Smoker’s Corner bookstore: Stories in the dust

A leering Shah Rukh Khan greets me as I enter the foyer of Botawala Chambers in Fort, Mumbai. The buzz from outside – vehicles honking, people gossiping at the cigarette store on the corner and pedestrians walking – instantly recedes. At the same time, the temperature appears to drop a degree. This, of course, has nothing to do with the actor or the women he shares a magazine cover with.

I’m at Smoker’s Corner Bookstore – a place that gets its name from the sailors who used to come by and stock up on tobacco and cigarettes at the tobacconist just outside the building. Now, they’re just ordinary people smoking around the corner. If I breathe in deeply enough, I can smell the cigarette smoke beyond the mustiness.

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The bookstore has no space – barring the stairs and a rickety chair – to sit and read.

This used to be a library but, there’s no board pointing out the name of the place or offering titles at discount; there’s no one to welcome us into the space; and there’s no
registry of what’s available. It’s just a collection of dusty wooden shelves and stands decorating the lobby of the building and two small rooms at the side. It appears as if someone just took a collection of books and hastily laid them out on shelves and stands. It’s hot and stuffy.

It wasn’t always this way.

The book Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle shares a note about the origin of the 
bookstore. In 1954, the proprietor Suleman Botawala took over the tobacco shop and filled it with books, turning it into a library. Botawala was pursuing his passion for books and reading, and over the years, built up a steady clientele of readers. He passed away in 2009 and since then, the place has lost its sheen and presumably, given the empty shelves, its customers.

The available books number to less than a 1,000 and are a motley collection. They’re scattered across two wooden stands in the middle, glass shelves hugging the walls, and two little rooms (alcoves) on the side. Some of them are tied with thread, to keep their pages together and to keep them from falling off the stands.

My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is I never know what I will find, what treasure I can take back home for a mere Rs 50. Finding that one book, however, necessitates my walking through all the sections, combing through the titles. The fashion and news magazines are the only issues up to date editions; everything else is older than me, and secondhand. There’s a selection of picture books on the royal family (back when Lady Diana was alive and part of it); fairytales for children; a Dr Who collection; Bible studies; magazines with advice on enameling, raising a child, and being a good granny; and unusual self help books such as How to Eat Worms.

As with any other old bookstore, I spy an assortment of romantic titles, with author’s names in embossed gold and postcard perfect pictures of fields and castles promising compelling love stories. There’s a nice nostalgia section for 90s kids like me with books on Destiny’s Child, Olsen twins, once upon a time Bond girl Halle Berry, and Reader’s Digest back issues.

As I go though the books, people walk past me, without a second glance. The place has become part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for other like me. I try and imagine it as a buzzing place at one time, with readers crowding around shelves eager to pick up the latest sports magazine or bestseller. It’s difficult because Smoker’s Corner wears an air of neglect that’s hard to shake off.

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Exposed wires, dusty books, creaking shelves – the place has a general air of neglect.

Suleman’s son Zubair now looks after the store, as a way of remembering his father. He isn’t around when I visit but the man at the counter, who makes notes of our purchases in a ledger, assures me he does spends time here.

I pick up a book called Foetal Attraction whose reviews call it ‘screamingly funny’, the diary of Anakin Skywalker (in case I ever do decide to start reading Star Wars), and mystery novel by the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.

As we leave, my friend and I pause for a moment outside, trying to cool down. My friend lights up a cigarette. He is no sailor but this seems fitting tribute for a bookstore indirectly dedicated to smokers.

 

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I picked up seven books for Rs 400 only. Photos courtesy: Danish Bagdadi.

Smoker’s Corner is situated at Botawala Chambers, Sir PM Road, Fort; call 2216 4060; closed on Sundays; prices start at Rs 30.

The story was written for and originally published in The City Story.

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Sushegad Gomantak: A thali for your thoughts

Pennies are passé.

A thali filled with crispy fried fish, a thick curry the colour of the morning sky and a
colourful salad is worth a bagful of pennies. That is, if you are a Goan living in Bombay and starved of good fish.

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Tisreo Sukhe served with sol kadhi and cabbage.

On days when the craving for home food fills the mind and conjures up visions of a crunchy mussel fry, butter garlic prawns, or a vibrant mackerel stuffed with red masala, there’s only one thing to do. I go to Mahim, to the food-filled lane opposite Paradise cinema and walk into a tiny eatery called Sushegad Gomantak. There, I choose a spot among the five odd tables and settle in for a fishy feast.

But, before placing an order, there’s a system to follow. First is greeting Raju, a man with an easy smile who doubles up as cashier, waiter and delivery boy. This is followed by a discussion on fish – what’s cheap, what is good, what is special today and where did they buy it from. Once I tell him my order, he goes to the tiny kitchen at the back and relays it to his mother. 

Sushegad’s kitchen is presided over by Savita maushi, a diminutive woman of 65, under whose strict supervision passes every dish that’s served to guests. She doesn’t step out of the kitchen, greeting new customers and regulars from inside. Speak to in her native Konkani and she will reluctantly leave her post and come out and talk to you. Savita grew up in the now tourist haven of Calangute where she learned to cook
from her mother. Her favourite fish used to be pomfret, plain fried or coated with masala. Today, cooking it daily has made it lose its charm and she prefers the bangda (mackeral). Savita moved to Mumbai when she as 13 and sharpened her cooking skills by feeding a family of 10 daily. This continued after her marriage.

The eatery is small, just five tables, a board describing all the fish in India and another with the day’s menu scrawled on it.

Ordering fish here is easy – just pick the kind of fish and decide if you prefer it fried or in a curry. It is helpful to know the local names of the fish – bangda (mackeral), muddoshi (lady fish), tisreo (shellfish), makli (squid), muddoshi (lady fish), tamoshi (red snapper), mandeli, xinanio (mussels) and mori (shark). There are thali options and a few chicken dishes too but everyone comes here for the fish.

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Eating the crab masala can get quite messy. 

Fish at Sushegad Gomantak is prepared quite simply. The cooking style here is Goan Hindu – heavy on the spices and coconut and no beef or pork. There is the sukhe, the dry version made by pounding together ginger, garlic, chillies, turmeric and lime. The curries have a few additional ingredients – coconuts, dried chillies and black pepper (kali miri), dhania (coriander), jeera (cumin), garlic, onions, green chillies and tamarind. Then there’s my favourite type of preparation – coated with a batter of rice flour and rava coated, lightly salted and plain fried. As with the chillies, pepper and tamarind, Savita  gets her oil from Goa too – she only uses khobraya cha tel (oil removed after drying coconuts in the sun). It is the oil that gives the fried fish its distinct flavour.

My staple order is fried xinanio (Rs 250), a tangy and spicy mori curry called ambotik (literally sour-sweet) (Rs 200), the very spicy and coconut-ty tisreo (Rs 200) and the juicy and up-to- your-elbow- messy crab masala (Rs 250). The only correct way to eat here is with your hands, making a mess and calming the fire in your mouth with the tangy and bright pink sol kadhi. Sometimes, I also order a crisp prawn cutlet (Rs 150), packed with onions and juicy shrimp. 

Every fish dish is a meal itself and is served with onions, a plain cabbage salad and a simple but delicious green chutney. If I’m feeling particularly, I will order the thali. 

The reason I come here alone or bring Goan friends along is because the food is good,
authentic and homely and just as in Goa, once the food is at the table, all talking ceases and attention rightfully shifts to the food.

The true taste of a good Goan meal: I always feel like taking a good, long siesta after eating.

Sushegad Gomantak is located on Lady Jamshedji Road, opposite Crown Bakery in Mahim; open from 11am to 11pm.

Talking Mexico with Scott Linquist

Deadly bullrings, pristine beaches, lush tropical forests and lively streets: Chef Scott Linquist has explored Mexico inside out. He’s seen much of what’s there to see and he has, of course, eaten all that’s there to eat. Now, in his most recent stint as a partner at XICO, a Mexican eatery that launched in September in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, he has curated a menu that ventures beyond tacos and burritos.

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Linquist has years of experience to back his offerings. He was the executive chef at Dos Caminos, New York’s fine dine Mexican restaurant, for nine years, and is also chef and partner at Miami’s quick-service taco shop and speakeasy tequila bar chain, Coyo Taco.

In a culinary career spanning three decades, the Los-Angeles born has made countless trips to Mexico, some of them month-long and each undertaken to hunt down the best of Mexican food. He has cooked a whole pig in Yucatán, downed mezcal or ‘the mother of tequila’ in Oaxaca and gorged on sea urchin tostados in Baja California. His most cherished souvenirs over the years, then, have been the dishes he has added to his menus, inspired from the street food sampled and meals shared with Mexican in their homes.

“Mexican cuisine is very interesting. Unfortunately, it is poorly represented outside of its original location,” says Linquist, 51. Most people even in the U.S.A., he rues, have only ever seen the food eaten along the border town, which is typically roasted and grilled meats, and tortilla, cheese and beans. “I want more and more people to go beyond that and try the food that the locals there eat,” he adds. “Not the Tex-Mex version.” 

Here, he talks about his trips to Mexico and the special bond he shares with that country and especially its food.

You have been to Mexico more times than you can remember. What is the place like and what is its cuisine like?

I’ve been travelling to Mexico for over 20 years now. I go at least thrice a year, and I have been to all the regions, cities and villages that are significant from a food perspective. The food there varies according to region. In Yucatán, home to indigenous Maya people and located in south-eastern Mexico, the climate is tropical and the food has Mayan influences, while the small state of Oaxaca has Zapotec, and even a few Spanish and French influences. Oaxaca is also the culinary mecca—it is where mezcal, ‘the mother of tequila’ that’s distilled from the local agave plant, comes from. Oaxaca is also popular for its mole sauces. Every time I visit, I try to share a meal with locals in their homes—that’s where you find the best of Mexican food.

You have not only eaten on Mexico’s streets, you have also cooked there. What’s that one Mexican dish you had the most fun experimenting with?

This one was not on the streets, but I had great fun cooking cochinita pibil in the Yucatán jungle. It’s a traditional Mexican dish with Mayan roots, which involves roasting a whole pig in a hole in the ground. The meat is marinated with citrus, garlic, spices, and achiote (the orange red condiment that gives the meat its colour). The pig is then wrapped in banana leaf and laid in the ground for 12 hours beside coals. The resultant sweet and smoky dish is incredible, one of the best I’ve tasted. It’s served with hot habanero chilli and chilled serveza (beer).

When it comes to weird foods, Mexico is no China. But it does have its share of bizarre foods. What all have you tried?  

I have one food philosophy: I’ll eat almost anything at least once in my life. I’ve caught and savoured sea urchins and eaten roe. Mexicans also eat a lot of insects. In Oaxaca, for instance, they also relish chapulines. This dish is essentially grasshoppers toasted over wood fire, and then some chillies, lime and salt is tossed over it. It is eaten as a snack with mezcal, or inside tacos. I’ve also tried gusano, a fat caterpillar that’s roasted till it turns crispy. It has an oozing and gooey centre. But to be honest, I didn’t like the texture. I prefer escamoles instead. Larvae from a giant ant, they look like maggots and are cooked with chilli, garlic, and butter, and are eaten with tortillas. They’re simply delicious.

What have been some of your most memorable meals there?

There are just so many of them. But my first choice will be the tacos served at El Villamelón. Located across the street from Monumental Plaza de Toros México, one of the world’s largest bullrings, this 56-year-old restobar cooks the bull that’s slaughtered in the ring. The dish is called Taco Campechano, which has cecina (beef jerky), longaniza (sausage), and chicharrón (pork rinds), and is served on a corn tortilla. This is a heavy and flavourful meat dish, full of different layers and textures. Definitely the most delicious tacos I have ever had.

Another tasty or rather unique dish I tried was Lamb Barbacoa, in this small town called Zaachila, about 14 kilometres from Oaxaca. Zaachila is known for its Thursday market. Vendors from nearby villages flock to this open-air market to sell flowers, fruit, vegetables, pots and such knick-knacks. But on Sunday, if you’re there when the cooks at La Capilla restaurant remove the steaming roasted lamb, coated with avocado and enveloped in banana leaves, from the brick and dirt pit where it’s left to roast for a day—it’s a sight to behold. They chop up everything, the bones, the insides, and the meat together and you can make yourself tacos using tortillas and condiments. This is served with a consommé made of vegetables and meat juices.

 

 

You have led culinary tours in Mexico. How did it feel to familiarise a bunch of tourists to a cuisine you feel so passionately about?

Let me tell how it started. In 2002, when I started the Dos Caminos, we had a research and development budget. Since I was the corporate chef, I started to pick good chefs to take them with me to Mexico. We would fly down for six to 10 days and explore different regions and their specific dishes. Soon, other chefs, interested in learning about Mexican food, started to call saying they’d like to join. A year later, a culinary tour group approached me. I thought why not, and so I started taking people to restaurants and to people’s homes. Together, we’d make mole sauce, cheese and tortillas. I did it for a few years and then stopped once my workload increased. I do intend to start again, though.

The thing is Mexico has a bad reputation… because of corruption, the drug culture. But besides food, there’s still a lot to see and do there. There’s culture and history, and the people are fabulous.

Do you think culinary tours help countries pin their cuisines on the global food map?

Culinary tourism is becoming a big deal. Maybe not so much in the U.S.A. because we don’t really have a food culture but it is indeed prevalent in most European and Asian countries. Food is a really important part of the culture of most places. Not everyone wants to just see the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. Most want to get down and dirty, go into the backstreets and eat the food that locals eat. On my first visit to Mumbai, I visited this tiny stall near the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba and tried goat brains and kidneys. Now I’ve eaten brain before but it’s always been beef. This, though, was tastier.

The story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller, India