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Bombay on a plate

catherine rhea roy | Updated on February 08, 2020 Published on February 07, 2020

Holding fort: At a time when Irani cafes are on a decline, Kayani still has its regular patrons frequenting the place for its bun maska and chai, a staple in these restaurants   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Dishoom, authored by the founders of the eponymous London-based chain of restaurants, is a love letter to Mumbai’s culinary traditions and eccentricities

The chalk blue hardcover of the cookbook Dishoom: From Bombay with Love underscores old-world charm, and the deeply embossed gold lettering of the title is reminiscent of an heirloom. The book, by the founders of the eponymous London-based chain of restaurants, is another brick in the legacy that Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir have built over a decade.

The cookbook tells the story of Bombay, categorically not Mumbai — of eccentric Irani cafés and Parsi dairies, Art Deco façades and Gothic elevations, the tired cornices and bored curlicues of south Bombay that continue to drip-feed inspiration and imagination centuries on. The Irani cafés, in particular, were subversive — in that, beneath the high ceilings and the laboured but cooling breath of the fans there was no room for the discriminatory biases that were common at most establishments of the Bombay Gymkhana era. Dishoom, the restaurant, adopted this ethos and went beyond the mandate of simply serving Londoners good food and drink; they wanted to create a culture that accommodated all traditions.

The narrative follows a day-long exploration of South Bombay in an itinerary designed by the authors to mark every cornerstone of eating out and their combined childhoods — Kyani and Co, Yazdani Bakery & Restaurant, Britannia & Co, Paris Bakery, and Koolar & Co, Bademiya, Samovar and so on.

The narrative is ridden with the combined nostalgia of the grandmother’s kitchen and the homesick desi diaspora — a deadly, deep love that is often excessive and bordering, at times, on overkill.

However, it would be myopic to disregard the objective of this book, which is to complement the larger, more intimate story of Dishoom the restaurant. Alongside the personal, the authors also explore the city, its colonial history and the various political actors and industrial alchemists who have nudged and shaped Bombay as we know it.

The most fascinating story perhaps is that of the ingenious Premchund Roychund, who rose quickly in wealth and rank as the Cotton King when civil war broke out in America in 1861. Overnight, the supply of cotton from the Southern slave states to the mills in Lancashire, Britain, was disrupted and the panicked mill owners looked towards Bombay. The city was inundated with capital and sent the markets into a frenzy.

The bubble of speculation consumed finance companies, banks, reclamation companies, and various other players. But the civil war ended in 1856, and the bubble burst — unceremoniously spitting out poor and rich businessmen including Roychund, bankrupt and shorn of his title.

Dishoom: From Bombay with Love; Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar, Naved Nasir; Bloomsbury; Non-fiction; ₹1,099

Coming back to the cookbook, in the opening pages the authors leave a post-script for those new to Indian cookery: “Seek enlightenment here”. The lessons range from the precise moment to pour beaten eggs to a pan and exact instructions on how to mop the grease and masala of chicken liver off the pan with bread. They inform readers that the butter in bun maska should be fridge-cold so it melts when dunked into a cup of hot chai and the deliciousness of pav bhaji is directly proportional to the largesse with which one adds the butter.

The book gives tips on the best way in and out of Mohammed Ali Road (via Bohri Mohalla and begin at the northern end of Mutton Street) and points out that chai is tea and for that reason one must never say chai tea.

The recipes cover a wholesome spread including, but not limited to, the Parsi kitchens, Irani cafés, Chowpatty and Mohammed Ali Road, and are organised neatly and clearly — based on the time of day, location, and the elasticity of the stomach that miraculously expands to accommodate a first, second and third dinner.

In some cases, when the recipes require not only a standardised process but also an additional level of craft, like the folding of a samosa, or the rolling of the bedmi puri or Malabar paratha, the makers have provided the reader with a handy step-by-step guide that is revelatory even for those familiar with the dishes. The features skim the basics and go right to the heart of Indian food, making for a vibrant mix of the north and south that come together in a menu that is truly representative of the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay.

But conspicuous by its absence is the sugarcane juice stall near the Metro Cinema subway, which, with a squeeze of lime, is the elixir of the gods on an Indian summer afternoon; and the Bombay sandwichc at the stall beside St Xavier’s College.

The authors have been thorough in bookmarking the restaurants and cafés against the business, politics, art and architecture of the city. They have painstakingly curated a personal history of a bygone era, and the rickety institutions, the last few threads that hold the tapestry together.

They introduce us to the gatekeepers of these cultural and historic landmarks, but, most important, they let us into their kitchen — we are now in on their secrets and unwittingly become a part of their legacy, too. Special mention must be made of the ‘recommended reading’ provided at the end — it is a list that would help a reader know Bombay more intimately.

Catherine Rhea Roy is a Delhi-based writer

Published on February 07, 2020
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