Thursday, 30 May 2002

Á la cart

In Search Of... A Midnight Snack.

’Tis late. Hunger strikes. The fridge is either empty or far away. You are solvent, of sane mind and reasonably cast-iron digestion.All the “decent” restaurants are closed. If you want to sit down and eat, it’s either a shady bar, with loud music and, ahem, waitresses, or a 5-Star coffee shop, where the obscenities are all in the right hand column.

Fear not. For the price of a cab ride (or petrol money, if ye are of independent wheels), sustenance may be had without too much of a pain-in-the-billfold. For thou art in Mumbai, Urbs Primus in Indus, the city that never sleeps (borrowed, that, but true), but loves to eat. Just hit the road, and keep an ear peeled for the clatter of ladle against tavaa. Then follow your nose to the nearest cart.

For a start, there’s the pau-bhaji chappies who peddle their fiery fare near VT, on the edge of Azad Maidan. Also available, vada paus, eggs – bhurji, omelettes, half-fry, or as-you-like-it- provided-it’s-oily, and boiled eggs – and sweet, overboiled “cutting” chai. Churchgate’s environs offer similar fare, but not as late, and there’s less variety.

Moving on, and north, Mohammadali Road during Ramzan is a good idea. Especially if it’s so late it’s very early. The restaurants and carts are all abuzz, rustling up delicious, decidedly non-vegetarian pre-dawn sustenance for the faithful. Ditto for Mahim and the area near Bandra station.

Further afield, if you’re near Worli Naka, cast your eyes down the shadowy minor roads. If haven’t been shooed away by the cops, you’ll find carts with the usual bhurji and pau-bhaji.

Dadar station yields provender too. On the West, mainly bhurji vendors under the flyover, but the East, thanks to Central Railway’s terminating a few trains there, and even more thanks to the usual tardiness of the said trains, offers a leetle more. Eggs, of course, plus sundry dishes with “masala” tacked on to the end of their names - which means there’s gravy. A few minutes away, on the main road, there’s a sandwich guy - not a cart, a roadside stall, but he’s in this piece for variety and your cholesterol. Peer carefully - post midnight, his lights are off. But he’ll make you a simple sandwich - jam, cheese, or tomatoes and whatever other veggies are going, and i do believe i once saw baked beans. He’ll even toast it for you for a coupla bucks extra. He also has fruit juices.

In Sion, near the railway station, you kind find simple South Indian fare. Steaming idlis, dosas too. The sambhar is usually excellent, but be wary of the chutney; coconut tends to spoil easily. Yes, more eggs.

All the way into the suburbs, the story continues. Enough people stagger home from the sapping commute to keep many a cart in business. Which is why you’re more likely to find them near railways stations.

Don’t expect much more, though, than the greasy fare you find downtown. But, as consolation, you can wash down your meal with a little steel tumbler of coffee, retailed by entrepreneurial lads on bicycles. They’re easily spotted, here, and near traffic signals, because of the large stainless steel urn tied to the back of the bike, and rinsing bucket slung from the handlebars. Besides giving them a far wider range – they’re usually on the move from signal to taxi stand to bus stop – i guess the cycles also let them disappear more quickly down the nearest bylane when a spoilsport cop van is spotted.

(To be fair, the police don’t normally get tough with the night carts. They seem to recognise that they’re just hardworking souls catering to other hardworking souls and turn a blind eye. Besides, our tireless boys in khaki need food and caffeine too!)

Ah yes, the coffee. It isn’t filter, just a cheap instant, and the hot milk-water mixture in the urns is pre-sweetened, so sucks to you if you’re calorie counting.

But it’s strong, and hot, just what you need to keep you awake on your way home to your antacids.

Published in the Times of India’s Mumbai edition, In Search Of, under the completely grotty title, "Midnight Chowboy."
In Search Of was a weekly column that focussed on a different food-related topic each week. Another sadly discontinued TOI feature.

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