Thursday, November 27, 2008

Minor Diners

San Francisco is a curious American city- that sports a long-standing queer comfort zone (now sitting up at the recent referendum banning gay marriage), old left-bastion-cafes, uphill-n-downhill-ever-twirling roads. Comfortably temperate, this city has a culture of diners to articulate the San Francisco mood. These are little spaces (some big ones) around the bustling part of town, that serve chitter-chattering old maids and their boyfriends. Hash browns and pancakes and maple syrup. And french toast, mushroom-n-cheese omelette, cranberry juice. The food settles in slowly. Making way for more coffee chatter. They are abuzz with pancake-hungry children and Uncle Bobs in the morning. At twelve in the night, they are still talking Obama to Mrs. Mayfair. The odd gold-chained hispanic couple drop by for butter on their pancakes. The lone bespectacled out-of-town woman in a corner digs into an omelette and mulls over hermeneutics of subjectivity. Hip balding journalists discuss credit crises.

The diner looks like an informal club. Of hats and scarves and chitter and chatter. Bacon eggs and pancake batter.One of them had a rather stern lady chef feverishly tossing out quiche and omelette, to pen down her impatience with our giggly indecision.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Politics, and Piyush

I was in Shivaji Park for a meeting when my friend Jal, a pucca Parsi, surprised me by asking me if I would have lunch at Prakash,which he explained was a spartan vegetarian eatery in the heart of Shivaji Park. He wasn't sure if I'd like the food or not, but I was always eager to experiement.
His partner, Kishore, who grew up in Shivaji Park, rattled off a history of Prakash while we looked for parking in the bye lanes of the vicinity. Prakash actually has quite a controversial history, it was rumoured that the proprietors, hardcore Maharashtrian Chitpavan Brahmins, distributed pedas upon the assasination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of one of their caste brethren. The restaurant was torched in the ensuing riots. Quite like the pheonix, it rose from the ashes, the food compensating for the radical ideology of the patrons. As we entered the joint, I noticed that it was much like the typical Marathi "Khanaval" or eatery - sunmica benches and tables where you sat where you could and relaxing after lunch wasn't an option.
We started off with what he recommended - the sabudana wada. Sabudana is a typical "fast food" item in Maharashtra - not competing with burgers and fries, but one of the few permissible food items during a fast. Sabudana is the vernacular for the starch extracted from the Sago Palm which and made into the commercial product of sago pearls. There are two popular ways of making Sabudana during fasts - one is the khichadi, which is steaming the pearls after tempering them with mustard, curry leaves, groundnut powder and chillies. The other, is the wada, which like all wadas are deep fried. Mashed potato acts as the binding agent. Unlike the usual sabudana wada, which is flat and brown and crisp, this wada was round, almost white, not very oily and soft on the inside. Served with a lightly spiced coconut based chutney, it was good enough to make me want to fast more often.

It didn't take us long to debate over the main course - the menu is short and we were squished between enough patrons to peek at what they were eating and decide what looked good. One of our companions, Kishore, immediately said that he was having the "usal" which is any preparation made out of sprouts. He was referring to the "dalimbichi usal" which was a gravy, again coconut milk based, made out of sprouted field beans. They are also called "vaal". They have a slightly bitter taste, which is what makes them stand apart rather than jar on the senses. The gravy was creamy and the beans were just cooked right, just like home. I half expected them to be soggy from having been made many many hours ago. Though the beans were bitter, the gravy was sweet and eating it was pure fantasy for those with the acquired taste. We also ordered a batata bhaji which is a potato preparation without a gravy - tempering chopped potatoes with mustard, cumin, green chillies, curry leaves and garnishing it with freshly grated coconut and corriander, with a lemon wedge to suit your tastebuds. Enjoyable, but standard.
(Below: clockwise from top: dalimbi usal, batatachi bhaji and pooris made of 100% whole wheat flour)

To wash it down, we didn't have the option of cold drinks, but Kishore insisted that I try the Piyush, which he told me was a kind of Maharashtrian Lassi. Piyush is yoghurt based, like a lot of Indian drinks. The yellow tinge comes from the use of saffron, and the drink was cold and its sweetness and the flavours of jaiphal (nutmeg) and elaichi (cardamom) were a brilliant end to this meal. For dessert I had actually opted for Dudhi Halva which was slightly disappointing.

In conclusion - if you are in Mumbai and if you want to do the whole foodie binge, write Prakash in bold and make sure you get to Gokhale Road and have a meal there.

Don't let ideology stand in the way of fine cuisine!