Easing back into a changed world

Chef Floyd Cardoz was the first person in my world who died after a COVID-19 infection. We’d been to his restaurant in Mumbai the day before it closed to the pandemic. We stilled the small panic in our hearts and visited it again the day after it opened. There are major changes now. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who had introduced me to the farm-to-table philosophy, and taken the time to demonstrate ways of retaining fresh flavours in food, has decided to move away. Chef Hussain Shahazad is now designing the menu. I was not very comfortable in a closed dining space, even though the staff was masked and tables well separated. The pandemic has not finished with Mumbai; people we know are still falling ill, and eating in a restaurant is not the safest thing to do right now. But we were tired of eating at home. We’ve had fancy food delivered, but even that requires us to assemble each dish. And, no matter what, there is always cleaning up afterwards. So we gambled, as we do sometimes.

There were many changes to the menu, now much smaller. A wonderful invention is the dish called Paya with Momo. I had encountered tangbao, soup filled dumplings, decades ago in a long-vanished Chinese restaurant called Nanking in Colaba, and encountered them again in our travels in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chef Shahazad has reimagined them as momos filled with paya. A momo covering is thicker than the tangbao that I’ve had, and Chef Shahzad goes with the momo. The paya (soup of trotters) was wonderful, quite comparable to the local slow-cooked version that The Family and I enjoy so much. The topping, a tangy and spicy chutney, is a lovely complement.

Chef Heena Punwani has added a very small selection to the menu; that day we saw only two of her creations listed. We decided to try what she calls Strawberries and Cream. A simple description would be a chhana poda doughnut sliced through to hold a lime infused cream, roasted pistachios and slices of strawberries, topped with a strawberry sorbet. Chhana poda, or baked paneer, is heavy, frying it into a doughnut would make it heavier. The Family was a little reluctant, but went along because of the strawberries. The whole thing was surprisingly light and delightfully fresh. Well-roasted nuts are almost a signature with her, and the sorbet was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more from Chef Punwani.

I will miss Chef Cardoz and his singular focus on exploring and popularizing India’s culinary heritage. I look forward to seeing Chef Zacharias doing something new. But I’m glad that a place that we have haunted for years continues to reinvent and showcase the immense variety of Indian food.

Chewing it over

How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.

Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.

One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chefs. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even in the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.

Farm-to-table

The registrar of marriages and deaths decided many years ago that The Family and I would forever celebrate Einstein’s birthday. So this Albert’s day we went off to have a nice dinner at one of our new favourite restaurant: The Bombay Canteen. When it opened a few years ago it was an instant sensation, with its completely re-imagined Indian food.

The first time we went there we had something they called the Arbi Tuk. As you can see in the featured photo, it looks totally undistinguished: like a simple dish of chopped onions and tomatoes. A mixture like this on top of crisp puris is a staple of street food all over Mumbai. Not only does this clever dish look like the traditional bhel puri, it even fools your palate for a moment after you bite into it. Then you realize that the puri is not puri, it is fried arbi (taro). Its a lovely fresh taste. We talked to chef Thomas Zacharias, and he gave us a plateful of one of the ingredients to taste. The beans which are chopped into it are fresh, and hard to find in the markets. I asked him where he sources his flavourful tomatoes, and he shrugged. The Bombay Canteen is famous for taking extreme care to source local vegetables from local farmers.

Halim with khamin roti

Every time we go to this restaurant there is something new on the menu. This time around the list of new dishes included the Haleem. We consider ourselves to be Haleem experts. The deep umami flavour of mutton was satisfactory, but over this rode a wonderful new flavour of roasted jowar. We would go back to a restaurant just for a Haleem like this. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this place before we knew what a lovely Haleem they make.

We ordered Thomas’ version of a tarte tatin, called the Guava Tan-ta-tan. It is was the ultimate in street flavour. The Family and I love to eat guavas from street-side vendors, cut open with a little red chili and salt sprinkled on it. This tarte tatin was made with guavas instead of apples, and came with a scoop of red chili ice cream on it, placed in a plate smeared with runny and spicy guava jelly.

Alice Waters may have started the farm-to-table movement in California, but The Bombay Canteen has perfectly adapted it to Mumbai.