My Golden Rules
I don’t know about you but I am not a big one for going out to restaurants by myself when I am in town. Unlike when I am discovering a new land. It’s different then.
I was home a couple of days back and was in two minds about trying out this new Mexican place at Khar. It was new and therefore interesting. One doesn’t eat Mexican too often. Seemed a tempting proposition. But I was not sure. Something didn’t seem right. I felt that it would not meet the formula I used so well while trying out new places at Penang recently. Family owned. Local food. Frequented by locals. Fresh food. Crowded. I had a feeling that a Mexican place in the middle of the suburbs of Mumbai wouldn’t click on any of these counts. I had high expectations from Mexican food after the way the cameras of Discovery T&L romanced the markets of Mexico City. And after Bourdain’s epic depiction of the meal that he had at a ranch at Mexico in ‘A Cook’s Tour’. I sort of knew that I’d be disappointed at the place at Khar. Yet I went there after debating with myself on a treadmill in the gym. I reached at 3.20 PM and was rudely told by a thug that the place was shut. I pointed out the notice which said that lunch hours were up to 3.30 PM. The thug said that a few minutes here and there don’t matter. And the inconvenient truth was that there were no customers. I left. Happy that the decision was taken for me. I didn’t feel sad.
A little bit of Punjabi Lovin
I did need options for lunch. Post work out hunger pangs were beginning to get a bit impatient. That’s when I crossed by Pali Naka at Bandra and saw good old Punjab Sweets. Epiphany struck. Punjab Sweets had recently opened a small restaurant section. I thought I’ll try it out.
Now Punjab Sweets met all the points in my checklist. It was family run and ethnic too. You would normally see a genial Sikh uncle at the cash counter. It had stood the test of time. I remember seeing it ever since I moved into Bandra. More than ten years back. I lived opposite it for five years. It is frequented by locals. I often go there and meekly thrust out my hand for my order of two jalebis and a samosa while jostled by well fed Sindhi and Punjabi matrons buying laddoos by the kilo. Well, Punjab Sweets, met all my criteria. The lunch that followed proved that this was a pretty good checklist.
The restaurant section is new and is at the mezzanine floor. I expected it to be dingy, smelly and musty as such places turn out to be in Mumbai. It wasn’t. It was clean. Small and cosy. Air conditioned and pleasant. Soothing yellow lights. Comfortable sofas. Faux Punjabi pictures on the wall. Polite waiters. There was a sense of calm and serenity which seemed so far removed from the chaotic traffic of Pali Naka. Most importantly, decent lighting for food photography.
The restaurant was vegetarian. Brought up in the 80s on off colour jokes such as “What is the national bird of Khalistan? … Tandoori Chicken”, it was once hard for me to think of Punjabi food as being vegetarian. The secessionist Khalistan movement died down in the 90s. I moved in as a Paying Guest with Hindu Punjabis at Mumbai who were vegetarian. And later travelled to Punjab on work and ate at the vegetarian Vaishno dhabas of Ludhiana. Yes, there is a lot more to Punjabi food than tandoori chicken and chicken tikka.
Food that makes you want to do the Bhangda
I went through the menu card at Punjab Sweets and first ordered a jaal jeera. A digestive drink served in Punjabi restaurants with little boondis (gram flour balls) floating on the top. Some say you are supposed to slurp the boondis through the straw at the end. I missed the Hot Chinese Tea of Malaysia and thought I would make do with the cooling drink from the Poonjab instead.
I started off my lunch with what was described as Dilli’s papdi chaat. A chaat is more a snack item in this case made with papdi (deep fried flour discs), potatoes, sweet chutney, sour curd and masalas. I fell in love with papdi chaat a few years back at Delhi’s Khan Market. I have tried it a few times at Mumbai since then and was disappointed each time. The papdi chaat at Punjab Sweets, which they also sell at the counter at the ground floor, was a pleasant surprise. It rekindled memories of the time I fell in love. When I left behind a piece of my heart at the chaat wallah of Khan Market. The padpdi chaat at Punjab Sweets evoked the same saccharine romance of melodramatic Bollywood films as the chaat at Delhi did. I don’t know if a pucca (true) Delhi’ite would agree but the papdi chaat at Punjab Sweets worked for me. It was colourful. Heady. Held you in it’s spell.
I was sort of stuffed by the time I finished the cold chaat. But I am a bit conventional when it comes to food. ‘Lunch’ registers in my tummy only when it is hot. So I ordered Kulche Chhole Amritsarwalle.
I first tasted kulchha while taking the Golden Shatabdi train from Delhi to Amristsar. I really enjoyed this Punjabi soft bread which I had for the first time then. Rarely does train food lead to joy and ecstasy. But then this was the land of the Punjabis. A race which unabashedly worships and celebrates food.
The kulche chhole arrived pretty soon. I eagerly broke a piece of the kulcha. It was piping hot. Finger burning hot. Singeing hot. And I loved it. The weather outsidde was wet and cool. This was just what one needed. The Kulchas were soft and, as I soon discovered, had a well flavoured, light potato filling. A pleasant surprise. More happiness after you thought you were already inside the gates of heaven.
The chhole was cooked just right. The balance of salt, spice and sour in the sauce was divine. I have had chholes at other places in Mumbai but few matched up to the standard of the chhole at Punjab Sweets. Except the one that my PG aunty used to make. Punjabis are the only race to have romanced chick peas with the same passion and ardour as those in the Mediterranean. The cooks at Punjab sweets lived up to this tradition. The searing hot, freshly made kulchha with the warm and soulful chhole went perfectly with the beauty of a Mumbai monsoon afternoon.
I left feeling very happy. I complimented the chirpy and bashful Sikh Uncle at the counter on the way. Almost tweaked his cheeks. It is rare to come across food that makes you sing. A few more bites and I would have jumped up from the table, thrown my legs up, twirled my handkerchief and yelled ‘Hadipa’ in the best tradition of a Bhangda dancer. Bengali Bhadrolok be damned. Luckily better sense prevailed and I went home smiling. And bumped into our former Miss Universe neighbour looking ravishing in pink at the entrance to our building. Neighbourly courtesy prevents me from naming her, but she is not the Bengali one.
Batting for Bridget
Note: I would not recommend a person to eat all of what I had for lunch. It was too much for one person. But Mumbai restaurants are not geared for people eating by themselves. No system of one person/ two person/ three person here unlike in the Chinese restaurants of Malaysia or Singapore. So you are damned into obesity or into wasting food if you are eating alone at Mumbai and feel like eating more than one dish. I wish someone would do something about this. Eating alone need not lead to social ostracism for God’s sake.