingdoms, National Geographic Traveller, Mint Lounge and others. Although she routinely eats 'fancy' food, her heart lies in good filter coffee, crisp ghee dosas and silken dal.