Gorging in Girgaum and other tales

Published: Sep 15, 2019, 05:22 IST | Meher Marfatia | Mumbai

Old community kitchens east of Charni Road continue cooking traditional feasts for the working class and well-heeled

Neil Bastani, proprietor of the 90-year-old Daryush Bakery on Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road, with Farah Shroff whose Parisserie confectionery kitchen is on the same premises. Pic/ Ashish Rane
Neil Bastani, proprietor of the 90-year-old Daryush Bakery on Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road, with Farah Shroff whose Parisserie confectionery kitchen is on the same premises. Pic/ Ashish Rane

Meher MarfatiaWe serve as long as you can eat," says a printed promise scrupulously kept by Golden Star Thali—and every eatery dotting Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road. At the start of this lane facing Charni Road Station, the restaurant leads into the pulsing heart of Girgaum, or Girgaon, derived from the Sanskrit "giri", or hill, and "gaon", at the foot of Malabar Hill.

If Hindus considered corner plots inauspicious, industrious Iranis spotted twice the business at a junction. Gazing towards Mount Damavand in the land of their birth, they fervently whispered "Numo Khodu (Touch Wood in Dari dialect)" and moved in to brew the cup that cheers.

"Golden Star was a basic bun-maska and kheema-pao joint before turning thali specialist," says Zia Eshraghi. His father Aziz came to town as a 13-year-old from Yazd in 1934.

Waiting tables at this cafe, he worked his way up to own it in his fifties. The success story repeated at the end of the road. Sunil Shetty's father started as a cleaner-cum-waiter at a modest Udupi he later made his, till the actor son converted it to Mischief Dining Bar.

The Eshraghis being Bahai proprietors, the restaurant name suggests the nine-pointed star symbolising the universal brotherhood their faith propagates. The whole number 9 a perfect, culminating digit, each star tip hails messiahs of nine different faiths on the same path to justice and peace.

"When this building, Sakina Manzil, underwent renovation in 1992-93, we began with thalis," says Zia's partner, Rumi Ranji. They were an instant hit, the vegetarian switch suiting Panchratna diamond market merchants around the corner. Known for "fusion" Gujarati and Rajasthani fare, Golden Star's first cook was Maubji Maharaj. His son Premji continues in the kitchen team.

I glean mouthwatering nuggets. Weekends offer three unlimited desserts instead of two. The 60-seater's piece de resistance is Alphonso aam ras. And undhiyu—from "undhu", meaning "upside down"—comes from farmers slow-simmering winter greens in earthen pots buried underground with a fire lit above.

Albless Baug
Daryush Bakery with its chimney protruding above the Girgaum streetscape of the 1990s

A few feet on, I'm at the gates of a Tuscan villa-style venue laying out rich Parsi cuisine on long tables at wedding and navjote celebrations. Albless Baug, designed in 1868 by an Italian architect, was contracted to Jamasji Mistry who built parts of Bombay's financial district. Its construction, costing Rs 1,50,000, was  undertaken by the sons of Edulji Faramji Albless. Edulji Faramji had earned the last name for his kind manner of greeting everyone he met—"God bless you all"—which compressed to Albless.

Ceremonial prayer chants drown in the surround sound of Western Railway trains clattering along tracks a hop away. Not that easy to muffle the loud 'oohs' and 'aahs' of rapturous invitees (only live bands outshout them) tackling course after fine course of "lagan nu bhonu", curated by master chefs Tanaz Godiwala, Kurush Dalal, or Bomi and Kaizad Patel.

Before jumping up to the announcement, "Banuo aneh grahasto, jamva chalo ji, Ladies and gentlemen, come for dinner", guests raid the bar of course. To quote Behram "Busybee" Contractor: "While the first 400 eat, I'm having 'chhato pani'. Chhato is a drop, pani is water. The drop is alcohol and it is more than a drop. The name was introduced during Morarji Desai's prohibition when alcohol was banned but drunk. Now you drink in splendid communion with veteran elbow-benders on the otla."

Albless Baug presents two otlas (stretched verandahs). Kurush Dalal, caterer and archaeologist—twin qualifications shared with his legendary mother Katy—says that these otlas were used by the bride's side and the groom's respectively. Each often hired separate caterers. He deconstructs stellar items of the bhonu. "My childhood was in Rasht by the Caspian Sea. Fish there was grilled with simple sea salt and lime juice, not the chutney of patra ni machhi or spice of sahs ni machhi the Bombay Zoroastrians added."

Albless BaugAlbless Baug has served Parsi wedding feasts since 1868. Designed by an Italian architect, it was built thanks to the family of Edulji Faramji Albless, who supposedly earned his last name greeting everyone, "God bless you all," which compressed to Albless. Pic courtesy/ Phillips Antiques

Parsi pulao hangs on to memories of the Iran they left behind, seen from the lamb-rice base topped with dry fruit and fried onion "birista". Goat meat replaced lamb in an Indian influence. Sahs ni machhi is fulsome fusion: pomfret from India's west coast, the egg custard a Brit blend-in, vinegar a Portuguese infusion, topped with crisp Indian garlic garnish. The British touch is evident again in lagan nu custard, the dessert with Iranian elaichi-jaiphal flavouring.

"Serving delicious munchies since 1929" is the tempting tagline of Daryush Bakery & Cake Shop. Spruced smart by Neil Bastani, the shop remains in Building No. 272, to which his great-great-grandfather Rostum came from Yazd. I pad through sections of the interior retained from the time of Rostum's son Bhaman. The vastness indicates how other cafes bought in bulk, to resell items rolling out flaky-fresh from the gigantic ovens of Daryush. Neil says, "Our bar then totalled some of the biggest beer sales in the state. The bakery witnessed production on a massive scale. We lived next door in Patel Building. On my way to Campion School every morning, I would
watch huge piles of patties, over 30 kilos of khari being bought at a time."

On a manic monsoon afternoon, sopping wet to the bone, I gladly gulp the steamy scent of hot trays emerging from a cavernous oven. Able to think straighter, I recall Kurush say, "Daryush created the mother of all jam puffs, our ultimate treat as kids craving them. Ladies pre-ordered these in multiple dozens for fancy teas they hosted."

With entrepreneurial slog embedded in his DNA, Neil appears brave in business. He has introduced brands with citywide outlets, like Juno's Pizza and Snaxx, with a vegetarian fast food menu, beside the bakery. A charming "Irani high tea in a box" apportions plum cake, mawa cake, maska khari, batasa, Shrewsbury, nankhatai and jeera butter biscuits.

While this unusual package is available online too, it might be a good idea dropping in to personally pick from the range of melt-in-mouth mille feuille puff pastries, macaroons, muffins, bonbons, cookies, chocolate cakes and petits gateaux baked by Farah Shroff of Parisserie. Operating from her kitchen in Daryush Bakery, the Ferrandi Paris alumnus smoothly customises her South of France training to eggless, vegan and gluten-free desserts.

Further, past terracotta-coloured St Teresa's Church with a pitched roof sheathed in Mangalore tiles—I reach Shree Ram Boarding House. Trying the mutton thali lunch (bombil, fish and chicken thalis are great options, with surma fry and other tangy delicacies) proves heavenly, especially mopping up the gravied meat with typical rice flour puris called tandalache vade.

Golden Star
Lunch being served at Golden Star Thali, the corner restaurant whose name refers to the nine-pointed star of the Bahai faith its proprietors, the Eshraghis, practise

Managing partner Hemavand Namdarian reveals Narayan Keshav Samant opened this Malvani restaurant in Dandekar Building after its tiny 1958 predecessor, Isha Krupa, in premises abutting Central Plaza cinema. Marathi talents enjoying meals at Shree Ram have included actors Pradeep Patwardhan, Sanjay Narvekar and Uday Tikekar, as well as cricketers Dilip Vengsarkar and Ajit Agarkar.

It's Iran once more up-street at Cosmopolitan Restaurant, holding on from its 1920s heyday. The benefactor of the hospital opposite, Sir Hurkisondas Narottamdas (not Sir HN Reliance a la blithe Ambani distortion), encouraged Jehangir Foroogh's grandfather Khodabux Nasrabadi and father Sohrab to occupy this space. "He valued Irani and Parsi honesty, aware they never compromise on quality. So, my ancestors had a chance to run Cosmopolitan," says Jehangir. "Folks like my father would, without a worry, dunk Polson-buttered brun in condensed milk till that heavy tin emptied! My holiday home was my shop. During the Std 6 school vacation I made omelettes, handled the cash counter and sold cigarettes under Dad's supervision." Currently with another branch of his family, the cafe has had a motley crowd pass through its doors, from singer KL Saigal and mill mazdoors to Nita Ambani.

The Goan Saraswat bhojnalay, Anant Ashram, in Khotachi Wadi entered from Jagannath Sunkersett Marg, is much missed. Never mind that the service was as dour as the kokam superbly sour. Cricketer Dilip Sardesai batted for wife-to-be Nandini, my stentorian sociology professor, here, dating her over delectable crab curry. As a St Sebastian schoolboy in neighbouring Dabul, Rajesh Khanna stuffed his tiffin box with their food.

Maubji Maharaj
Maubji Maharaj, the eatery’s first cook, from Falna near Udaipur. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

Panshikar still reigns, the king of divine Maharashtrian upwas cuisine. You needn't suffer fasting for their farali snacks. Wash down homely misal, masale bhaat, sabudana khichdi, kanda bhaji and thalipith slathered in loni, white butter, with piyush, the Marathi manoos' lassi. With three thriving branches, one a restaurant, the Panshikar motto is, "Kaamgaar sukhi tar maalak sukhi (contented workers make employers content)."

In this week of the elephant god, steamed ukadiche modaks glisten in pyramidal mounds. From Sawantwadi in Sindhudurg district, the Panshikars (originally Khandekars who adopted the name of their village name, Panshi) welcomed residents of Keshav Naik Chawl as regulars.

Opposite Gaiwadi, this was where Tilak initiated the Ganesh festival as a public event knitting people together to talk freedom.

Soaked by another cloudburst, I'm struck by a warm thought. Fitting that the city's first Ganpati pandal grew in gullies famed for food to satiate the plump god of benevolence. Whose benign smile seems to say, a happy belly looks a healthy belly.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com/ www.mehermarfatia.com

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