Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mumbai on the platter

A few days ago a small corner of a leading daily quietly reported the closing of China White, (to reopen as Royal China) a restaurant that opened to amazing press coverage a mere 8 months ago. Two pages down in the same paper three stalwarts of the Mumbai dining scene were seen celebrating great innings with their establishments; Gaylords turned 50, Trattoria at the president turned 25 and relative baby Olive turned 6. This is the ever changing foodscape of Mumbai. For a foodie, Mumbai is the proverbial oyster - nowhere in India is dining more rewarding than here!

With India opening up to foreign trade, Mumbaikars have more money, less free time and a greater exposure to foreign influences. This has had immense impact on what they eat and the way they eat. And restaurants, exotic sections at supermarkets, food sections in dailies and publications, books on food and cooking, food on the TV, Radio and internet, the advent of swish cooking classes and food travel are all registering activity. India [is] shining on the gastronomic scene and nowhere is this fact more obvious than in Mumbai.

The world on Mumbai’s Menu
“276 restaurants, 81 confectioners and chocolatiers, plus a guide to secret ingredients” exclaims the 1997 edition of the Good food guide to Mumbai written by Rashmi Uday Singh. In the eighties, eating out was reserved for special occasions and meant picking from Mughlai and Punjabi for Indian food, continental and Italian in terms of world cuisine and of course the obsequious “Chinese” we love with a vengeance. That was before Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo and A. D. Singh’s Olive, followed by the success of Basillico and Moshe’s. That is when the dining sector of Mumbai opened up to the stand alone restaurant. Today eating out is the in thing in Mumbai, it offers entertainment and there is a smorgasbord of offerings to pick from.

Mumbaikars love their food, are open to trying everything and have the pick of the proverbial candy box to choose from. Restaurants of every ilk, offer a plethora of dining options with both regional cuisines – Punjabi, Peshawari, Gujarati, Bengali, Malwani, Goan, Maharashtrian, South Indian and a lot in between – as well as world cuisine – Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Moroccan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Italian, Lebanese, Burmese and Mongolian are on the menu.

Deap Ubhi the mastermind behind “Burrp!, Inc” sums things up, “I’m originally from San Francisco, which I believe has the best dining scene in the world, and after settling down in Mumbai, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. What makes Mumbai special is the variance, not only in cuisines, but also in food types, ambiance, etc. On any given night, I can go to Shiro in Worli for some awesome sushi, grab some drinks with friends at Geoffrey’s in town and then head to Juhu at 3AM after partying and have some of the best egg bhurji on the planet from a popular roadside stall. It’s just great.” No wonder then, that, 5 editions down the line the 2005 issue of the good food guide collated upwards of 1000 restaurant reviews!

Taking a moment from putting together the latest good food guide, Rashmi Uday Singh conveys palpable excitement across the phone line. “I have mapped the gastronomic scene of Mumbai for the last 24 years, but it is in the last 3-4 years that it has been at its most exciting and off late it is downright thrilling!... I mean, imagine this, yesterday I reviewed a South American Burger joint (Bembos) and just before that I checked out a stand alone Japanese restaurant (Tetsuma) and it is not just the restaurants, look into my 2005 food guide and the food shops section will amaze you. The new one is looking even better, I have even found a caterer that does Sushi!”
40 % of the 2005 guide reviewed, Food shops, Tiffin and food service providers and home entrepreneurs and there was a whole book dedicated to nightlife. Once a cuisine appeals at a restaurant, the natural one wants to try cooking it at home. I remember a time when Chinese – albeit Indian - food was made with metallic tasting canned mushrooms and baby corn usually sourced from Crawford market in sauces cooked up at home. Today these delicious fungi and bonsai corn cobs can be found at the corner subziwalla jostling for space alongside a host of quaintly categorised as “English vegetables” and everything from Soy sauce to chilli oil is available at local supermarkets or even at the savvier corner Kirana stores. Nostalgia and wonder aside, this quite neatly illustrates Mumbai’s dining graph.

There are three stages in a Cuisines amalgamation onto Mumbai’s menus. The first introductory stage in which a rash of restaurants will mushroom all over the city - Japanese cuisine is at this nascent stage in Mumbai currently. The second is the retail stage when supermarkets begin to stock imported ingredients related to a cuisine - Italian, Thai and Mexican have progressed to this stage now; Olive Oil, Risotto, Curry pastes are all available locally as was evidenced at the recent Uppercrust Food and wine show which was populated with numerous importers of ingredients from all over the world. The third stage is that of integration – the final frontier in which the demand for a product is high enough for the local corner store to allocate space for it in the constraints of the small space it has. This is where the “Chinese” we are addicted to is comfortably nestled.

Food for the mind
The first cookbook I ever owned was Cooking at Felicity house by Roahld Dahl. I loved it for the interesting stories accompanying each recipe. I cannot say I have ever cooked from that book, but it is still a valued part of a cookbook collection that is upwards of 500 strong today. Of these about 40% are Indian and about 5 % are ones that I keep going back to. The two books I love the most are both self published tomes rich with information and sound guidance. Although cookbooks and books on food have registered a tremendous surge over the last few years, the market is still at a nascent stage. Tarla Dalal, Sanjeev Kapoor, Nita Mehta, Karen Anand and Jiggs Kalra are all household names but books below the Rs.200 mark are still a preferred choice, perhaps because our cookbooks have yet to go beyond being mere collations of recipes.

While Books are showing a surge of some kind publications are not. The sign of a trend coming into being is the increasing amounts of real estate it acquires in publications. One would think that with gastronomy becoming so popular, the print media would be overflowing with interesting articles on food. Not so. “There hasn’t been a noteworthy growth in food writing” observes Lewis “Although there are just more publications as compared to a decade ago, there hasn’t been a very dramatic shift in the way each handles food, the subject still has limited attention” he concludes. There has been a huge increase in the number of publications launching in India in the last year but few seem to focus on food. Scan the dailies and you will see none go beyond reporting food events, giving recipes and reviewing restaurants – although I must say Jharna Thakkar of HT manages to make these interesting to read too.

Antoine Lewis erstwhile food writer and editor of Savvy cookbook, recalls “the first publication to include a full food page was the Sunday Observer. C Y Gopinath did a delightful column with Saturday times although he was not a food writer, Sharada Dwivedi the historian also wrote on food with Shalini Devi Holkar the cookbook author although those were occasional articles that explored community cooking, Shatbi Basu did a column for the Sunday Midday and Anil Dharkar did restaurant reviews for the Saturday Times but they were all occasional writers on food not dedicated to the subject”

Interestingly it is Lewis’s magazine Savvy Cookbook that has survived as the oldest dedicated food publication in India, outliving predecessors such as Cuisine, Foodtalk and Food magazine. Two other magazines that devote a large part of their editorial are Tarla Dalal’s Cooking and More which seems to be more of a publicity driven publication and the pricey Uppercrust magazine whose visual coverage of food is stunning and extensive but falls short on the writing front.

Some publications do realise the importance of a food section. Timeout, Mumbai a fortnightly publication of Mumbai carries one of the meatiest food sections in the city and is a font for information on food. Naresh Fernandes, editor of Timeout Mumbai emphasises “The food section is extremely important for Time Out Mumbai and is among our most popular sections. It not only tells readers what's new about the city's dining scene but also tries to interpret what our changing food habits mean in the context of the city's larger social and economic transformation. We're committed to writing about street food and food histories as well as the higher-end restaurant scene. After all, we believe that we are what we eat!”

While the foodscape of Mumbai is growing in leaps and bounds, the food writing scene is yet to take off but one is happy to let it take it’s time as long as one has two erudite columns; that of Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times Sunday magazine “Brunch” – although that can drag on rare occasions and the Sunday ET one by Vikram doctor Sunday to Sunday!

Bridging the food divide
An interesting off shoot of the restaurant boom has been the restaurant PR agency. With the growing amount of publications in the city waking up to food, some one has to bridge the gap between food producers and their consumers. It is diligent PR people retained by restaurants that ensure the “events” section of publications teem with happenings. Aseem Dixit of Wraps and Rolls had an extremely viable product but “Noting that business depended solely on word of mouth publicity I decided to retain the services of a PR agent. This turned out to be a great move since it brought us instant awareness and we have grown in leaps and bounds in a relatively short spam of time.” This is not two say that a PR agency can create wonders, restaurants today launch in a blaze of publicity but Mumbaikars do not suffer fools gladly so if the product is bad, it will fizzle out. Hence is the immense turnover in restaurants

Like publications, Indian TV too is lagging behind on food reporting. Content offered currently is a khichdi of reruns of shows from other parts of the world, cooking shows like Khana Khazana and restaurant reviews. In this mire I happened to catch an episode of the “the Foodie” on Times now in which intrepid foodie host Kunal Vjayakar was traipsing about in Karnataka in a lungi and purple shirt doing a Rajnikant with a pair of goggles. What is refreshing about this food show is that it does not subscribe to the age old format of beautifully decorated kitchen with chef demonstrating dishes. Kunal brings a refreshing angle of curiosity and fun to food. No wonder, after all it was his statement “I wake up and wonder, what am I going to have for breakfast, then lunch and dinner” inspired Preeti Prasad EP of the show to conceptualise a show around him that would truly celebrate food “The Foodie celebrates the art of Gluttony” she says with pride.

The Virtual Byte
Once, locating a recipe for a dish or the description of an ingredient might have meant leafing through the pages of the nearest cookbook but not anymore. The World Wide Web has become a one stop shop for any information required on gastronomy. Discover the cuisine of Mumbai through the Indian food forum of, the food forums of Another Subcontinent. ( and ( where the serious Gourmets of India congregate. The latest website to launch is “Burrp!” which was inspired by a problem – the absolutely lack of online resources for users to not only find, but also share their experiences about local businesses. Says Deap Ubhi its creator, “From a business perspective, choosing the internet as a platform is obviously much less capital intensive. It just makes business sense. It is much easier and much more efficient to enable a community online. Had this been a publication, we could not engage in a two-way relationship with our users, i.e. provide information and expect user reviews. Magazines are severely limited in this manner in that all they can do is push information. Our Mumbai portal, went live on August 15th of this year. Response has been fantastic, as our online traffic has grown at very aggressive clips over the past few months. Also, as the product gets deeper in terms of features, i.e. e-ticketing for movies and local events, we also expect to see volume from that as well.

If you do not find what you are looking for on websites or discussion forums, you’ll probably find it on one of the millions of foodblogs out there. Foodblogs resulted when Foodies discovered blogs (Short for weblogs) or online journals. There are a select few blogging on food in Mumbai, Gaurav is eating his way through the restaurants of Mumbai on his blog Bombay Dining (, while Anthony of Anthony’s Kitchen (, the self Proclaimed Maharajah of Bachelor Cooking and has made it his mission to enlighten those people – students, bachelors away from home and newlyweds - that subsist on takeaway and Maggi that it is easy to cook some very delicious yet simple food at home. and Pune based Vikram Karve is talking about his favourite food and where he eats it on the Food Blog of Vikram Karve (, I found his post in early April on his favourite foodwalks in Mumbai and Pune very enlightening.

Another aspect that is registering activity is that of food travel. While India is the flavour of the moment around the world and attracts a lot of Gastronomic tourist, Indians who are born gastronome’s are yet to really discover food travel. India’s number one holiday brand, Club Mahindra recently added a new product to the repertoire “Gourmet Holidays” which give members of Club Mahindra an opportunity to sample the world's finest cuisines and step inside different cultures. Recognising that of life’s greatest pleasures come from wonderful food shared with family they recently conducted the first Gourmet holiday at Coorg.
The Coorg Gourmet holiday was an experience in indulging in the gastronomic delicacies one’s palate desires! The holiday offered a variety of exotic cuisines and wholesome food experiences for two nights and three days. The cuisines that were offered include, Gujarati and Rajasthani, South Indian, Greek and Continental. There were also insightful workshops on olive oil, chocolates and salads along with unique regional entertainment programs. We plan to offer such experiences to members at our other resorts too.

2007 will see Japanese Cuisine strengthen and grow in popularity, perhaps even enter the home kitchen. The advent of Bembos might indicate an awakening to South American cuisine. Regional Indian micro-cuisines will continue to gain popularity. Overall Health and wellness will become more important. Eating organic is already gaining momentum although certification is still a question mark but sustainable farming and fair trade practices will take a while to be recognised however, the retail revolution will have to play itself out first. The foodscape of Mumbai is set to soar in 2007, get ready to savour the experience.

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