May 22, 2015
I had been reading Rashmi Uday Singh’s restaurant review column ever since I came to Mumbai.
Imagine my surprise one afternoon when my phone rang and the voice at the other end said, “Hello Kalyan, I am Rashmi Uday Singh. I am going to Andheri to eat on Saturday. Will you by my foodie blind date?”
I jumped at the offer to meet the person behind my favourite newspaper column. I caught up with her the next Saturday over a Bengali lunch at Oshiwara’s Bhojohori Manna. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Since then I have been floored by Rashmi’s big-hearted nature, humility, innovativeness, childlike awe to try out new things, gregariousness and energy.
I recently caught up with her and had a chat on her inspirational story, which I thought I must share.
What motivated you to get into food writing?
It’s a longish story and the reason has to do equally with discovery and love of Bombay as well as love of food. After studying English Honours at Delhi University, I pursued Journalism from Bombay University.
I came to Bombay in 1980 and fell headlong in love with the city. And of course, the Irani cafes, the Parsi and Gujarati food! I found that the only way to make love to the city was to eat my way through it. I used to cook extensively as my mother is a great cook and has published two recipe booklets in Hindi. I came to Bombay as an Assistant Commissioner of Tax and spent all my spare time writing.
I wrote about Bombay, food, health, food and fish markets, for Saturday Times, Sunday Observer, Bombay Magazine (my ma-in-law was Editorial Director). And way back in 1980, I realised that there were NO restaurant guides to the city, and I sent proposals to Air India and to two other publishers. They were rejected! But, I didn’t know how to give up.
You are one of the pioneers of food writing in India whom people look up to. Who inspired you the most?
Bombay inspired me. I am the strangest Dilliwalli, who adores Bombay. When I started writing about food, it was considered very lowbrow, a friend even called and asked me, “You have studied Masters in Management from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute, law from Government Law College, and you are a qualified journalist too. Why on earth are you writing about brownies? It’s so lowbrow, only faltus and freeloaders looking for a free meal write about food”.
What were the challenges that you faced when you started writing about food?
It was a challenge and it was thrilling. There was no information available about restaurants or home bakers anywhere. I still remember writing notes on scraps of paper at restaurants in Borivali and Andheri, and coming home to my desktop and plugging in all the details about the address, cuisine, timings etc. It was very exciting!
Of course, I had lots of opposition from friends who thought I’d completely lost it and was putting all my education down the drain. But, writing India’s first-ever city restaurant guide was thrilling. It went on to the national bestseller list. The reason – I was at the right place at the right time!
How has the growth of social media and blogging changed the world of food writing compared to what was when you started?
Social media and the Internet have turned the whole scenario upside down. It’s fabulous because all the information and views are available online. It’s sad because it doesn’t let the ‘Culinary Columbus’ in me thrive.
However, on the whole it is superb because it opens up even more superb opportunities to connect to foodies and get their feedback. I have always been a great believer in that.
What are the steps you have taken to reinvent yourself? What has been your experience in entering the world of social media?
I have done nothing to reinvent myself. My friend Jamal Shaikh, Editor, Robb Report and Men’s Health literally talked me (almost coerced me) into getting a smartphone and getting onto Instagram and Twitter a year ago. I am quite technologically challenged.
I bought the phone two days before I left for Spain and I didn’t know how to switch it off. On the flight, the stewardess suspiciously asked me, “is the phone yours?” when I asked her to help me switch it off. She thought I had stolen it.
From Spain I kept posting crooked images (I had no idea how to straighten them) and I put out a SOS on Twitter, and five fabulous readers met me when I came back to Mumbai and helped me learn. Such is the power and beauty of social media.
How has the Foodie Blind Dates been received? How did you stumble upon the idea? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share?
Oh I love my #foodieblinddates and have been doing them for the past 25 years. It all started because I wanted to get information from our far-flung suburbs about home caterers and bakers. So I had an answering machine in the form of a cassette recorder (on a phone) where people would call and leave messages. I would then invite them to bring their baked or cooked goodies, and write about them.
Sometimes we’d meet at restaurants. The first-ever blind date was when I announced on Midday that I was looking for someone to guide me through Crawford Market. Someone called Arif Memon called up. I fixed up to meet him at 7pm near Badshah Falooda. My husband said how can you eat out with a stranger? “He’s not a stranger, he’s my reader,” I told him.
Obviously Arif was more nervous than me, so he came with his wife. We ate Bara Handi, Nalli Nihari, Hindustani Kebabs, steamed Hara Chicken on haath gadis till 5 am! This was more than 20 years ago. Arif sent me a mail from Canada recently. Alas I have lost touch with him.
I have many exciting stories, including a blind date with a high profile Marwari family with a famous last name (I hadn’t bothered to ask for their last name when we fixed it up on the phone).
I have done blind dates in NYC, Dubai, Paris, London, and I loved bonding with strangers and getting to know all the superb places they go to eat. You and I met on a blind date Kalyan and it’s such a joy to be in touch with you and watch you grow from strength to strength. Pure joy! Congrats on all your magnificent work.
Lastly, 3 tips from you to budding food writers and bloggers.
Not tips, they know it all better than me. I am an explorer and I am off to explore uncharted territories. I hate this thing of being a fat, puffed with self-importance expert. That’s why I left the Income Tax department. I like to be perpetually learning and growing and so who am I to offer any tips?
So here’s my message to budding food writers and bloggers – follow your bliss, keep your integrity and credibility is all I can say. Also, may God make your life one of miracles and punctuate it with great meals and great friends. And, oh yes please tweet and Instagram and let’s meet over a #foodieblinddate?