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Last weekend, we drove to Hypercity in Malad. Hypercity is set up like an American grocery store, with fresh produce, grains, lentils, and packaged goods all under one roof, along with an electronics area, a book store, and a kitchen store. This is a novel concept in India.

I buy vegetables from the bhaji-wallas, who set up shop on the sidewalks. I know that the bhaji-walla near WIA club, carries “exotic” vegetables like broccoli, basil, cherry tomatoes and rocket lettuce, and that his corn is sweet. Once in a rare while, the bhaji-walla near Chandralok has excellent good avocados, but he’s also sold me awful ones before, so now I make him cut them right there, on the sidewalk, to show me that they really are a creamy green inside. Beets, tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs- these are readily available at most corners in my area. But we have discovered that the “village eggs” (as opposed to the city eggs?) sold a bit far from us, have yolks the color of the setting sun. On Grant Road, vendors set up Bhaji Gully every day (except Sunday) – a large outdoor produce market- much like a farmers market in America.

We get grains, nuts, oils, imported goods like soy sauce or rice vinegar, and snacks, each from different stores. If I had no ingredients at home and wanted to make spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, I’d have to visit three places. Or Crawford Market, which is a collection of wholesale stalls carrying both imported goods and local produce under one roof.

Or, if I lived close to Malad, perhaps I’d go to Hypercity. Produce, cheeses, imported and Indian cereals, wine, beer, liquor, dals, aachars, every variety of rice imaginable, Indian and imported spices, eggs, food coloring, Pepperidge Farm cookies and Britannia cumin crackers, meat, sauces, frozen dinners, packaged dinners- it’s all there. We pushed our shopping cart through wide, well-lit aisles and picked up a pumpkin, Maraschino liquor, and a sweet-lime pickle. There’s also a section devoted to Waitrose products. Imported pastas, bread flour, tapenades, coffees, cookies, biscuits, canned beans, canned fish, sun-dried tomato spreads, and fancy olive oils and balsamic vinegars are what I remember seeing.

On the ground floor, they also sell pans and kitchen utensils; upstairs, though we didn’t visit, is a Crossword bookstore and electronics department. Oh, on the ground floor there’s even a counter selling diamond jewelry.

It was amazing to see this kind of grocery store in India, but also disorienting, because the system here is so different. On one hand, how convenient, especially for people who work long hours and might not have help at home (like much of America).

Yet, I realize I’ve gotten used to the fact that there are specific stores, or sidewalk stalls, where I’ll find my goods. I like knowing who’s selling the best corn and cherry tomatoes. At Hypercity we bought a bagful of tomatoes because we had planned to make a sauce later, and since it was a Sunday, bhaji-wallas weren’t working. Picking through the glossy pyramid, we noticed many yellow tomatoes, and bruised tomatoes, and it was with difficulty that we filled our bag with unblemished produce. That’s not a problem I have at a vegetable stall, where the produce is generally fresh. Later, we found that the beets and pumpkin we bought at Hypercity had no flavor, at all.

(I just spoke to BombayFoodie, who said that Hypercity’s produce is of much lower quality than what one can find elsewhere but they have priced out all the street side vendors in her area. In her area, there’s no other option of a place to buy vegetables, so now she makes a special trip to a market further away to get her produce.)

This sounds like the beginnings of the convenience versus quality problem- what organizations and people in America are trying to reverse by encouraging people to eat locally, shop at farmers markets, etc. instead of at chain grocery stores. America also has to contend with industrialized farms and genetically modified produce. In India, the logistics between farmers and consumers is a larger problem- Hrishikesh said that at a logistics seminar he attended some time ago, he learned that half of what is produced by farmers in India spoils before it reaches a consumer. Perhaps larger grocery stores (like Hypercity, Reliance Fresh and Nature’s Basket) are attempting to streamline the process and cut down on the middle men and also on wastage, but that doesn’t explain the poor quality of produce.

In a sense, Bombay already has a “farmers market” system- comprised of the vendors on the sidewalks, Crawford Market, and Bhaji Gully. These might not be as welcoming and easy to navigate as the Union Square Greenmarket, and they are not organized in the American sense- there are no pretty labels identifying the farms from which produce comes.  But, these vendors are a system that has been working well.

Hypercity is not the only grocery store in Bombay; Reliance Fresh and Godrej Nature’s Basket are also there, but on a much, much smaller scale. I think Reliance Fresh is pretty awful but Nature’s Basket, although the regular produce doesn’t look that fresh, often has a good selection of packaged Trikaya Agriculture produce- like Brussels sprouts, pea shoots and thyme.

People here are starting to become aware of eating locally and sustainably. The Mumbai Organic Farmers and Consumers Association has started a plan called Hari Bhari Tokri, that seems to be following the model of a C.S.A., pairing consumers with farmers to cut out middlemen, encourage consumers to eat locally, and encourage farmers to grow what consumers will buy. Hrishikesh and I signed up for the winter season, which begins in early November. I think it will be interesting to cook seasonally with mostly Indian vegetables, like snake gourd (padval), and flat beans (papdi).

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Quick review of the revamped, newly opened Golden Dragon at the Taj Mahal Hotel. We went there with high expectations but left sadly disappointed. Following the typical trajectory of Mumbai restaurants, the menu sounded fantastic but the dishes failed to live up to their descriptions.

Appetizers:

The Black Pepper Dumplings from the dim sum menu were four mixed vegetable dumplings encased in a doughy skin, floating in a watery broth. Unfortunately, I was unable to detect the black pepper in the dumplings or in the broth.

We also ordered the Stuffed Mushrooms in 5 Spice Sauce, which our waiter told us was a “signature dish.” But the bland mashed potatoes stuffed into mushroom caps, surrounded by glazed, slippery bok choy failed to whet our appetites.

(more…)

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Eastern Promises

A good friend told us about East, the Pan Asian restaurant tucked away in a busy corner near Gowalia Tank in South Bombay. As we know, there are limited opportunities to try Malaysian, Vietnamese and Sichuan-style Chinese food in Bombay. We’d heard that East’s chef, Nachiket Shetye, had studied at the C.I.A. and worked at Nobu, and that he aimed to make more than the ubiquitous Indo-Chinese and Thai fare for Bombayites craving Asian food.

We sipped on two excellent cocktails, a spicy bloody mary and a lychee martini, while admiring East’s subdued bamboo decor and ordered their signature Roti Canai,  which came with a dipping bowl of zesty, flowery Malaysian curry. This was no ordinary dinner roti but a layered, flaky roti, yielding and stretchy, the croissant of all rotis I’ve ever eaten. We then enjoyed making inexpert tacos with the smoky, plum sauce moo-shoo vegetables in their soft rice paper wrappers and dipping them into the fiery chili sauce on the table. The spice-loaded Burmese curry Khow Seuy had a gleeful assortment of toppings; we made little mountains of scallions, peanuts, fried garlic and onion on our bowls and slurped till we were stuffed.

Not all the food is so engaging, however. The steamed Shanghai wontons were a glazed, limp mess, the wontons so soft they collapsed into the mash of flavorless cabbage filling spilling out. The Sichuan Broccoli was tolerable when mixed with a curry, but alone, it was simply broccoli doused in an overload of chili sauce and red chili flakes. The Malaysian noodles were boring and the Penang curry, though loaded with coconut milk and vegetables, was flat. Last night for dinner we ordered Black Bean Vegetables,  pan-fried Japanese Gyoza dumplings, Crispy Eggplant in Hot Bean Sauce, and Chili-Garlic noodles. All of them, unfortunately, were resoundingly awful.

East has been around for a couple years now, though when we went, on a Sunday evening, it was more or less empty. We’ve heard of similar empty sightings from our friends but despite the lengthy list of mishits, we plan to go again, to try the Vietnamese Eggplant Fritters and the Indonesian Curry. East certainly needs to fix many dishes, but at least they’re attempting to introduce Bombayites to more than just the standards. Now, if only they would add pho to their menu.

Roti Canai: Rs. 160; Shanghai Wontons: Rs. 160; Moo Shoo Veg: Rs. 240; Khow Suey: Rs. 250
76 Nidhi, August Kranti Road, off Kemps Corner. 022-2381 1010.

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We drove past Del Italia’s plant-filled enclosed porch three times on the evening we were attempting to find Aurus. Lushly lit and packed with diners, it looked pretty promising. “Why don’t we just go there?” grumbled Hrishikesh. We definitely should have. After the disappointment of Aurus, eating at Del Italia was a refreshing reminder that Bombay’s restaurants can do justice to Italian food.

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I journeyed to Juhu many months later to meet a friend from America for lunch at Del Italia. The restaurant was empty when I arrived at noon, and two hours later, when we left, just one other table had been occupied. Unfortunately, the front porch, with its hanging potted plants, bay windows, and colorful throw cushions, was being used to complete some minor renovations work, so we sat inside, which was designed to resemble a Mediterranean home.

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While waiting for my friend to arrive, I ordered a competent cappuccino and studied the menu. Small plates; soups; salads; bruschettas; pizzas; pastas; other vegetarian mains- though the categories were comprehensive, the handful of options under each seemed selective. Lured by the toppings, we started with the spinach, rucola and artichoke bruschetta, a mess of extremely garlicky greens on tough, questionably stale bread doused with olive oil.

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Not so great, but our woodfired pizza, topped with herby tomato sauce, real mozerella, and a generous scattering of cremini mushrooms, was definitely the best I’ve eaten in Bombay. The care taken in choosing quality ingredients was apparent in each surprisingly delicious slice.

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One appetizer and a pizza is all we needed but I’m glad we also ordered the rotolo, two rounds of a soft pasta sheet filled with minced mushrooms and onions, swimming in a pureed caramelized onion sauce and garnished with a sprig of woodsy rosemary, leaves of which I kept pressing into my pizza. This more unconventional dish on Del Italia’s menu gave me a taste of the restaurant’s potential scope.

delItalia, Juhu Tara Road, next to Mocha, Juhu, Mumbai. 26184040.

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Birthday dinners should be ultimate, exquisite. Whether I’m dipping bread into a pot of fondue at home or out celebrating at a restaurant, my meal should contain taste, effort, and decadence much beyond the tasty food we eat every day.

This birthday, I fretted for a week over where we should eat. Those with prior experience know that my process of picking a restaurant is painfully thorough, and on birthdays, I become even more obsessed with finding the perfect place. This being H’s first time celebrating my birthday, the poor guy was spent by my selection process.

But, while I admit I am pretty ridiculous and probably intolerable when it comes to picking a restaurant for a special occasion, trying to choose the ultimate restaurant in Bombay is about 100,000 times more difficult than in New York, or Boston. This is because:

  1. In those cities, besides word of mouth from your foodie friends, there are so many sources to consult for reliable reviews: New York Magazine; Time Out; The New York Times; Chowhound; Yelp, and of course, well-written food blogs. After consulting one, or a few of them, you’re highly likely to find a fulfilling restaurant. In Bombay, we’ve got Time Out…and, um, Time Out, probably our best resource, because most of the online restaurant review sites (like mumbai.burrp.com) are questionably written and don’t inspire me to trust the reviewer. Also, Bombay foodies haven’t yet developed the thousands of restaurant reviewing food blogs that New York’s foodies have, so googling a restaurant doesn’t yield many comprehensible results.
  2. Aside from Indian, the variety and quality of Bombay’s restaurant food simply does not compare to the delightful and assorted fare you can order in New York or Boston. But, how can it? The American cities were home to immigrants who tested their culinary creations and reincarnations before a panel of diverse tastebuds- other immigrants. Those dishes I’m so familiar with (dan dan noodles, onion tarts, pizza) have been refined and perfected over long immigrant years. Have you ever been to a Mexican restaurant in Bombay? The food is flat, sweet and sad (though, judging from the crowd outside New Yorker every Sunday, the Guju aunties love their ke-saaah-dyas for deener). (Of course there are other factors- the fairly new culture of eating out, the sudden expendible income, etc.)

I promise I’m not complaining, just explaining why it can be incredibly difficult to choose a place to eat in Bombay when you’re craving something other than Indian food or sizzling frankies from the sidewalk. So. I aim to change this, in a small way. Maybe one day I’ll open a restaurant that serves enchiladas how I like them, with no trace of that horrid, ketch up-y sauce, but until then, what I can do is write restaurant reviews on those occasions we manage to stop cooking and go out for dinner. It’ll be my attempt to make it a modicum easier for the discerning, or annoyingly persevering, vegetarian who loves to eat out.

And did the place I finally picked for my ultimate birthday dinner meet my expectations? You’ll find out in my next restaurant review.

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[A post from when I was in Bombay, in December.] I accompanied my grandmother on a shopping trip to bhaji gully, or vegetable road, where she was buying goods for the next day’s feast, a lunch of undhiyo.

Undhiyo (undhiyu) is a Gujarati winter specialty that stars papdi as its main ingredient. We usually bring back frozen Undhiyo from India which we heat up and enjoy at home in Massachusetts.

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But the chance to have it fresh! It really was fantastic, mostly because of the fresh green garlic. Its delicately sharp taste accented the rustic flavors of the stuffed vegetables and fruit (baby eggplant, kandh, sweet potato, banana) and made each bite complex and addicting.

 

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I was so excited to go to bhaji gully to buy groceries. It’s essentially a large open-air market, and much more fun than a supermarket.

 

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[papdi painting]

Many vendors sell the same goods, but my grandmother has her specific tomato-vallah, kaandha (onion)-vallah and brinjal (eggplant)-vallah.

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[gully gully]

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[a coin for corn]

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[fresh water chestnuts]

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[baby eggplant]

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[daal]

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[platter of tamarind]

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[karela]

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[going home]

 

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[Mini hands on Shyam]

On a hot afternoon in Bombay, my brother and I joined my cousin Amrita and her baby Parthiv for a cold coffee at Barista. Barista is one of the biggest coffee shop chains in India. Along with Cafe Coffee Day (another chain), it is credited for creating India’s coffee shop culture.

As far as I know, very few people stop by a Barista or a Cafe Coffee Day early in the morning to pick up a latte, and even later in the day, it’s rare to see someone getting a cup of coffee to go, though the presence of paper cups in the shop does make the option available. In one sense, it’s nice to think that people drink coffee and tea at home in the morning. However, while homes might have every variety of tea imaginable, they often just have one variety of coffee- instant coffee. That frustrating fact made me want to knock on the door of a Barista at 7 in the morning for the duration of my stay in India. While recovering from my jetlag, I did stop by Barista during afternoons to drink cups of black LavAzza coffee, from the Italian company that acquired the chain.

Unlike in America, where, in addition to its social aspect/coffee culture, coffee serves a purpose- as a caffeinated beverage meant to jolt someone awake- coffee in India seems to be a much more of a purely social drink. The Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days are spaces to hang out with friends in between classes, meet cousins for coffee, or go for dessert late at night. I think both Barista and Coffee Day have wi-fi, which makes these coffee shops spaces to work as well as socialize, and other accessorized coffee shops, like Mr. Bean (below, in Jaipur) and Mocha even have hookah.

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Many of the drinks at Indian coffee shops are pretty fancy by American standards. They do have traditional cappuccino and latte offerings, but I think the more popular choices are their various cold coffees. For example, instead of a Pumpkin Spice Latte, try the Brrrista (“blended, full-bodied cold coffee”), the Brrrista Blast (“our finest cold coffee, loaded with choco fudge, ice cream, and whipped cream”) or the Big Brownie Bite (“a thick vanilla ice cream shake topped with a chocolate brownie”).

But…back to Parthiv. Baby P was miniature, round and extremely cute. He was also teething and, despite our efforts, was valiantly attempting to shove objects into his mouth, like the menu, the place mat, and these baby jeans:

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He was moving all over the place and when our coffees arrived…

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[My brother and I shared the Iced Cafe Mocha (with whipped cream).]

…our primary objective was to keep them out of his grasp.

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The end.

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