A port city mixed with serious financial muscle makes for a sumptuous buffet spread for the underworld. And in Mumbai, they’ve been savoring the feast for long.
As the financial and entertainment capital of India, Mumbai offers a great crime banquet for several gangs and their continuing warfare for dominance. And as with any large bustling metropolitan area in the world, the crimes remain the same. Extortion, money laundering, prostitution, drugs, financial fraud and arms trafficking sit at the same table.
Mob crime spiraled out of control in the late 1980s. Any activity that generated money got their attention. Industrialists and builders were easy pickings. Pay up or die was the message. Some danced to their tune. For others, especially the film industry, it became a symbiotic relationship. The gangs and their feats inspired movies. And in turn the success of these movies inspired the gangs to get their pound of the pie from filmmakers.
Several ‘Dons’ began in the restaurant business. Considering all the major gangs had a free communal eating place or a ‘handi’ in their strongholds for their members, it wasn’t surprising.
A series of unfortunate events in the early ‘90s and the public outcry after that spurred the Mumbai Police into action. A revamped and rearmed force began to answer “a bullet for a bullet”. The big dons – Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan – fled the country. And it scarred certain characters for life. Arun Gawli, now elected to the state assembly, who describes himself as a former Mafia don, sees himself as a virtual prisoner in his own mansion, living behind a phalanx of armed guards, CCTV and four separate locked gates, out of fear of what he calls “police contract killings.”
As if the police crackdown wasn’t enough, the world financial meltdown has troubled the underworld too. In the last few months, shootouts, extortion calls and contract killings in Mumbai have almost come to a halt. There is a silence in the underworld. It has been hit by what other industries call a ‘slowdown’.
Today, Mumbai ranks as one of the safest large metropolitan regions in the world.
And the area in the southeast part of the city, roughly from Mumbai Central to the Docklands, which provided the foot soldiers and the dons and still does, is the focus of my culinary journey.
So roll up your sleeves and get your hand sanitizers out. And get ready for a feast in the don’s lairs. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a table with some rough looking characters too. After all, good food is not the monopoly of those who walk the straight path.
184/196 Dimtimkar Road, Opposite Nagpada Police Station, Nagpada Junction, Byculla West. Tel: +91 9833533305. Open 9.30 am to 11.30 pm.
No signboard at the entrance. A small piece of paper with a rubber stamp of some other entity is passed off as the bill. A “that’s not important” answer by the man at the counter when asked to divulge the name of the current owner. This 97 year old eatery tries hard to be incognito. But their food shouts out.
All you chefs who run fancy restaurants, hang your heads in shame – the kebabs are some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere. They are not drowned with spices, just lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and a hint of mint. You can taste the meat. Soft and melt in the mouth, the kebabs could pass off as Galouti’s (extra soft kebabs first created for a toothless Nawab of Awadh, a former kingdom in North India). And remember, when we say meat here, it is beef.
They have other signature dishes too. The Bheja Masala Fry (brain fried with spices) in a subtle gravy had the right balance. Wonderfully deceptive in appearance, the Masoor (lentil) Pulao hides generous amounts of spiced Kheema (minced meat).
The food is mildly spiced and not greasy and that is a good thing. And it’s far more sophisticated than I’d expected.
Simple marble top tables, peeling paint and a high ceiling are all that passes off as ‘décor’. They cook their kebabs by the windowsill, cleverly seducing passersby with the aromas of grilling meat.
And true to form, the man at the counter refused to part with any recipe. Adds to the mystique of the place certainly.
179, Wazir Building, Abdul Hakim Noor Mohammadi Chowk, Bhendi Bazaar. Tel: +91 22 23476188. Open 8-00 am to 11.30 pm. Cash only.
A huge goat catching an afternoon nap blocks the entrance. As I walk past, not wanting to wake the beast, I see a man slouched over a large tawa frying mince patties. A large menu in Hindi and Arabic dominates the small place. Friendly wait staff recommend the specialties of the house.
The Nalli Nihari (mutton shanks) arrives and one bite of the soft and tender meat in a rich gravy of marrow mopped up with a crisp roti (Indian bread) and you know it’s in quite a different league. Rich, greasy, cooked with lard and steeped in spices, it explodes with flavor. Though a traditional breakfast dish, popular demand has extended its availability till noon.
Next up, the Sanju Baba Chicken – named after a film star (Sanjay Dutt) whose recipe it is supposed to be. Drowned in oil and of an indeterminate flavor, it’s definitely a no-no.
The Chicken White Biryani is rich and tasty and unlike any biryani I’ve eaten. The Ghee Dal (yellow lentils cooked with clarified butter) is just what it says it is – generous helpings of ghee added to the yellow dal and topped with more ghee. It’s sinfully tasty.
Started in 1923, the third generation of the Noor Mohammadi clan now runs the place. And thankfully, the interaction of meat with grease continues.
10, Musafir Khana, Palton Road. Tel: +91 22 22617171. Open 9.30 am to 11.30 pm. Cash only.
Situated down a narrow lane with hawkers on both sides, you could easily mistake the place for a waiting room of a railway station. Old fans rotate crankily. Ancient furniture sits next to gaudy sun mica furbished ones. The extremely high ceilings echo with orders shouted out by waiters. And on a busy day, as many as 8,000 people leave satiated.
And the hit dish here is called Murg Taliban. You heard that right. Taliban. Small cuts of chicken marinated in a green chutney and stir fried with a rich cashew based gravy. It was heavy, but nice in a “once in a while” kind of way.
Their mutton Kheema was outstanding. And in places like this, you can ask them to top it off with a fried egg, sunny side up. Truly wicked and truly yummy. And if you ask them for a ‘Ghotala’, they will scramble an egg in.
The Seekh Kebabs were good but not as juicy as the ones at Sarvi. Their Bheja Fry had a tomato-ey twist to it, which made it just right to scoop up with rotis. And you must wash it all down with a nourishing Paya Soup (trotters).
The owner, Mohammed Jabir, supervises the operations much like a stationmaster would. And he’s got a big responsibility. He’s keeping the kitchen fires going, which were first lit in 1935.
197, Corner of Grant Road, Kamathipura. Tel: +91 22 23875656. Open 11.30 am to 1.30 am. Credit Cards accepted.
Tell any taxi driver you want to go to Delhi Durbar at Kamathipura and he’ll take you there. And maybe even join you for a meal. That’s how popular this place is.
Comparatively young among the pack, (it’s only been around for 37 years), it still stands its own when it comes to good food.
Amongst their memorable dishes, I would definitely count the Raan Sikandari. A whole leg of young baby lamb, it is marinated in a lightly spiced masala mixed with yoghurt and grilled in the tandoor to perfection. Crisp on the outside, the leg yields tender succulent meat as you dig in.
Another favorite of mine here is the Butter Chicken. It’s a little tangier than what is served elsewhere and crisp rotis seem to vanish when you dip it into the gravy. And the same thing happens when you order their Dabba Ghosht. A rich dish, they use a lot of cashew in this stew-like mutton dish garnished with salli (thin slivers of fried potato).
And the owner, Jaffer Bhai, sums up his philosophy on food. “Only when you can be generous and large hearted towards others with food will you really enjoy eating yourself”. No wonder he runs a fine restaurant.