In praise of the Gujarati thali

Published in The New York Times – All you can eat, all over Mumbai

The Gujaratis are best known in Mumbai’s culinary scene for thalis, restaurants offering several courses of all-you-can-eat platters of food with a variety of subtle flavors. The restaurants take pride in leaving their customers full; one has a Web site that claims, “We serve as long as you can eat.”

Thalis are typically served on large, round steel plates (the word thali itself means plate) and begin with a course of farsan (steamed and fried starters). The meal goes on to different types of rotis (Indian breads) with accompaniments of vegetables (three to four types) and dal (lentils), followed by rice. And finally dessert, the most important part of the meal and also the main reason you should head for a thali in Mumbai this season. Aamras – thick and sweet freshly squeezed juice of mango – which makes for the best dessert, is available only in the summer and in some places, is served in unlimited quantities.

Some of the best places to try a Gujarati thali in Mumbai include Rajdhani, with branches all over the city; Chetana (34, K. Dubash Marg, Kala Ghoda; 91-22-2284-4968), which also serves Rajasthani food, similar in many ways to Gujarati cuisine; and Golden Star Thali (330, Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road; Opp. Charni Road Station; 91-22-2363-1983), which is one of the oldest and most popular.

If the idea of a large platter of seemingly unlimited food is overwhelming, then head to the Rajdhani snack outlets, which serve lighter Gujarati bites. Soam (Sadguru Sadan, Ground Floor, Opp. Babulnath Mandir, Chowpatty, 91-22-236-98080) is also known for its authentic Gujarati food and is particularly worth visiting during the times when there is a food festival on. Try the spongy, sweet-sour dhokla or creamy khandvi and in the winter, undhiyu, a thick vegetable stew.

Mumbai’s poster boys

It was Haji Abu’s grandfather, and then his father, who passed on their love for Hindi cinema to him. Mr. Abu turned his hobby into his profession, opening the Poster Shop some time in the early 1990s. Twenty or so years later, his tiny shop at Chor Bazaar (91-98704-40970) is crammed with thousands of old film posters, lobby cards and assorted film memorabilia, Mr. Abu explained as he showed off carefully preserved ticket stubs for blockbuster movies from the 1960s and ’70s.

Chor Bazaar, meaning ‘thieves market’ was once the place where stolen goods found their way. Now, it is where locals go to pick up anything that can be remotely called antique – old remodeled furniture, unusual silver and brassware, clocks and lamps, faded statues and paintings. It spans the length of Mutton Street and a couple of parallel lanes in the heart of South Mumbai’s bustling Mohammad Ali Road.

Classics like Mother India and Sholay loom large on the makeshift walls of the Poster Shop. “In those days, the posters were larger-than-life, just as the movies themselves,” says Abu. The best part about shopping at Abu’s is his thorough knowledge about the posters and the movies they promote. He is happy to share trivia on any movie, however obscure. The Poster Shop has both originals and copies – the former, painstakingly and lovingly painted by hand for hours and even days, a rarity in this age of instant computer graphics.

Haji Abu (91-98704-40970) counts among his regular customers collectors from all over the world – USA, Canada, UK, and of course all over India. As we talk, he proudly shows an article about him in a local newspaper and then a glossy booklet from a film exhibition in Canada where his posters were used. He rolls and packs these posters carefully in hardboard tubes so they can be carried anywhere.

Although Abu’s shop does not stock much material from English movies, A-1 Corner and Bollywood Bazaar further down the road have these on offer, all the way from The Tramp to Godfather, via James Bond. The best time to visit Chor Bazaar is on a weekday afternoon (avoid Fridays), when the streets are quieter and the vendors have more time to chat. Even though most shopkeepers speak basic English, it is best take a long a local who can bargain in true Mumbai style.

This was published originally in the travel blog of the New York Times a few months ago. Read Hindi Cinema, in Poster Form, at a Mumbai Shop in the NY Times.

Also read: A walk in Chor Bazaar

Everything you want at Crawford Market

It is not easy to imagine this in today’s Mumbai, but it wasn’t long ago that anything considered “foreign goods” was hard to come by in the city’s markets. An exception that continues today is Crawford Market, in South Mumbai, where residents and visitors alike can find Western items like Camay soap, Kraft cheese, Fa deodorant or a pack of Pampers diapers.

Crawford Market

Its official name — Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market — is noted on the arch marking the entrance to this sprawling space, but its better-known name derives from Arthur Crawford, who as the city’s first municipal commissioner established this market in 1869. Though it went through a survival crisis a few years ago, it survived unscathed, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.

Today, even as all kinds of consumer products are available freely in Mumbai (and indeed, all over India), Crawford Market continues to attract loyal customers who go there for the wholesale bargain prices and perhaps the sheer excitement of down-home shopping. Indeed, there is remarkably little method to the madness inside the market. Immediately next to shops selling exotic beauty products sit rows of pink and green cashews; the next stall is occupied by a coconut vendor who moonlights in mobile-phone recharge cards. The market marches to a rhythm that only regulars seem to be able to hear and identify, even against the din of the wholesale vegetable and fruit trading.

Published in my Globespotters column the Intransit blog of The New York Times as Mumbai market specializes in Western goods

Visiting a Historic, and Hidden, Area of Mumbai

Khotachiwadi, a historic area of Mumbai, is like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series: invisible to all but those who know exactly where it is or are determined to find it. The narrow lane leading into the wadi, or hamlet, does nothing to inspire confidence and, like Harry and his friends, you need to take a leap of faith and enter.

Inside, visitors are well-rewarded: Khotachiwadi is a colorful, quiet and quirky world, a maze of crumbling 19th-century bungalows and chawls (communal living quarters typical in Mumbai) painted in bright colors, with latticed windows, overhanging balconies and winding wooden staircases. Walking through the area gives you a glimpse into old Goa, or even a forgotten part of Portugal.

Or closer to home, Khotachiwadi is a throwback to the times when Mumbai was only a collection of small villages.

One of the most attractive homes inside Khotachiwadi, very close to the main gate, belongs to the Felizardos, originally from Goa. Stop by the house to admire the stunning mosaic floor and chat with young Willy Felizardo about his adopted city. Or drop into designer James Pereira’s beautifully preserved home just across the lane; Mr. Pereira himself is a storehouse of information about the Khotachiwadi community.

The wadi is believed to have sprung up around 1840, developed by Dadoba Waman Khot from the Pathare Prabhu community (a group of strict Hindu Brahmins) who sold plots of land to the growing group of East Indian Christians. It was declared a Mumbai Heritage Precinct in 1995 as part of a serious conservation effort across the city.

Khotachiwadi, though, sits on prime land in one of the most expensive areas of Mumbai, and property developers have been eyeing it for many years now. Residents are slowly giving up the struggle to maintain their homes, anachronisms in the age of steel and concrete.

So the time to visit Khotachiwadi is now; as it is, only 28 of the original 65 bungalows inside the gated colony have survived. The best time to go is around Christmas when the houses are lit up and authentic East Indian home cooking is on offer. The group Bombay Heritage Walks (91-22-2369-0992; conducts walking tours inside Khotachiwadi.

Read online about Khotachiwadi here – my first piece for the New York Times travel blog…