As one engaged in some heavy-duty weekend clearing within the hallowed bookshelf, a nondescript paperback, Flavours: A Selective Guide to Eateries in Bombay by American diplomat Diana Proeschel and cultural affairs specialist Saroj Merani, caught the eye. One can’t deny that its retro jacket (printed in 1988; these days, any reminder from the 1980s and earlier falls into the bracket) read nostalgia all over.
And rightly so, it was a prelude to a wonderful culinary ride through the city’s corners and contours. For starters, the great Mario Miranda’s cartoons graced its pages; these did a fantastic job to recreate the mood of the time and place, with this trademark subtle humour and of course, the right dash of ‘Bombay’.
The book was packed with delightful insights about legendary city restaurants and eateries — many of the names we’d only heard of from veteran foodies. Each page of this little gem took us back in time, complete with maps of the zoomed-into area (we are talking pre-Google Maps era here), giving the reader a fair idea of the cluster of such spaces, especially in Fort, Colaba and Churchgate.
This was turning out to be a gastronomic eye-opener. We were treated to nuggets of information about tiny and extravagant kitchens — several came with fascinating stories of entrepreneurial folk lore, about dishwashers and orphans sailing in overcrowded boats or surviving ticketless train travel to reach the city of dreams, only to make their own, eventually.
The compilation made for a terrific history lesson, of how the city’s restaurants, cafes and eateries — big and small, had evolved and created a unique aroma that combined flavours of the city’s sights, smells and sounds along with those from India’s length and breadth, and beyond, if we consider the Chinese and Irani families who set up restaurants in the city.
Apart from these communities, the city in the 1980s was the perfect melting pot — with a mix of Muslim, Goan, Sindhi, Maharashtrian, Gujarati and Kutchi, North and South Indian, and Mangalorean restaurants.
Along the way, as one began to take stock of their present whereabouts, a big chunk didn’t seem to exist anymore. So today, a little over 25 years later, we see a changed food-scape, with a sprinkling of these community flavours to savour from.
Clearly, as far as numbers of homegrown community restaurants on the city’s foodie map go, the figure isn’t appetising. Exceptions include the handful of attempts across the city and its new suburbs, but mostly in the high-end, specialty cuisine segment.
Beyond this, one rarely comes across similar success stories akin to those we found in that compilation, about restaurateurs from the hinterland, the coast and beyond who would risk it all to dish out their authentic flavours, cooking methods and recipes to Mumbai’s foodies.
Where have they vanished? Has the lure of more lucrative businesses stemmed the tide? Have we possibly seen the last of the Pratap Lunch Homes, the Britannias and the Bade Miyans?
We hope not. Mumbai’s cosmopolitan spirit could do with an extra helping for and from its countless communities.
— The writer is FeaturesEditor, MiD DAY