It was a cool and pleasant morning. I sat in my mother’s kitchen with a cup of hot chai, one she had forced upon me as she has always done. I never needed any help from caffeine growing up either and we used to argue about this incessantly. She could never abide by my no-tea-no-coffee habit. “How on earth will you find the resolve you need to galvanize into action for your day?” It was one of so many things my mother didn’t understand about her middle child. I put up a feeble protest, but my heart wasn’t in it. This time, more than any other, I was just so gosh darn happy to be home.
Home. Never thought there would be a day two distinct places would define that word for me. Our lovely apartment in San Francisco is home to me, but so is this charming old flat in Bombay, with its cool mosaic tiled floor and ventilated windows. My whole life was here before the age of twenty-five. I tried to pack as much of it into three suitcases when I moved halfway across the world. I thought I was also taking along a lifetime of memories, but then I went and left the keys to so many of them back here. Each time I’m back in this city that I grew up in, I find myself rediscovering it with all the excitement of that child I left here somewhere – reliving experiences that unlock tons of memories.
I’ve been more fortunate than most. Not only did I grow up in just the one place, it also happens to be the same place my dad grew up. So some of my childhood experiences overlap his. There was this jack-fruit tree in our front yard. Large and lofty, I spent many of my growing years playing hide-and-seek around it, just as he had. Carving my initials with an arrow under where my dad had carved his when he was eight was one of my proudest moments. We both loved that tree. Our common regret was that the tree was barren and had no fruit.
…until it magically did.
Apparently, jack-fruit trees are capable of living up to a hundred and fifty years. I didn’t need math to tell me that ours is well into its golden years. And now it decides to bear fruit. I mean there is fruit all over this tree. No one can figure out why. What’s changed? Could it be the sudden appearance of tons of squirrels all over the immediate neighbourhood? Could it be the pleasant winters? It’s a mystery. But the answer to this riddle notwithstanding, this was one of the most unexpected highlights of my trip. My mom reminded me of how often I used to tell her how much I wished the tree bore fruit. So you see, if you wish for something hard enough, it can come true 20 to 25 years later.
One of my favourite drives was driving down to South Bombay. We would drive from the bustling center of the city where we lived, navigating through crowded streets and narrow avenues, when quite suddenly, the world would open out to the west and the east. You had arrived at the Mahalaxmi/Haji Ali stretch, with the sea to the west and the large race course to the east. That’s what you would see but longtime residents know that from here, you were within a stone’s throw of a Hindu temple, a mosque and tomb, an elite club, a racecourse, a planetarium, the location on Bombay’s first mall, all hanging out a few feet away from each other. I’ve been fascinated with the Haji Ali dargah since I was a child. The familiar silhouette of this offshoot off the coast – that would be completely inaccessible at high tide – was a reassuring sight every time I drove past.
That club I mentioned is Willingdon Sports Club and this time I got to visit there. It’s like a verdant oasis in chaos. Once inside it is easy to forget you’re in the midst of ridiculously busy part of Bombay. The club was built in 1913 by Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Bombay who wanted to take his Indian friends to the club with him, which the other existing British clubs didn’t allow. Hence this eponymous club, which would admit everyone. (You can read more about that here.) Quaintly or archaically, this club harks back to the 1920s, what with the little bells at the tables to call the servers, the completely well-preserved Victorian decor and the requirement of closed shoes to enter the club. Good thing I left my flip-flops at home.
Much further south is Marine Drive with the Air India Building at one end. I remembered wanting to grow up and work here, just to experience the view it must have from its top floor. The one from down here isn’t bad either.
Then there’s VT or Victoria Terminus, the grand old railway station. Of course it isn’t called that anymore. Pretty much everything in Bombay is now called something other than what I remember it to be. But that doesn’t stop me from remembering my first train ride from here, or that I love the warm carved stone and graceful ornamental lines of this building. When I saw ‘Hugo‘, I found my mind constantly thinking of this station.
This sign brought back no childhood memories. McDonald’s came to India when I was in my teens, when the idea of a Happy Meal held no fascination for me and Ronald the clown creeped me out. This sign made me sad. I ask you, Bombay; you with the fantastic food from all over the country and the planet, how can you believe this to be a family restaurant? And it has delivery? Fast food isn’t supposed to be delivery. Oh the frustration!
(The thing is, fast food from America does much better abroad than in its own country. True story.)
Heading back closer to my neighborhood, I passed by this behemoth. It used to be an old cotton mill, with a much shorter structure with less blotting-out-of-the-sky going on. The land will soon be home to an office, residential and retail hyper-structure. Construction continues at a crazy pace. The architect in me was very excited to watch all this. But I’m terrified to think of what this building will do to traffic at this junction when it is ready.
One of my favourite college haunts was this modern-ish new little hangout called Oven Fresh. At the time, it was one of the few joints in the city to serve fantastic chicken and egg salad sandwiches, crazy good nachos and fabulous cakes. I lived on a steady diet of those nachos in college. I was sad that the old ‘interpretive’ recipe has been replaced by a more ‘authentic’ one. Perfection shouldn’t be messed around with. Also, this restaurant has gone vegetarian. But the vegetarian food here will make sure you never ever miss the meat, it is that good. Also, for anyone planning a career in eggless cake making, this is where you go for some great-tasting research. There’s a Cream of Avocado soup I tried here that I’m dying to try on my own.
I went grocery shopping for my mom and seeing all of these things of the past with new eyes. There are the supermarket type stores where you get everything, but really all you do is ask and point. Someone is pulling things off shelves for you all the time. There is always someone in India to do things for you. I’m always happy for this fact as our parents are getting older and this kind of help is good for them.
Ranade Road in Dadar West was always a great place to shop for everything from jewellery to clothes. What it excels at is vegetables. And batata vadas. Sadly, I couldn’t get to the vadas. But I do love my roadside vendor markets here, with vegetables that are fresh and flavourful. My love of American farmer’s markets finds its roots in my liking of these veggie vendor stalls that were omnipresent in my formative years. I spent a happy couple of hours meandering and bargaining.
Shopping done, I found myself a couple of blocks away at Shivaji Park, one of the original Frankie stalls. Every Bombayite of my generation harks the appeal of the Frankie. At its essence, this is a kathi roll, but oh-so-much-more! There’s a crispy naan, coated with egg on one side, on which they ladle the filling of your choice, roll it up and serve it to you. Available originally in chicken, veg, mutton and egg, this Frankie has now spanned all manner of paneer, schezwan, and other variations. My sister and I, we stuck with the originals.
Eating at restaurants in India is a different experience from ones in the US. For one thing, pretty much no one else is taking photos of the food on their phone. Most times food is served family-style. And you will be served. Your server will literally serve the food on to your plate. This is nice, but can be hell if you’re trying to eat less. Or eat more. Nothing like a stranger ladling food onto your plate to make you very aware of how much you are eating. Or over-eating.
We dined at the lovely Jewel of India, one of the posh old guards of Indian restaurants in Bombay. I understood first-hand why food photos sharing doesn’t happen a lot from India. The served plate and diffused lighting don’t make for flattering photos. But as far as flavour goes, the food is magnificent. Jewel of India still has not lost its flair even after more than thirty years in the business.
One of the newer features Bombay acquired was this striking Sea-link which makes it super quick to get from the suburbs to downtown. It’s a beautiful bridge and a huge treat to drive on. You find yourself getting from Worli in Bandra in no time. Bandra is a place not to be missed. It was always hip and trendy but has now scaled new heights in the world of culinary offerings.
I never opt for shwarma in the US. It does not compare to the Lebanese form of shwarma adapted here in Bombay. Here, succulent roasted chicken or mutton is placed on a soft flatbread (somewhere between khubz and a naan) with their version of yogurt sauce – a creamy, buttery sauce that’s a cross between sour cream and mayo – pickled vegetables and thick potato fries. This, my friends, is what shwarma should be, not the sort sold in the US that is more gyro than shwarma. Carter Blue just off Carter Road in Bandra has an exemplary version of this. There was a teeming crowd when we got there. Efficient personnel dressed in bright blue uniforms navigated around the hungry crowd of patrons as if in fluid choreography. My years away had made me complacent and I let the crowd press on ahead of me. Happily, I’d met up with Manjunath, a friend and a Bandra local, who quietly got them to expedite our takeout order. We feasted like kings that night.
The next night we drove out to Bandstand, which used to have the well-known SeaRock Hotel at its end. That one shut down years ago but a slight ways up from where it was, there now is a new-ish five-star hotel by the Taj, The Taj at Land’s End. Hotels in India have the elegant solution of a confluence of service and style down to an art. The Taj at Land’s end in Bandra is spectacular with its gorgeous opulent atrium with marble tiling, vivid colours and textures and lyrical fountains; a modern space with ancient references. Also with wonderful Indian touches all over, like a welcoming tilak thali and flower garlands for guests.
This hotel has a fabulous Chinese restaurant in it, Ming Yang, among other restaurants. Indian-Chinese food has come a long way since my memory of the basic fried rice and manchurian one found everywhere in the 90s. The restaurant boasted a vast menu of dishes. We went here with my cousins. My sister and I spent all our free time with them when we were growing up. The last time we had time to catch up altogether was about nine years ago. We sat chattering away, hushed but excited, in this quiet restaurant, bonding over our mutual love of food. I was amused to note that Parag and I still share similar tastes in food while Rakhi and Priya still share theirs. Some things never change. Others do. Menus, for example, are far more likely to feature pork and beef dishes than they were when I was growing up here. Parag and I tried the sweet and sour pork which was juicy and succulent with decided spice kick while Rakhi and Priya tried a lightly sauced, steamed fish.
The paanwallas have gotten much fancier. Not that I’ve ever cared too much for paan, but I did stop to admire this pretty platter. (If you don’t know what paan is, here’s an amusing look at it from a non-Indian’s perspective.)
At one time, Bombay was rife with Irani cafés on the corners of the block. These were typically owned by immigrants from Iran (hence the name) or Parsis and served quick and inexpensive eats like bun-maska (a soft bun with sweetened butter), omelette-pav and mutton pattice, along with cups of strong tea. With their art deco-meets-Victorian decor of glass-topped tables with small narrow chairs and large spaces with high ceilings, they were a testament to a past era. Many have closed down now and very few remain. I visited one for a cup of tea for a sister who craves several cups a day. The tea was not as good as I remember it but the kitschy charm brought back so many memories. So did the phenomenal bun-maska and Khaled yowling out his 90s hit Didi on the wall-mounted colour TV.
We spent a lot of time around our parents, reminiscing about what Bombay and also catching up and some with friends about our childhoods. Many now have children of their own, cute little ones like this wonderful eight year old boy we got to know well. His enthusiasm for books reminded me so much of me, and how I’d wait around for the end of the month to roll by because that’s when my dad bought me books.
This little guy’s lovely mom reintroduced me to a “secret” that’s not so secret here. Indians make some wonderful café au lait type coffee for years, most have been working this miracle with what other coffee-drinking cultures would consider sacrilegious – instant coffee. For the times I do take a cup, I prefer Indian coffee to anything else; for me coffee in the US is a bit too bitter. But since I’m not much of a coffee drinker to begin with, I had forgotten all about this ‘secret’. Then I was served a cup of coffee by my friend Charvi and that wonderful foamy cup that brought it all back.
With great chicory-laced, Indian instant coffee and a little milk, it’s so simple to have a sweet, creamy, refreshing cup ready in no time. So I leave you here with a quick recipe for a great cup of coffee, so good you won’t care that it is instant. This coffee is my new key to access the wonderful memories from this precious trip.
Indian-style café au lait
The trick to a frothy, creamy cup of coffee made with instant coffee is some pre-stirring/mixing. Here’s what you need.
1 tbsp of coffee per person (or 3/4 if you like your coffee weaker)
1 cup of milk per person
1 tsp of sugar per cup (or more if you like it sweeter)
A little bit of water
- Bring the milk to a boil and then turn it down to a simmer to keep hot.
- In a cup, place the coffee and sugar. Add just a little bit of water to the cup, enough to dissolve the sugar and water into a loose paste.
- Beat the coffee-sugar paste for a couple of minutes with a spoon or fork until thick and foamy. (You could also use a milk frother if you have one.)
- Add the foamy coffee mixture to the milk and stir to mix.
- Pour into individual cups and serve to enjoy a great, creamy-tasting cup of coffee.