The last merchants of spice

Jan 19, 2013, 00:13 IST | Dhara Vora

Mirchi Galli, near Mangaldas Market, was once home to a teeming spice trade in the city; only few traders remain today. This once-buzzing area is now a quiet reminder of its glory days. Dhara Vora attempts to recapture the old vibe at two of the oldest spice shops in the area

When you mention a lane called Mirchi Galli, one would expect to see sacks of different chillies lined up, rows of powdered spices adding a riot of colour even as the strong flavours and aromas of the spiciest chillies will clear the sinuses. Well, not quite. When you walk into Mumbai’s Mirchi Galli, nestled between Jumma Masjid and Mangaldas Market, you’ll instead spot shops selling plastic clips and hair bands for kids on one end and few of older stores selling dry fruits and spices on the other side.

The entrance to Mirchi Galli from the Mangaldas Market side. pics/Sayed sameer Abedi

Change of trade
“Long ago, this lane was lined with spice stores. But the profit margin for mirchi is not much and the next generations are educated now,” recalls 62-year-old Mahendrabhai Popat. Mahendrabhai also cites the lack of labour as one of the problems and says not everyone wants to work that hard nowadays. But Ratansi Korji and Co, run by Mahendrabhai and his three brothers has survived and remains one of the few shops that do brisk business in
Mirchi Galli.

“The demand for dry fruits has increased; here too, education plays a part as people read of its benefits in newspapers, and have become health conscious. They might not spend on themselves but buy dry fruits for their kids. Because of the increased demand, all of us here have been selling dry fruits,” he adds. While the wholesale market is in Vashi, the dry fruits in the city come from across the world. Almonds from Iran and America, Kishmish (raisins) is sourced from Afghanistan and dates arrive from the Middle East. As for the spices, they come from across India. Their best seller, however, is their ready mix — milk masala. This store provides its spices to one of the Bhagat Tarachand outlets at Zaveri Bazaar, apart from hotels outside the city too.

Joint family success
Apart from the famous Ramanlal Vithaldas store, the Shah Gabhrubhai Uttamchand and Co store has been around for nearly eighty years. Started by Gabhrubhai Shah, it is now run by his grandson. “After my grandfather, my father Chimanlal Shah and uncle Vadilalji Shah were responsible for bringing in the changes and keeping up with the times. The next generation runs the store in our family.

Shops in Mirchi Galli are situated close to each other, seen here is Shah Gabhrubhai Uttamchand and Co’s store. pic/dhara vora; Mahendrabhai Popat with his brother Tulsidasbhai.

They are educated, and handle the branding and marketing of our store and our packed ready mixed spices,” he says. The store provides spices to several restaurants in the city including the Rajdhani Thali outlet near Mirchi Galli. He refuses to divulge the source of his spices. They started with pre-mixed and ground spices and also chicken and mutton masalas, to add variety, “With most families having two working parents, no one has the time to grind spices, today,”  he reasons.

Both stores credit their joint families as reasons for their survival and success in Mirchi Galli. “None of our next generation is involved in this line, they are all educated, but the fact that we run the shop as a joint family is what has kept it going,” explains Mahendrabhai. These stores were badly hit during the serial blasts of 1993. Today, their biggest hurdles are the crowds and hawkers. “It’s become like Bhendi Bazaar,” exclaims Mahendrabhai before returning to attend to his customers.

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