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Bombay coastal food is a made up cuisine

One of my crazier moments in front of the camera came when I shot at Gajalee, the celebrated seafood restaurant at Vile Parle in Mumbai.

One of Gajalee’s claims to fame is that the restaurant keeps live crabs in the kitchen. When you order a crab dish, a man comes along with a tray full of live crabs.


You choose the one you want, the man goes back to the kitchen and the crab is then cooked for you. When you next see it, the crab is dead and smothered in masala.


   This is not necessarily a new or novel way of choosing your sea food for dinner. It’s very common in China where they want to be certain that the fish is fresh.


   But until Mumbai’s fish restaurants made this the preferred way of ordering crab (around the early 1990s, I think) Indians were not used to this. And frankly, I was also a little squeamish about behaving like a mafia boss selecting some hapless crab for execution.


   But it made for good TV. So I overcame my squeamishness, steeled myself and prepared to order the assassination of some entirely blameless crab. (“Look”, they told me, “if you order crab, then somebody or the other is going to kill it for you; so why be so holier-than-thou about it?”)


   Except that the shoot did not go according to plan. Eager to create a TV spectacle, they brought lots of crabs. The crabs crawled out of the tray they had been brought in and invaded the table. And your columnist, brave Gujarati that he is, sat back awkwardly, rooted to his chair, as the crabs took over the dining space.


   I imagine that it is not considered okay to have live crabs crawling around the table on global TV these days. When I shot at another famous Mumbai seafood restaurant, Trishna for Somebody Feed Phil last month, the only crab we saw had been killed, shelled and brought to the table as a mound of butter-soaked flesh.


   But, in those days, around 15 years ago, it was regarded as okay to honestly document the process by which crabs were served all over Mumbai.


   I argued in my show (the one the crabs took over) that the seafood craze in Mumbai was based not on any love of authentic South Indian (or “coastal” to use the trendy term) food but simple excitement about fresh fish, the larger the better. The people who ran these restaurants (many of which were described as ‘Malvani’ after a coastal region in Maharashtra) were mostly from Karnataka. They were the children of the pioneering Udupi restaurateurs who had taken idlis and dosas across India.


   The kids who had, unlike their parents, grown up with money and access to foreign travel, had moved away from Masala Dosas and Medu Vadas into the more glamorous and profitable business of running seafood restaurants. At many of these places, I argued, anyone from Malvan would probably pass out on seeing so many unfamiliar dishes described as Malvani.


   At the time, my thesis was regarded as sneering and disrespectful. But I suspect that time has proved me right. Some of these restaurants are still very successful (such as the aforementioned Trishna, for instance) but the food is a made-up hodge-podge of cuisines.


"Very little of the food is even authentically Mangalorean. This is Mumbai food, created mostly in the Fort area using fresh fish from the West Coast."

   In those days, the one person who agreed with me about the bogus nature of the cuisine was Ananda Solomon, the Chef at the President Hotel, best known for the success of the Thai Pavilion. As a Mangalorean, Ananda was annoyed by the dishes that he saw being passed off as authentic and resolved to open a real South Indian coastal restaurant. He called it the Konkan Café and it was a hit from the day it opened.


   Ananda served the real thing. His masalas were made according to traditional recipes. His fish were fresh without requiring on-the-spot assassination and, in my view, the Konkan Café was his greatest achievement, far better than The Thai Pavilion, which was even more popular.


   Ananda retired from the President, flirted with a Thai restaurant that was polished off by the business slump during the Pandemic and then resurfaced a fortnight ago, starting an extended residency at Bharat Excellensea (geddit?) one of the first  ‘coastal’ restaurants in the Fort area of Mumbai which  I remembered from the 1990s.


   As you would expect, the food was not just delicious, it was also authentic. There was no made-up nonsense on the menu he served me and though he does go the choose-your-live-crab route, I was spared from having to don the executioner's hood the night I dined there.


   Though it has recently been refurbished, Bharat Excellensea is not quite a fancy five-star restaurant. To his credit, Ananda fits right in and there is no trace of the celebrity chef who was courted by Mumbai’s elite in his five star hotel days.


   Bharat Excellensea is owned by Suraj Salian another of those second-generation restaurateurs from Mangalore whose father ran a vegetarian Udupi restaurant. He set up this restaurant in 1989 and based it on fresh fish. He would get giant crabs, huge Kapri Pomfret (unusual in that era) and massive prawns, all sourced from local fisheries in Mumbai and Goa.


   He told me that unlike many of his ilk he never claimed to serve Malvani cuisine or attributed any traditional authenticity to his dishes. His recipes were made up, he said, using many influences. Some of his inspiration came from the Far East. He got the idea of serving massive crabs from going to restaurants in Singapore. The idea of using a tank full of live fish also came from East Asia. One of his sauces was inspired by Thai green curry. The Butter Garlic sauce that all ‘coastal’ restaurants now drown their crabs in came from the menu of the Golden Dragon restaurant at the Taj.


   Bharat Excellensea predates Trishna by a year or so. Mahesh Lunch Home is much older but I remember its menu from the 1980s, as being much less like it is today. Gajalee had its own style but it was a suburban restaurant while all the others were in the Fort area. Every restaurant claims it invented the dishes that are now popular (Crab in Butter Garlic, Prawns Koliwada, Fried Bombil) and it is hard to adjudicate between competing claims (though I think that Gajalee did introduce the Fried Bombil). What is clear however is that none of these famous dishes are traditional.


   The Crab in Butter Garlic is Chinese- inspired. The Prawns Koliwada is a riff on the fried fish from Mumbai’s Sion-Koliwada area (which, in itself, is a riff on Amritsar’s fried fish). Forget about Malvan. Very little of the food is even authentically Mangalorean. This is Mumbai food, created mostly in the Fort area using fresh fish from the West Coast.


   I suspect things have changed a little now. Though everyone denies it, much of the fish these places serve is now farmed: I doubt if the crab is wild. There is less consistency to the food because cooks come and go. (The Swagath chain in Delhi which reproduces the Mumbai formula is much more consistent.)


   On the other hand, restaurants that serve more authentic Malvani food have now found a new popularity though very few of them are in the centre of South Mumbai. For that you have to go to Dadar or Bandra. Many of the customers are Maharashtrians and are hard to fool with a bogus version of Malvani food.


   Though some of these places are actually very good with delicious food, they lack the retro glamour of the Fort places. Even today every concierge at every luxury hotel has Trishna on speed dial and for foodie foreigners it is a place of pilgrimage, Mumbai’s answer to Delhi’s Bukhara.


   Yes it is a made up cuisine but authenticity can be overrated. This is just one of the many cuisines created in this great metropolis. It has never travelled beyond Mumbai. In the South you get the real thing. And only Swagath has made it in North India. Trishna failed in Delhi. (A London Trishna has nothing to do with the Mumbai version.)


    With Ananda’s cooking you get the best of all worlds: authentic masalas and great seafood. But if you do like large fish and are in Mumbai, then you may want to try some of the other ‘coastal’ places. It is true that the only coast they know well is Cuffe Parade. But this is Mumbai! So the meal will always be fun.  Even if the crabs do not invade your table! And you have to order the odd crustacean execution.



  • zelda thehgd 28 Jul 2023

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Posted On: 09 Jun 2023 12:30 PM
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