The Bombay Canteen reinventing the dessert for Mumbaikars
Two chefs and an ice-cream maker put their heads together to bring childhood’s saccharine memories to the table
The chefs at hard-to-bag-a-reservation-at The Bombay Canteen estimate that only about six per cent of their patrons order dessert. “At most, 30 per cent will end their meal with something meetha. Indians don’t always order dessert,” says chef Floyd Cardoz, hinting at the fear of sugar that has us in its grip at the moment.
Culinary director Cardoz, executive chef Thomas Zacharias and ice-ceam maker Kunali Dattoobhai are collaborators on the sweet culinary delights at the Lower Parel eatery inspired by India, and Mumbai specifically, Cardoz’s hometown. And to tempt us to end our meals on a sweet note, they have revamped the dessert menu. “It extends the philosophy of the main menu — familiar Indian food with seasonal and few ingredients but made in a European way,” says Cardoz. By European, they mean the element of restraint that is lacking in our deep-fried, double cream, soaked in sugar syrup mithais; tempering of the sweet, juxtaposing flavours, alternating textures and the introduction of seasonal, fresh elements.
Dessert is a tricky detail, as the last taste to linger after a meal. “It’s the end of the meal, so if it doesn’t work out well, it can spoil the whole experience,” says Cardoz. That’s also the reason they stayed away from ‘molecular’ experiments and decided to twist childhood favourites. There too they had to be certain not to drive so far away from a familiar flavour that patrons would be disappointed.
Dattoobhai invents the dishes, bringing her European flair — a gulab jamun shaped like a donut; aam-panna paste; chikki or brittle, but with salted cashews and peanuts and pistachio cream. Then there is a tasting, always after lunch so that they know how much space they have to eat dessert.
Inspired by Datoobhai’s childhood memories of suttarfeni, the sutarpheri mill-fooey with lime custard has vermicelli-thin suttarfeni discs sandwiching tart lemon curd
“But the selection is a democratic process,” says Cardoz. “We all try the creation and then vote. If we served only what I like, we’d have only one person eating here.” He is hinting at the jackfruit with roasted cashew ice cream that guests didn’t dig as much as he did. “We had a peru tart,” explains 30-year-old Zacharias, “that was a hit because again, peru with salt and spice is such an emotional and familiar flavour for Indians. But guavas were going out of season...” “And I love jackfruit,” says Cardoz. So they chose a plump section of the yellow, fragrant fruit, in the prime of its life, sliced it up and served it with roasted cashew ice-cream.
We suspect Zacharias is not as much a sugar-worshipper as the others on the table. Dattoobhai, with her roots in Geneva and Singapore needs a piece of dark chocolate every day. “But in our home stood many fridges, and in those fridges were stocks of suttarfeni and boondi brought by various relatives from Kenya, where my grandparents lived,” says the 36-year-old. “We used to eat suttarfeni with thick, Swiss double cream. Lemon tart is another memory of childhood. There used to be one waiting for us very often when we came from school.” It’s these two memories which she has brought together in the Sutarpheri mill-fooey with lime custard — crisp, flaky, almost vermicelli-like suttarfeni discs sandwiching tart lemon curd. “What I wanted to recreate was the crispness of the suttarfeni,” she says.
Zacharias’s favourite dessert — trifle pudding with sitaphal cream — is currently in the modulation phase. “We are still tweaking it,” says the 29-year-old. “We connected the custard to the custard apple, but it’s too rich so now we have to temper it. It is one of my favourites from childhood. My grandmother used to make it and what’s delicate to achieve is the balance of flavours.” In the group, Zacharias doesn’t order dessert, but samples everyone else’s.
Cardoz is the one who samples everyone’s and sometimes finishes it too. “I have two favourites on the menu — the coffee rasgulla (with salted caramel ice-cream and cashew chikki) and the gulab nut,” says the 54-year-old. “When I was a trainee chef at the Taj, we used to have these gulab jamuns stuffed with nuts and saffron in the centre. On every trip to the fridge, I’d just put my hand in and scoop one into my mouth, with the saffron juice streaming down my chin. I don’t know whether anyone noticed I was stealing them! Here, we’ve taken the gulab jamun and shaped it like a donut, which is again a familiar shape in my part of the world (Cardoz has been based in the US for 25 years) and soaked it with Old Monk rum, which we all love and comes as a kick in the end.” The dry-fruit element comes in the form of pistachio cream centre.
His other memory is of rasgullas that his father would bring back from business trips to Calcutta. “They have a unique spongy texture, which we didn’t want to mess with,” says the Master Chef 3 winner, who graduated from Dadar’s Institute of Hotel Management. Instead of the heavy sugar syrup, the chenna balls are soaked with refreshing coffee, topped with cashewnut chikki. “Chikki is another thing from my childhood in Bandra,” Cardoz says. “A chikkiwallah would come with an aluminium tray on his head, and used something like a pickaxe to shatter the sheet. I’d buy 25-paise worth of channa or peanut chikki; the same amount of cashew chikki would cost Re 1. Once a week, he would make it in a special way with a lot more air mixed into it. That’s how we make it here. Chikki is popular in the US too; only they call it brittle. When I tell chefs there we grew up with it, they think I am sophisticated!”
It is a common complaint among Mumbai patisserie chefs that we like too much chocolate. Surprisingly, there is no chocolate on the trio’s menu. “We just wanted to go with fresher flavour and Indian favourites,” says Zacharias, pushing his plate of coffee rasgulla towards Cardoz for the finish.