A young woman recently chided me for not being in touch with Mumbai street food.
I had just described my experience with a somewhat unconventional rendering of a Frankie at the Frankie.e stall outside Hinduja College Lane. Unlike the official Tibbs Frankie outlets which offer 4-6 chicken and vegetarian variants, the renegade Frankie.e offers around 55 vegetarian varieties, of which ten are Jain and nine Manchurian Frankies.
Throwing caution to the wind (I was scheduled to give a TEDx on the Myth of Authenticity in Food talk two days later!) I ordered the Veg Manchurian Frankie. I watched, equally aghast and amazed, as the cook squeezed out from a plastic sachet first mayonnaise, then a spicy hot sauce on to the roti and mixed them into a ‘pink sauce’ (India is the only country where I’ve found mayonnaise being heated and used as a hot sauce). On this he arranged a mashed potato patty; brick-red chopped mixed vegetable balls, red noodles; chopped raw cabbage and onions; Szechwan sauce; chilli vinegar and dry mango and chilli powder. The only question running through my mind when he handed it to me was: ‘I’m going to be on stage in 2 days, should I even be eating this?’ I did, I survived.
In a way, the young woman was right. I am not as much in touch with street food because as much as I have changed, so has my city. In my younger, more impoverished days, when I didn’t eat out as much and the only luxury I had was time, and because I enjoyed it, I’d usually walk to, or from, my destination. I’d eaten at most of the vendors south of VT, Dadar, Nariman Point and Churchgate.
But then the municipality got its act together and most of the khao gallis were shut. Hardest hit were those around Nariman Point and Fountain. The ones that have remained do different kinds of chaat or pulaos. Nothing that catches my attention in the way that the inexplicable Lockchin rice and Shissir Rice at Hotspot Chinese did fifteen years ago.
The students from the curatorial team of TEDx Hinduja were greatly amused by my description of the Frankie experience and piped in with a number of other equally unusual dishes available around their habitat. They even enthusiastically offered to take me on a food walk around the college. An offer I couldn’t possibly refuse.
And this was the itinerary laid out for Antoine Sir.
I’ve always known Masala Pav to be a pav stuffed with potato bhaji prepared for pav bhaji. As it turns out there’s another interpretation for it: torn up pieces of pav cooked in a tomato gravy with onions and capsicums. It’s also called pav upma because of the texture which is nowhere close to an upma. Copious quantities of grated cheese are to give it an international touch – after all what is a pizza but bread, tomato sauce and cheese.
My guides want to recreate a Masterchef moment and ask how it could be improved. I foolishly suggest adding baby corn for crunch, and this is duly communicated to the manager. He looks appropriately baffled in response.
I should have suggested they grill the cheese.
Tara Baug Sweet Mart
Most of the farsan at Tara Baug Sweet Mart is the standard dhokla, khaman, khandvi etc. The two unusual farsan were the onion samosas, and the pathrode which flavoured with jaggery and imli had a sweetish taste. Almost all the pathrode/ patra/ alu vadi I’ve eaten before, whether it’s the Maharasthran, Gujarati or Mangalorean version has always been spicy.
Fafda and Khamani
Tata Road 2 which is diagonally opposite Tara Baug is a narrow, crowded lane over run with pedestrians and two wheelers. While there are many stalls right through the lane the thickest knot of people are around one counter. A nameless one selling what’s clearly the hot favourite in the evening: Surti Sev Khamani. It’s so crowded that though the turnaround for each batch is not more than a few minutes, we have to wait more than 15 minutes for our order.
We decide to order a plate of fafda in the meantime – it’s a chickpea overdose, but the Gujaratis aren’t complaining. I find the paper thin crisps made from a spiced dough quite boring. The tangy kadi and the sour raw papaya chuntey add some flavour, but not enough to appease my taste buds. The kids are more than happy to finish my share.
The process for Khaman Dhokla and Khamani seems to be the same: a lightly leavened, spiced chickpea batter is first steamed into a fluffy bread. Khamani is prepared by further crumbling the bread (I’m guessing this was a way to deal with left over khaman, or to convert it into a drier form thus extending its shelf life), stir-frying it with a green chilli baghar and then topping it with sev and chopped coriander. It’s an enjoyable snack that plays mostly on textures; the soft, crumbled khamani and the crunchy sev, with an underlying sourness.
Not so much upside down as a pizza pocket where a ready-made pizza bread is cut in half and sliced in the centre to create two pockets. A mix of chopped onions, capsicum, ready-made tomato ragu, mixed dried herbs and plenty of grated cheese is stuffed into these pockets and then baked in a hot oven till the cheese melts. Each pocket is cut into two and a generous serving of butter is slathered on before serving. The dense, incoherent medley of flavours could only be appreciated by a hungry student with no money, but a large appetite.
Panch Pani Wallah Pani Puri
‘In Bombay they terrible pani puri,’ the Surtis complain. ‘We were so disappointed when we came to Bombay and had the pani puri,’ this one is closer to what we get at home, but still not as good. I’m already quite stuffed but I know I won’t be forgiven if I don’t partake of this Uisce beatha. So for only the third time in my life I have a pani puri. Each of the waters does have a distinct taste, my favourite, quite unexpectedly, is the Hajma Hajam. I’m usually not fond of salt-sour spice mixes, but in this case it actually works. The Surtis don’t quite approve of the use of boondi instead of potato but appreciate the absence of a hot ragda filling.
I’ve always thought that street food reflected the zeitgeist as closely and as aptly as sit-down restaurants. On this trail we had effortlessly segued between the local and traditional, and the ahistorical and imagined. I’m not at all surprised though, since we have over centuries developed an easy practice of absorption and reinterpretation, bending the alien to suit our palate and recreating the familiar in the image of the exotic.
Perhaps the young woman was right; it’s time for me to walk the streets again.