So long, Mumbai's culinary history

The news cut the muggy June air like a knife. We had just been privy the information that one of Mulund’s oldest Udipi restaurants was on the threshold of selling off a section of its prime space to a fast food chain.

This kind of stuff happens everyday, right? And yes it was happening with alarming regularity. This development wasn’t a sudden occurrence in the once-quaint, culturally-rich suburb that Mulund used to be, The eastern suburb has been in the grip of an unchecked construction for over a decade now. Nostalgic mumbo-jumbo or otherwise, it reflects a blueprint that’s been replicated in most of our suburbs.

Across Mumbai, slices of culinary history, reminiscent and representative of its diverse communities and rich legacies, are being chipped into by the seamless, faceless commercialisation. The latest victim in this didn’t seem to have too many options left. Labour issues, rising costs of basic essentials, footfalls and the lure of glitzy restaurants (complete with its entourage of unpronounceable dishes on tome-like menus) — clearly, too high a wall to climb for the humble, community eatery. The last reason, is too heady a cocktail for the nouveau riche suburbanite to resist, somebody who is eager to play catch-up with the SoBoite.

The suburbs ought to take its culinary heritage more seriously. And serve it with a sense of pride for the rest. Sad then, to find more patrons dine at a restaurant that serves a ghastly cross between Gujarati and South Indian cuisine in comparison to any other eatery in the locality that has been whipping up authentic goodies for decades in less-flashy environs. It’s the same story in any of the ‘made-over’ suburbs that have fallen prey to mall revolutions and the like.

The story isn’t any better as one moves southward. There was a time when the bustling Bazaargate area sandwiched between the General Post Office and the Mint was thriving with tiny eateries that served delicious, simple meals for thousands of home-sick folk who had made the city their home, including dock workers and bonded labourers who could barely afford two square meals in a day. Khanavals, Hindu hotels, Udipis, as well as Keralite and Goan joints shared space in almost every turn and corner building.
Not any more. The few that survive today stand out like an oasis in this fast-changing cityscape. Their tales of struggle echo the sentiment that emerges from the kitchens of that Mulund Udipi and community-driven eateries elsewhere.

In such scenarios it’s heartwarming to note that Dhobi Talao, Bhendi Bazaar and Kings Circle remain some of the few areas to have held their own in the community kitchen space. Pockets of Ballard Estate, Prarthana Samaj and Dadar also provide for droplets of hope. For how long?

For one, it’s tough to stem the tide of fate that befalls restaurateurs like the Mulund Udipi. But as a city that claims to be a haven for the eclectic, chilled-out foodie, one can begin by patronising these last bastions of culinary pride. Each of these, one has to add here, has been responsible in its own small way, for adding to the potpourri that is typically, Mumbai. Food trails, titles on community-inspired cooking and neighbourhood food festivals are small steps in the right direction.

The need of the hour is to act positively, and to support these invaluable institutions that are dying a slow death in a city that rather ironically, swears by its food.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY¬†

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