Mumbai’s underground culinary culture withered away before it could be discovered and commodified. I’m not talking about the street food, easily visible to every tourist. This hidden world catered to the many young men (always men) who came to the city in the period before the 1990s from small towns across the country. They came to the big city alone, discovered others who spoke the same language and grew up with the same food. No one sent them their lunches through dabbawalas. Instead there were tiny eateries bursting at the seams with office-goers who came for a quick lunch. Businesslike places these: no time for a conversation, you ate and left. If the food did not perfectly reproduce the taste of home you found another.
Just a few survive now. The ruthless culling of decades means that the food is likely to be very good. Last weekend we went for Onam’s special lunch to one of these survivors in a little lane in Fort: Mumbai’s financial heart before land prices and WFH stilled it. We joined a dozen families waiting for a table. I eat this food at best once a year, so I can’t recognize most of it. Waiters don’t explain the food as they serve it, but I asked anyway.
You wipe the banana leaf which is placed as a plate in front of you. Fried jackfruit and plantain, three kinds of pickles and preserves, and papad are placed on the left. A range of vegetables is put across the top. I had to taste each to figure out the principal ingredients. The one on the extreme right was made with pineapples. There seemed to be banana flowers is one, possibly unripe jackfruit in another. There was a starchy root which I could not identify. I mistook the one with a long cut bean for avial and was corrected as the avial was poured over the rice. The onam sadhya also came with rasam and sambar, buttermilk and a payasam. We walked out in a daze.