Kala Ghoda chaat

Coming Back For More

Down Memory Lane

“Come, let’s eat pani puri.” That sentence is intrinsic to one of my most cherished food memories. It involves my mother, my grandmother, and a pair of street food stalls in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda district.

I first started eating at the Sanjay sandwich and Gupta chaat stalls during long afternoons spent in the area with Ma and Ammi. Frustrated with fifth-grade homework and tired of household duties, the three of us would put our responsibilities on hold and treat ourselves to some time off. I’d browse the aisles of the local music store while they would check out saris in the neighbouring shop. Eventually, they’d come find me, and Ammi would say those five magic words, leading the way to the stalls.

Between the three of us, we’d get through servings of pani puri, sev puri and hot aloo-cheese toasts and wash it all down with cold, tall glasses of ganna (sugar cane) juice. We wouldn’t talk much for those few minutes, but there was a palpable sense of carefree contentment that ran through us.

We don’t go there together as often any more, with Ammi getting older. But our trysts with those snacks continue, spurred mainly by my memories of the place. When in the area, I always make it a point to stop by for a quick dose of chutney-laden crunch and butter-slathered goodness and pack something up to take home.

I realised that I go back to places and foods because of the people I associate with them. Engaging with others and sharing those experiences has left a deep imprint on my gastronomic memories.

In the case of the sandwich and chaat stalls, every visit takes me back to those afternoons with Ma and Ammi. It’s my most vivid memory of the three of us together — before I got busy with school and work and grew old enough to start going out on my own.

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Home Away From Home

While I was working in Hong Kong last year, my colleagues and I would frequently order lunch from a dabba (lunch box) service that served great North Indian dishes. We’d get a WhatsApp message every morning with a choice of five sabjis (vegetables) to pick from, which my colleague Abhi and I would then try to break down for our American and Chinese co-workers. We’d get questions like, “What is saag?” or “Will the paneer chilli be very spicy?” and then do our best to explain things like the smokiness of the bharta, or what Amritsari wadi tastes like. When our vocabulary failed us, we’d google the items and show them pictures. Once the orders were placed, the wait began, and our stomachs growled angrily as we waited for the call to go pick up the dabbas from the nearby train station.

We’d eat at our desks on most days, but on the slow ones we’d eat together — sampling what everyone had ordered. My colleagues would weigh in on which sabjis they found the most spicy; we’d talk about how the dabbas compared with the other Indian food available in Hong Kong and how local Chinese desserts were nowhere as sweet as the gulab jamun and ras malai included in the meal. Far away from home, I found that the dabbas provided me with a sense of communal comfort that I associate with ghar ka khana (home food) and eating with family.

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Journey of Feasts

The jowar barley salad at The Bombay Canteen. Photo: Mallika Chandra
The jowar barley salad at The Bombay Canteen. Photo: Mallika Chandra

It started with the jowar barley salad, a mix of puffed grains served with a hung curd dressing that was flecked with pumpkin and pomegranate seeds. It’s something that I usually wouldn’t have ordered, but I was convinced to try it because of the earnestness and enthusiasm of the person serving it, as he particularly described its textures and flavours. I’m glad I took his advice, because he introduced me to a whole new idea of what salad could be, and it got me curious about what else I could try at The Bombay Canteen.

I started going back there whenever there was a change in the menu inspired by seasonal produce. My frequent visits even helped me become friends with the restaurant team, and their passion for how they approached the menu came through in our conversations. We’d chat about the upcoming items they were planning to introduce, and if I was lucky, I’d get to sample something that was being tested. Staff members would excitedly talk about trips taken — across Odisha, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, the North East — and the ingredients and inspirations they brought back with them.

I recall a chef coming over to explain the provenance of an Odia dish I’d ordered. The dahi bada aloo dum, a combination of chaas-soaked vadas and a potato curry, comes from a part of Odisha that produces large quantities of milk. Excess milk is converted into dahi and then used to make chaas (buttermilk), in which urad dal vadas are dunked and served with aloos. The popular item has variations, the chef said, such as at one local stall, where they serve the dish with three kinds of chaas — plain, spicy and sweet. “Another place serves such spicy aloo dum that the guy started offering pedas (a semi-soft sweet typically made from khoya, sugar and traditional flavourings) with it for people who couldn’t handle the heat,” he said with a grin. That explained the mithai on my plate.

Published in Verve – February-March 2020

Photos: Mallika Chandra

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