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Mumbai’s Classic Restaurants Tell You Why It’s Called The City Of Dreams

Mumbai’s Classic Restaurants Tell You Why It’s Called The City Of Dreams
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gokul Stories of these city restaurants are truly inspiring. Photo: Kalyan Karmakar

I was at Ling’s Pavilion for dinner at Colaba yesterday. We were having a rather special dinner hosted by Baba Ling, the second generation co-owner of the restaurant. He had prepared a feast of traditional Cantonese dishes, which were from his grandmother’s times. Baba Ling joined us after we were done with the seven course dinner, which included steamed chicken in bao, crispy crackling encased pork and prawn spring rolls, chicken wings steamed for four hours and pork belly braised for six hours, steamed eggs with shrimps, deep fried snapper stewed in tomato and chilli, buff grilled in Sichuan pepper, prawns stewed with scallions, carrots and fungus and a clear soup, which had been cooked for four hours inside (!) a winter pumpkin with crab, shitake, pork, lotus seeds and gizzards and which was timed to be served exactly when the guests arrived.

The dishes seemed so different from the traditional Indian Chinese fare and were a lighter and intricate in flavour and texture. We got to hear the story behind the food at Ling’s after dinner when Baba chatted with us about his parents, family, his life and gave us tips on how to buy crabs and fish.

Baba said that his father, the late Mr Yick Sen Ling, had come to Mumbai from Canton in China in the late 1930s. He used to run what was known as a ‘Chinese Museum’, where the Cottage Industry building is today, with his uncle. With the advent of communism in China in the 1940s, the late Mr Ling and his uncle didn’t see much scope to return to the country, and decided to settle in Mumbai. Mr Ling even married a Mangalorean woman, the future mother of Baba Ling. The two young Chinese bought a restaurant called Nanking opposite the Chinese Museum and made it a huge success. Nanking closed down in the mid 1990s when Mr Ling passed away. By then Baba and his elder brother Nini Ling had opened a bigger restaurant, the present day Ling’s Pavilion. This is where they continue to dish out traditional Cantonese Chinese recipes in a fast changing dining landscape in the city. Their patrons are regulars who keep coming back including some from the Nanking years, Chinese visitors who come here missing home food and new fans like me who seek out a taste of Cantonese China in Mumbai.

The story reminded me of a conversation I had the previous evening at the lane adjacent to where Ling’s Pavilion is. I was at Gokul Bar and Restaurant, the popular dive bar in Mumbai, where I used to spend many happy nights in my early years in the city. I was catching up with current owner of Gokul, Dinesh Pujari, and got to know about the history of this legendary Colaba bar. Dinesh told me that his father, late Jaya Pujari, had come to Mumbai from his village near Mangalore as a teenager. He used to sell cigarettes at Powai to eke out a living while going to a night school to continue his education. He met a fellow Mangalorean and joined him at a Mumbai canteen where they worked us waiters and helpers. The two put their funds together, took up a small place in the building where Gokul is located and set up a six table idli-vada joint. The business expanded and they started a bar and restaurant, which became Gokul. The two families (Mr Pujari and his friend’s) split their holdings in mid 1990s when Mr Pujari passed away.

Today, what started as a six table snack joint, is a thriving establishment with a capacity of 500 to 600 people according to Dinesh. He tries out new business options, but when it comes to Gokul, he doesn’t change much. Not the Spartan décor, or the menu, or the comparatively low pricing of drinks and food. "Regulars will complain if I do", said Dinesh Pujari. The chakli and chutney, chilli chicken and fried surmai and bangda (mackerel) and pomfret continue to be best sellers here to go with the cheaply-priced alcohol. Dinesh has expanded the seating capacity though, and placed bouncers to make women feel safe. This was the sentiment echoed by some of the women I spoke to while at Gokul on this subject. I was there at 5.30 pm on a Monday evening and the place was buzzing.

The stories of Gokul and Ling’s reminded me of some of the other stories that I have been privy to while eating at some of Mumbai’s classic restaurants.

Grant House near CST Station for example. It was started by Laxman Varma, who came to Mumbai from Hyderabad in 1942. He used to run errands at restaurants. Some of his customers, which included policemen, suggested that he join the food business instead of being a handyman. Taking their advice, he set up a stall and sold basic snacks such as batata vadas and omelettes. In the 1950s, he set up a stall with a tin shed in the building where the Haj House stands today and sold snacks. It was known as the ‘police canteen’ as many police folks visited it. In the mid 1990s, he set up a small restaurant in the building next door. He named it Grant House as Governor Grant once lived in the complex where the police canteen was. Today, his sons have taken over the duties of running this place, which serves excellent seafood and is famous among regular those for their kheema pav, which loyalists consider to be the best in Mumbai. I agree.

Slightly further down North, is Hotel Sindhudurg, the seafood restaurant at Dadar. It was set up by septuagenarian Prabhakar Desai, who came to Mumbai in 1957 from Sindhudurg, in coastal Maharashtra, as a teenager. He worked his way through life starting as a coolie, then the manager of a food shack or khanaval, then became a plumber and then a constructor and finally, about three decades ago realised his dream of setting up a restaurant where he could serve the food that he remembered from his mother and elder sister’s kitchen.

There are many more such stories such as that of the late Pancham who walked for 39 days from UP to Mumbai to set up Puncham Puriwalla, or current owner, Mohsin Husaini’s grandfather, who came from Iran in search of work to set up a small kheema pav breakfast stall in Bandra and then the iconic suburban joint, Lucky Restaurant.

These are all stories of young people who came to Mumbai with empty pockets, armed with hope and determination, and ended up setting up some of the city's most loved restaurants. Restaurants, which have fed so many of us. The legacies of whom are being carried on by their next generation.

You will find more stories like this among the Udupi joints of Matunga, and the Malabari restaurants of Fort, and Sindhi places in Sion and Ulhasnagar, and sweets shops such as Moti Halwai in Fort and Punjab Sweets in Bandra, which were set up by Punjabis displaced during the Partition.

Mumbai, as they say, is the city of dreams and the stories of the founders of some of its most post popular restaurants are as inspiring as stories can get.

Kalyan Karmakar

Kalyan Karmakar

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