Category Archives: Mumbai

Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”

I dropped the phone.

I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?

I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.

After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.

They did not.

My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.

My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.

Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”

The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.

Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.

I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.

I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair. 

I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.

By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.

People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.

His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.

“I am saved.”

Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.

Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.

It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.

A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.

Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.

I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here

Advertisements

A taste of the North East in Kalina

In the morning, the suburb of Kalina is a quiet place. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start riffling through the piles of garbage being swept from the street. 

Near the St Roque Grotto, a small two storey space starts to come to life. As part of his morning ritual, Yaomi Awungshi, 36 is having tea and breakfast with his family. In some time, the plates and cups are cleared and the place is open for business.  

The business being Thotrin Café, the suburb’s newest, and what they call the city’s only, North Eastern restaurant. “We serve food from typically cooked in our homes, and from other states,” says Awungshi.

“This area has a lot of families from the North East. We wanted to offer them the tastes of home,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik both belong to the Tangkhul tribe – they identify as Nagas but geographically, their home is in Manipur. The menu features Naga tribal dishes and some from other North Eastern states too.

Food stories

The restaurant launched three months back. It is a small space with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, few potted plants, and a full length motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.

“You can call us and request any dish and we will make it,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes like the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak – a meaty potato mash made with King Chilli and fermented river fish; steamed chicken with bamboo shot and shiitake mushrooms; thesui – fermented soyabean, ngari – fermented river fish with King Chilli, and even escargot. They also serve pork and beef items but that’s off the menu – they don’t want to alienate customers. Dishes are of substantial portions, cheap (the most expensive dish is Rs 220) and meant for sharing.

The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholics from all across Kalina and Vakola, and members of the community who come from as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students too. They come to study at the Kalina University and so, settle down here. They often don’t have the time to cook or look for specific ingredients. This was our way of helping them,” says Zimik. When he first came to the city to study law 15 years back, there was no place to buy homemade food or ingredients so he started cooking himself. “We have airhostesses who are regulars who always gush about the food and say it tastes like home.”

Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reason, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. He is currently an operations manager at AB Celestial, Mahim. He believes the time is ripe for the city’s diners to ‘indulge in their love for regional food by trying out our food’. He would know. One of his work stints was at King Chilli, the Chindian fusion restaurant down the street from Thotrin. There, customers could order off-the-menu Manipuri food items like Khaiko Kasathei (a dry fish salad) and Harsa Kasathei (chicken salad with onion, lime juice and King chilli) and Alangsa, a beef offal stew-like dish. The dishes, once only eaten by members of the community, are no popular with anyone looking for a taste of the North Eastern cuisine.  

The right ingredients  

The popularity of the King chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days means it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the North East.  The Kalina Masjid lane has two such stores selling foodstuff, vegetables, breads and sweets specific to the Manipuri and Naga community. Think fermented fish and bamboo shoots.  

Thotrin gets its produce from the store sharing its name, which Awungshi started three years back. He  gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread all made by the family.  The small space is packed with clear packets of fresh vegetables – mustard leaves, Indian bean root, white pepper, aiyang thei (Naga eggplant), fermented bamboo shoots, and dried King chilli.

vegetables

Fresh vegetables and dried fish comes in every week from Nagaland

The fish comes in pickled form or a dried version (usually done over heated charcoal) and packed within small woven bamboo baskets. There’s a rack from which hang pickled sweet red plums, packets of meat masala, and tins of fish and meat pickle. Two small refrigerators nearby hold vegetable salads and pork pickle. The dry food stack has strips of dried beef intestines, fried beef and pork, chewy doughnuts sprinkled with coconut, crispy rice cakes and a sweet puri-like bread made from black rice. “When we opened, on the first day itself we had 100 customers!” laughs Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was that time we had the idea to open the restaurant too.”

store 1

The vegetable rack at Thotrin store

Both places are open through the week. Sunday afternoon is the only time you will find them shut – it’s because the family goes to church. People from the Tangkhul tribe are largely Protestant and go to a small hall within the Air India complex at Kalina for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, they are usually joined by a small group of people who come to get a bite to eat at the restaurant.   

The brothers look at Thotrin as a space that brings the community together, a social hangout spot. “We want to take this food and the restaurant all across Mumbai,” says Zimik with a smile. “We want to make it famous.”

Thotrin Café is situated opposite St Roque Grotto, Kalina Kurla Cross Road, Santacruz East; open from 9.30 pm to 11 pm; call 077382 30296

 

 

Worth the Mani

I am at a table with three strangers. We don’t talk; our mouths are busy shoveling down idlis, wadas and upma. The only sounds we make come from the cracking of a crisp dosa, and the slurp of hot filter coffee.

A waiter hovers by, ready to refill our bowls with ladles of fragrant sambhar. The thin and tangy vegetable stew coats the idlis (steamed lentil rice cakes) on my plate, giving them an orange tint. In another bowl, the soup-like rasam, made with tamarind juice, tomato, chillies, and spices, soaks through the medu wada (crisp fritters made with urad dal), softening them up.

I wipe both dishes clean, resisting the urge to lick my fingers as many around me do. Someone near me gives a satisfied burp. Nobody bats an eyelid. At Mani’s Lunch Home in Chembur, table etiquette and manners are secondary to enjoying a good meal.

Rasam Vada

Rasam vada.

In Mumbai, there’s cheap and then there’s lunch home cheap. Mani’s Lunch Home, or Mani’s, falls in the latter category – nothing on their menu costs over Rs 150. The 80-year- old institution serves simple, homely, vegetarian South Indian food. Last year, it shut down its Matunga outlet and moved to the eastern suburbs of Chembur.

I visit the new digs for a late breakfast. It takes time getting used to the white walls, metals chairs and air-conditioned interiors. The old Mani’s felt like the dining room of a friend’s home, warm and inviting. Here, under the glare of white lights, the four of us sharing a table are extremely conscious of each other. We sit properly, without fidgeting.
Once our orders arrive though, all propriety is forgotten.

A flurry of waiters deposit plates of dosas the length of my arm, tiny containers of chutney, filter coffee in tumblers, fluffy idlis, crisp wadas and bowls of sambhar and rasam. There’s no cutlery so we use our hands and dig in. My Ghee Roast Dosa is paper thin and crumbles as I break into it, revealing a mound of masala’ (boiled potatoes with onion and tempered with mustard and curry leaves). In between bites, I pour the filter coffee from the stainless steel tumbler into the cup, cool it and take small sips. It is milky
and sweet enough to jolt me awake.

dosa

Masala Dosa. Photo courtesy: Mani’s Lunch Home

Eating at a lunch home is a lesson in portion control. I barely wipe the last drop of sambhar from the plate, when a hand materialises out of nowhere and fills it up. After two rounds, I feebly wave the waiter away. He is understandably surprised. Whoever says no to extra, and free, servings?

By now, I am regretting all the food I’ve ordered. I can’t seem to finish all that I have ordered. My fellow diners have finished up, paid and left. They know their limits. They also know that you don’t waste time at a lunch home, you eat as quickly as you can and leave, making way for other hungry diners.

As I pay the bill, the owner KS Narayanaswamy walks over for feedback. I am full of praise but, he isn’t fooled. He saw me wave away second helpings. “You didn’t finish your paper dosa,” he says, accusingly. I sheepishly apologise, promising to return and do justice to everything I order.

This was part of my breakfast series for Roads & Kingdoms; read a full review of the place in Midday

Harkat Studios: A co-working oasis

A stray cat stares at me imperiously as I pick my way around her. Her amber eyes follow me as I enter Harkat Studios, the city’s hippest and possibly coolest co-working space cum performance venue. Once I’m in, the cat stretches and goes to sleep.

Harkat, I soon learn, has that effect on people. It makes everyone feel at home.  

The co-working studio has been in the news ever since it opened its doors in the tree-lined, quiet locale of Aram Nagar in Andheri. The founders, Micheala Strobel (or Mika) and Karan Talwar knew they wanted a space that was quiet, green and welcoming. Indeed, walking on the gravel path to reach the studio, past bungalows shaded by a green canopy and breathing in the quiet, it’s hard to believe this is Mumbai.   

 

 

Outdoor

The outdoor section has its own library and a canopy of trees.

Harkat has an outdoor and indoor space. The outside is a courtyard, now shaded because of the monsoon, with benches and potted plants. Inside, it is one big room, leading off into a narrow green room, and a kitchenette and bathrooms.

It’s been designed as a living room and it certainly feels that way. The all white space has splashes of colour, from the painted repurposed furniture, yellow girders, framed posters, and rugs. CDs hang from the ceiling, competing for attention with low-hung bulbs. 

 

 

I spy little nooks everywhere, different seating zones to cater to every kind of freelancer. A sturdy centre table can be used for a business meeting; side retractable panels on one side of the wall for those who want privacy; mattresses and a painted trunk for those who like sitting on the floor. My favourite is the individual desk, painted in bright colours.

It’s fully equipped for work and my freelancer’s eye is appreciative of the plug points, the printer, the strong Wifi signal and that necessary writer’s fuel, chai (there’s kombucha for those drinking healthy). Another creative working staple, silence, is available in plenty – it is the first thing that attracts me to the place. “We did all this ourselves,” says Mika, her arm sweeping across the room. She points to a table, painted blue with glass on top. “This was a discarded window frame. We got it in Behram Baug and painted it. It was a team-building activity,” she says.

 

HARKAT_singledesk_PR

What started out as a bookshelf n contains fascinating set of odds and ends. Photos courtesy: Harkat Studios

The coolest thing here, apart from a vintage typewriter, is the bookshelf. That Harkat staple is visible in almost every picture of the space; an unmoving background to the proceedings. For once, it’s not the books that fascinate me as much as the other knick knacks. “It was originally supposed to be moveable. But once we started putting in the shelves, and added in the books and other things, it became impossible to move,” says Karan. Now, it’s like an open treasure box, scattered with a kaleidoscope, vintage camera, a matryoshka doll, a tie, trophy, painted bottles, paintbrushes and candles. It’s not the prettiest sight; it looks like an elongated stepladder, draped with fairy lights. But, it certainly is compelling. It fits right in; all the furniture here is repurposed or salvaged antique. I run my hands down the wood, trying to imagine where it came from and the stories it must hold. It’s kitschy without being over the top. “The fact that we had no money proved to be a big advantage,” chuckles Karan. “It ensured nothing here is stark or perfect. Everything has rough edges”.

Harkat’s biggest asset is its ability to transform from a laidback co-working space to a performance venue. On most days, it’s a co-working space with people huddled over their laptops, nursing mugs of unlimited coffee and chai. On performance days, held over the weekends, it undergoes a quick 20-minute transformation. All the furniture is moved outside or lined against the walls. The kind of performance – a writing workshop, a film screening, a comedy special –determines the stage area, the décor and whether chairs will need to be borrowed from upstairs. Harkat can comfortable hold about 50 people, 75 if they’re squeezed in together. On Sundays, the outdoor area turns into a vegetable market, selling organic produce.

Hovering in the background and ensuring that everything is on track is a person Mika calls the ‘life of Harkat’, the office boy Ram. It’s not uncommon to hear someone call out his name, several times in the day, asking for his help.

Lunch at the co-working space is communal affair and often, after eating, people curl up on the mattresses and take a nap. “Everyone feels at home here. People come here to work or just to make some tea/coffee and chat with others. It’s a neighbourhood hang out,” says Mika. 

As I sink into a plush yellow armchair, sipping on water from a wine bottle (‘no free wine here’), I can’t help but agree. Harkat is comfortable enough for me to work and for a break, I can curl up with a good book or just take a nap.    

Harkat Studios is located at Bungalow No. 75, JP Road, Aram Nagar Part 2, Versova, Andheri West.The co-working plans start from Rs 300 (a day) to Rs 7,500 (for a desk). Log on to http://co-work.harkat.in   

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.

SC6

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.

SC5

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.

 

IMG-20171007-WA0019

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Snow Flake: a feel of Goa in Mumbai

In a neighbourhood rich in historic value, from the Art Deco building that is now Metro Multiplex to the ministry of sounds that is Furtados, you only discover Snowflake by accident. It is one of those places that time forgot.

On a visit to Kyani Restaurant down the road, I followed a line of cats sunning themselves on the road to find the entrance of what looked like someone’s home. As I would when faced with an open door back home in Goa, I entered and immediately felt as if I had stepped back in time. There’s a sense of calm and sepia-tinted nostalgia that envelope the place. The atmosphere is very laid back; staying too long can have soporific effects. Just ask the cats lazing around the doorstep.

 

The fans creak slowly. The chairs and tables are similar to what you would find at an Irani café: sturdy black wood and marble tops. There are half-empty showcases plastered with posters, old photos, plate souvenirs and other odds and ends. In one corner a blackboard states the menu; a white board has the day’s specials. Snowflake may appear rundown, but it has character. Everything has a sense of quiet pride to it.

sf4

The whiteboard in the corner lists the day’s menu.

This is a place that has seen better days. Once upon a time, I learn, Snowflake attracted a huge crowd. Mrs Vaz, one of the members of the Rebeiro family that runs the place, is my source for this information. The family is generally reluctant to talk, which is why it is rare to find information anywhere about Snowflake’s history. It started out as a bakery, selling cakes, snacks and ice cream to the many Goans in the area. The customers may have moved on to other parts of the city or abroad, but Snowflake is adamant that the menu will remain unchanged.

The food is simple, like the kind you will find in every Goan home. There are the staple pork dishes, beef (they had removed it from the menu for a brief period after the statewide beef ban before bringing it back), fish curries, pulao and cutlets. I have tasted it all. The sorpotel is my favourite. Tiny pieces of pork, fat, liver, skin and various other parts of the pig, jostle for space on the plate. The gravy is neither too thick nor too thin, and no, unlike in Goa, they don’t use pork blood when cooking it.

Another underrated fish dish is the ambotik, that sour and spicy curry that bursts into song in your mouth. The ambotik here is a lightly spiced, thin gravy made with shark (mori). Mix it with steamed rice and it is fish-curry-rice heaven. The Sausage pulao is pungent and packed with flavour, the vindaloo has chinks of soft pork pieces and fat, and the xacuti is redolent with the taste of coconut.

Thanks to the regulars, if you go to Snowflake too late in the afternoon or evening, you are likely to find some dishes sold out. Like the fish cutlets. These delicious morsels are flat, oval shaped and thin and come packed with minced fish coated in a rawa batter. I’ve eaten six at a go.

sf3

The fish cutlets are a bestseller here.

The food here won’t leave a dent in your wallet – all the dishes are priced below Rs. 200. Snowflake may not be making profits, but they don’t seem too bothered by it. As with the Parsi establishments in the city, they have their fixed ways – they will shut at 9:55 p.m. every night irrespective of whether you are still eating, and the food is cooked in limited portions, no matter the demand. I try to visit whenever I am in the area, have taken all my friends there, and even told a few city chefs about it. It is my little way of giving back to a place that has given so many wonderful meals that taste like home.

Snow Flake is located at 18, Ribeiro Building, Ground Floor, 1st Dhobi Talao Lane, Mumbai 400 002; call 22014252. 

Note: This story was first published in The City Story