Monday 2 February 2015

There is no Greater Love than the Love of Eating

On my first night in India, when I was still unable to leave the cocoon like comfort of the Taj Palace Hotel, I ate the most ludicrously overpriced meal in their house Indian restaurant, Masala Kraft. I mean, it tasted great and everything, but the whole experience felt unauthentic and effortful. It's not what I came here for.

Not wanting to repeat this catastrophe, I enlisted the help of my friend Srila, who basically told me what to eat, where and when, and even treated me to dinner on my last night in Mumbai in what she neatly described as a "Muslim dive". The dive was Sarvi, the Muslims who run it from Iran. They make the most incredible kebabs imaginable. Not a hint of fat or grease, just soft, gently spiced meat, and unleavened breads that they insist on bringing to the table one at a time so you only ever eat them fresh. I'm deeply grateful for being taken here - it is one of those places that you would never, ever stumble across.

On my first day she sent me to Britannia and Company for lunch, a Bombay institution that has been there since 1923 and whose slogan reads: "There is no greater love than the love of eating". Amen to that. They sat me upstairs in the gallery where I looked down on the busy dining hall, packed with people from all corners of the city. 

Berry Pulav, Britannia and Company
I ate their specialty, Berry Pulav, a rice dish served with tiny half dried barberries that explode in little bursts of tangy sweetness as you eat. It's worthy of the reputation and the closeness with which they guard their recipe. Britannia is owned by a Parsi family, who import the berries from Iran. The Zoroastrians fled modern day Iran when the Muslims invaded Persia, back when the centuries were still in single figures. When they eventually settled in India they became known as Parsis.

Later that evening I dined at another Bombay institution, Trishna, a Southern Indian place specialising in seafood. They're famous for their butter and garlic crabs, which are indeed delicious, but the Hyderabadi Fish blows them out of the water (sorry). There are rare moments in life when your first taste of a certain food causes an almost transcendental experience. Your head rises as your shoulders drop. A smile edges across your face and you exhale an involuntary sigh of deep, spiritual pleasure as your soul is uplifted. This was one of them. Garlic, turmeric, black pepper, lots of black pepper, and who knows what else. The best fish I have ever eaten, end of story.

Hyderabadi Fish Tikka, Trishna
For lunch the next day Srila sent me to eat Gujarati street food at Soam, where a kindly waiter took me through the menu. Rice pancakes grilled between banana leaves, the Bombay staple of bhel puri, potato vadas and a paneer paratha with an amazing guava raita. It is all vegetarian, and all delicious.

Bhel Puri, Soam
I felt heavy after lunch, so wandered up the countless steps opposite the restaurant to the Shiva Temple of Babulnath, high up in the Gods. With every yard I climbed I wondered if I wasn't intruding on someone's home, so many people seemed camped out or asleep along the way. At one point, I was standing looking at a shrine surrounded by all kinds of images and icons, so much bright orange, that it was quite some time before I noticed a giant man stretched out among them. Perturbed by his stillness I moved swiftly on, until I reached the strangely quiet summit.

The original temple was built by Gujarati Hindus on land owned by the Parsis, who fought its construction until the 18th century. Zoroastrians believe that the earth and fire are sacred entities, and are unwilling to contaminate them with the bodies of their dead. Instead of cremation or burial then, a Parsi cadaver is disposed of by a process of ritual exposure. The agent for this is a Dakhma, or Tower of Silence, a round building on top of which the shrouded bodies are laid out to rot in the sun until consumed by vultures. A few hundred metres beyond Babulnath stands the last remaining Tower of Silence in Mumbai, still in use today, where the Parsi dead offer up their corpses in a final act of charity, as food for the birds. 

Tower of Silence, Malabar Hill, Mumbai

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