Mumbai Food: South Mumbai eatery revamps, but sticks to African roots
A SoBo eatery has reinvented itself without compromising on its core competency - African cuisine
The first page of the menu lists small dishes like chicken hot dog. Skip. The second page has everyday pizzas and pastas. Repeat skip. The third page is Indian, with minimalist thalis and curry dishes. Skip again. And then suddenly our eyes widen. The fourth, fifth and sixth pages are under the title, "African menu". They have items like jollof rice, pottage, fufu and chicken egusi, all of which read like Greek to us at least. We have never had food from that continent before. But we have always wanted to. And now here we are, sitting in the unlikeliest of places — The Beat House, a café in the same building as Hotel Sapna Marine beside Gol Masjid, next to the iconic Jaffer Bhai's and Sassanian Boulangerie — feeling as clueless about our order as a three-year-old given a pure math problem.
So, we do the easiest thing we can think of. We flip out our phone and Wikipedia the dishes. Jollof, it turns out, "is a one-pot rice dish popular in many West African countries". Sounds good to us. Egusi, meanwhile, are "the seeds of certain cucurbitaceous plants that are dried and ground and used as an ingredient for soups". That sounds suitably African, too. And for starters, we ask for a fried chicken, curious to see how different it is from other variants of a dish that's ubiquitous around the world, before adding a mint ice tea (Rs 120) to the equation to wash it all down with.
Mint ice tea
A disclaimer needs to be offered here, though. Since we have never had any African food at all before, it's impossible for us to verify how authentic the fare here is. So, all we can do is describe the gustatory experience of a person who is trying out a wholly new cuisine, without any benchmark to compare its genuineness with. That bit cleared, let's start with the fried chicken (Rs 150). Is it any different from, say, the version popular in southern America? Yes, it is, but the two aren't chalk and cheese. The spices that flavour the breast piece we eat aren't completely unfamiliar to the palate, though our taste buds do inform us, "Hmm, it's kind of new, but not bad. Give us another bite, please."
But those same taste buds do a double take when we roll up the fufu into a small ball — as Wikipedia has instructed us to do with this viscous semolina paste used as a substitute for rice — and dip it in the chicken egusi (Rs 350) before trying it. There is only one word to describe the taste, and never in our lives did we ever think we would use it for chicken dish. That word is "fishy". In fact, we can even pinpoint the fish that comes to our mind — it's a certain type of dried prawn popular in Bangladesh called "shutki", which is a more dense variant of the Goan balchao. It's easily one of the weirdest culinary experiences we have ever had, and the flavour takes some getting used to for someone who's unfamiliar with it. But that's the whole thrill about trying out food from new places, isn't it? For, how unexciting would the world be if you found a taste of home in a far-off land regardless of what you're eating?
The jollof rice (Rs 350), however — flavoured richly with tomato and topped with pieces of fried chicken — can be described as a pulao that went for a trip to Nigeria and came back with an accent. It's delectable, though, and that means that our overall introduction to African food has been a flying success. But the question remains: How did The Beat House come to have this section on its menu in the first place? Eventually, a call to the chef-owner two days after our meal clears the confusion. Ruby Dogra had learnt to cook these dishes around five years ago from Nigerian aunties who were long-term guests at Hotel Sapna Marine. She introduced them to the menu for Green Onion, which is what The Beat House was called earlier, before retaining them after revamping the place as a music-themed café. And how happy we are that she did, for it allowed us to fulfill what had almost been a long-standing dream, and one we never expected to realise when we started perusing the menu at this SoBo eatery.
Time 12 pm 10 pm
AT Hotel Sapna Marine, Dhobi Talao
The Beat House didn't know we were there. The Guide reviews anonymously and pays for meals
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