From a humble little South Indian restaurant to bhaaji gallis of Mumbai, chef Rushina Munshaw Ghidiyal takes Renae Smith on a desi food walk
It’s a Friday morning and there is a steady flow of patrons at this humble, garage-sized restaurant; business as usual for the staff that’s been feeding diners since 5.30 in the morning. Often revered as one of the must-visit pitstops for authentic Udipi breakfast, this no-frill dining eatery is unassuming of its fame.
Just as you enter the restaurant, a sign reads, ‘We aim to attract traditional South Indian families for whom filter coffee is a culture.’ But food writer and consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal knows that Rama Nayak’s Udipi Idli House is more than just a South Indian favourite. A regular haunt of vegetarian food fans, the restaurant has a special place in Rushina’s curated vegetarian food map.
This week, she invited ex-Masterchef contestant Renae Smith for a sampling of local vegetarian Indian cuisine in the city. On her fifth visit to India, Renae is more than happy to let Rushina take the lead as they go about exploring haunts, as we follow the two around on their grub trail.
“While I have been to the city a couple of times, I have never been able to savour the delicacies that truly belong to Mumbai,” explains Renae, as she eases herself into the cramped, four-seater table at the restaurant. Rushina orders for plates of idlis —a variation of steamed, vegetable, pepper, butter steamed cakes as well as sanno khotto (idlis made of rawa, and wrapped in jackfruit leaves) — that promptly makes an appearance within five minutes. Renae instantly fishes out her phone and camera for an Instagram photo, on the fare’s arrival.
Soon, palm-sized plates of fresh coriander, coconut and red chilly chutney and sambar make an entry. A hardcore vegetarian, Renae was a vegan before switching back to vegetarianism (“It is so hard to be a vegan! I realised it isn’t for me,” she defends). She is impressed by the accompaniments a small plate of idli comes with. Another staff member comes with a portable tub of gunpowder chutney, limda chutney powder (dry powdered chutney made with curry leaves) and pickle (a red coloured mixture of amla and chilies). The owner adds that since idlis are commonly consumed with pickles in Udipi, his hometown, he sees no reason why it shouldn’t be served here. The server promptly offers a choice of chutneys in little tubs the minute he spots an orphaned idli.
The staff boy has Renae’s curiosity and attention as he almost performs his mechanical performance of sorts cooling the tumbler of traditional filter coffee. “I have been wanting to try out filter coffee and I have even tried to mirror the coffee-pouring ritual, but I have never ever been able to match the dexterity,” she admits as she openly admires, and even mirrors the server, as he deftly places glasses of coffee to the already-crammed table. Even as Idli House whips up 32 types of idlis — including staples like Kanchipuram, rasam and butter variants — it’s the cucumber idlis that are a runaway hit, and available only in the evenings.
The next stop is the bhaaji galli, which is pitched right next to the Grant Road Railway station, and is a spot famous for seasonal vegetables. Rushina guides Renae through the maze, as she looks to demystify the winter produce. Vendors demand for your attention as they line up produces like pumpkins, village-grown aubergines, rat’s tail radish, ponkh (jowar), kohlrabi, snake gourd, lemongrass, and colocasia leaves and Surti papdi. While Renae is impressed with the variations and room for experimentation with winter produce, she is a little disappointed with how she hasn’t had a chance to sample these green goods. “The next time, I hope to eat the vegetables which Rushina will be cooking for me instead,” declares Renae.
Rushina, however, worked a way out to get her to sample Indian cuisine that is at its authentic best. The food trail ends with a lunch at Soam, an authentic Gujarati vegetarian cuisine at Babulnath. Rounds of pani puri make way to the table as the dish emerges the clear winner among chaats. The spice in the green chutney hardly seemed a threat to Renae, as she confesses that she is quite accustomed to the spiciness. However, if there is something that took her by surprise, it is the masala soda, which comes with a generous sprinkling of black salt. After wincing for a moment, she apologises for the rather repulsed face. “I thought it would taste something like lemonade. The black salt is something that never works well with me. I’m so sorry for that,” she explains, hastily.
Next come the jowar pakora, and fluffy puris with shrikand, which make her forget the horror that came with the pungency of black salt. For dessert, Rushina calls for mohanthal, a rich besan burfi that swims in a bowlful of ghee. However, Renae isn’t one to be threatened with desi, clarified butter. As she savours spoonfuls of the sinful dessert, she hopes the next time she visits the country (to hopefully promote her book), she gets to spend more time in Mumbai instead. “I quite liked the fare that Mumbai has to offer. The quality of food here is so much better than Delhi. The food there was a little disappointing because there is a burst of too many flavours in a single dish.” That gives Mumbai a one up, from a masterchef, herself!
The masala soda which didn’t quite impress Renae