Monday, 1 March 2004

Lean Cuisine

When your wallet is on a diet.

Perhaps no one wants your dotcom shares. Or your pocket got picked on the train. Maybe you’re PGing, and they don’t let you cook, and there isn’t much money left over after the rent anyway. Or it’s the month end and Accounts has been sneering at your food vouchers. You still have to eat, but the happening joints are out of the question.

Bombay is a kind city.

There might just be a zunka bhakhar stall around, offering you wholesome Maharastrian peasant fare for the ludicrous sum of Re 1. But there aren’t many of those left after our state last changed governments.

So you look around.

There’s the sandwichvala. Choose your filling: cheese, jam, tomato-cucumber-potato-onion-beetroot. And do you want it toasted? It’s chopped into six bite-sized pieces, slid onto a piece of paper, and you’re offered a splash of ersatz ketchup with more pumpkin in it’s lineage than tomato, despite what the label says. You’re wallet’s lighter by just ten to 15 rupees. Plus a tenner for fruit juice at the next cart, the one with the mixer stealing BMC electricity.

In Nariman Point or Bandra, or near just about any local train station, search for a red cart, with the name painted in white pseudo nib stroke. Take a friend. You can do a one-by-two bowl of soup that you’ll never find in all of China for less than twenty bucks.

You want to sit down and eat? Find a street corner in South Bombay, and you’ll also find an Irani joint. Ten bucks will get you a chai and bun-maska, with sugar sprinkled on it. Or perhaps you prefer the crusty bruns? Another fiver, maybe a rupee or two more, and you can have a bread pudding as well. Or maybe you want to do a mutton potato “pattice” or a samosa with your chai instead? You’ll still get change back from a twenty.

(Oh yes, anywhere except the posh joints - read “non-AC” - tea comes pre-sweetened. If you like yours without sugar, then you’ll have to stump up extra cash for a ‘special’ tea.)

Need meat? A decent kheema at a small Muslim-run place near Mohammadali Road, Mahim, or Bandra won’t cost you more than 20 rupees. Actually, you’re unlikely to find anything on the menu that costs more than 25 bucks, with the possible exception of the Biriyani, Full.

A Maharashtrian joint (Dadar, and what used to be the mills district is a good place to find them) will serve you a spicy, soggy missal, or just the ussal, with a couple of paus. Rs 15, tops, and that’s if the man behind the counter is wearing a shirt. If he’s in a ganji, and also doing the cooking, cheaper. A plate of bhajias, or sticky, sweet malpoas would cost about the same, and the chai - very sweet, very strong - will probably cost one or two rupees more.

Of course there’s daal-rice, roasted paapad and a smidgen of pickle gratis, which you can get at almost any restaurant. Depending on the grade of the place you could pay from Rs 10 up to Rs 30, if the place has uniformed waiters.

The nearest Udupi will get you an idli sambhar, vada sambhar, or, go ahead, go wild, an idli-vada sambhar, for about Rs 12. Dosas start under Rs 20.

Those quintessentially Bombay snacks, bhelpuri and its siblings, sevpuri, dahibatatapuri, paanipuri, can be found everywhere, walking vendors, their dabbas suspended from their necks, cycles, handcarts, hole-in-the-wall stalls, family restaurants, beach stalls. Prices differ, depending on who’s serving you.

And there’s yummy pau-bhaji. The rule of thumb: the cheaper it is, the less likely you are to be able to tell the ingredients, and the more likely it is to blow the top of your head off. Anyway, there’s likely to be a man squeezing the juice out of sugarcane within earshot. Yell, and tell him no ice. You don’t want jaundice, as well as indigestion now, do you?

Need something cheaper?

Hmm. Two or three bucks almost anywhere will get you a hot vada-pau, liberally sprinkled with chilly powder. Or perhaps you’re in the mood for mixed bhajias. Potato slices, onions, chillies, if you’re lucky, spinach too, dunked in batter and fried golden brown. Eat them plain, or crammed into a pau. Look around for the guy selling ‘cutting’ chai. Half a minuscule tumbler for a buck.

Hot boiled channa shouldn’t be hard to find either, with a sprinkling of chopped onion, tomato and chilli, lime squeezed over it.

And as a last resort, there’s peanuts. Which is probably what I’m going to get paid for this column...

Published in It’s a Guy Thing (GT, for short) the Times of India Group’s Men’s magazine.

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