Every bylane in Mumbai’s Fort precinct bears an unmistakable stamp of cosmopolitanism, laced with countless tales of bygone times and working classes dreams. However, these dreams need grub to feed on, and this is what a Mangalorean man from humble beginnings did: to feed fellow dreamers as they toiled in the big city.
KC Amin, an enterprising dishwasher, cook, and eventually, restaurateur has been feeding Mumbaikars with seafood par excellence at the five-decade-old Pratap Lunch Home. “My father worked as a dishwasher at a tea house in Grant Road with Suneil Shetty’s father. In 1961, his guru Bhagawan Nityananda from Ganeshpuri ordered him to serve food to people.” As we sip on one of the best Sol Kadis we’ve tasted in the city, Prashant Amin, our host and co-owner, leads us in to their kitchen tales.
Our brush with the Amin hospitality begins with a lip-smacking line-up — Chicken Sukka, King Prawns Chau Chu, Fish Tikka Kalamari and Pomfret King Fry with Neer Dosa. Amin senior would look over every aspect — from buying fish to cooking with the staff in the kitchen.
At that time, dishes such as Chicken Sukka were served, but like the décor that was jazzed up three years ago, Amin has been introducing new dishes through his experimentations as he did last year. “We have been innovating with our menu, space and image,” he adds. Meanwhile, Amin drops a surprise — in his 20s, he was a musician who would hang about Atomic Forest, one of Mumbai’s first Rock bands.
By now, we sample the popular Chicken Sukka, which we are told, has been cooked the same way for 53 years. Post the spicy, dense and rich treat, we made room for the pomfret and fish tikka dishes. The pomfret is one of the trickiest to be cooked across Mumbai’s seafood kitchens; Amin admits that mostly green masala doesn’t stick to the fish but he has managed a yum feast. Our favourite is the melt-in-mouth Fish Tikka, laced with peppered goodness. The fish here is always bought fresh, reason why patrons visit even during the monsoon.
There was no permit room until 1986; today, it is a safe, relaxed haven for women to enjoy their tipple. Thanks to a reasonably priced alcohol menu, families, professionals and tourists alike throng the place. Our joyful soiree ends with the delish Rose Kulfi that hit the right note, like everything else. “I keep on cooking. Since 1961, we’ve introduced Chinese, Mughlai, Punjabi and South Indian cuisines. Dishes like Chau Chu are attempts to fuse Chinese flavours with Mangalorean cooking,” he summarises, saluting his father’s legacy, amid the glory.
Lunch Home Specials
. A young Prashant Amin had once hitched a trip to Lonavala with several Parsi boys of his age. While cooking the chicken, the Parsis had made it so spicy that it inspired Amin to create a fiery version of his own.
. The walls of Pratap bear Mario Miranda-esque cartoons, Amin admits. He liked the legend’s artworks and wanted something similar in his own restaurant.
. A cook named Pujari who was trained by KC Amin, is still around.
. The Amin brothers (Prashant and Pratap) are toying with the idea of opening a branch in the suburbs as most offices in the precinct have moved out.
Fort, despite being a business district, is packed with old-world character. Precisely why we stumbled upon Cafe Military that opened shop in 1933. Popular for its Kheema as it is for the no-frills ambiance, it was a frequent stop for writer Salman Rushdie and cricketer Dilip Vengsarkar.
To delve deep into its illustrious history, city historian Deepak Rao plays delightful guide to the Irani restaurant. “Café Military opened when this building, Ali Chambers was erected in 1933. An Irani gentleman, who was the present owner, Behram Khosravi’s father, bought this beautiful corner plot. At that time, Hindus didn’t buy corner plots because as per vastu shastra, they considered these plots inauspicious,” informs Rao, a regular here.
In the early decades, the café’s menu served primarily European food with cold cuts, salads, egg fry and sandwiches such that Kheema was referred to as mince. But when Behram Khosravi took over the reigns in 1952, he added a few more items including mutton, chicken, biryanis, and mince was rechristened Kheema.
As we devoured the non-greasy and generous portions of Kheema with homemade bread and sipping to their refreshing Palonji raspberry cola (a familiar sight in Irani cafes), we were enamoured by the stuck-in-time vibe. Even the servers have been around for decades like Yusuf Anware, their oldest staffer who’s been with the owner since 46 years.
“I wanted this place to retain its charm and hence I didn’t renovate it. Even the glass paintings near the seating area were installed in 1933 and are still there. I didn’t want to spend lakhs of rupees to change this place, which would take away its identity and also leave us in a situation where it would be difficult to recover that money,” reveals Khosravi, who is now helped by one of his sons, Shahriar in the daily affairs of the café.
While most items are divided into special days when they get served, Kheema is available from 8 am to 11 pm. So, take a walk down history while gobbling authentic Parsi fare.
How did Military Café get its name?
The place where Café Military stands was called Meadows Street (now Nagindas Master Road), which extended up to Rhythm House. Perpendicular to it are Ash Lane, Oak Lane and Bell Lane, named after the municipal counselors of the pre-Independence era and then comes the Military Square Lane, near Kala Ghoda. It was where the military would parade, and that’s how Café Military earned its name. Also, at that time, a board outside the café read ‘In bounds for military and navy’, meaning that military and navy personnel could eat here and it was health-certified by the military. No wonder, it was popular among the military and navy. — Deepak Rao