High time the community, known for keeping its bottle masala a closely guarded secret, opens its first authentic restaurant in city
Chinchoni fish curry
This is good spicy stuff, but you haven't eaten the Pork Sorpotel made by my East Indian friend's mum in Bombay," I boasted to a Bengali colleague after we had polished off a piping-hot Chinese pork preparation during a visit to buzzing Chinatown in Tangra, Kolkata's famous Chinese quarter, known for its morning markets — the precursor to today's pop-up kitchens.
The food fight
It was 6.30 am, and my half-asleep, satiated self wasn't ready for the next statement that hit like a tracer bullet. "East Indian? We are East Indian; who are these other East Indians in Bombay?" shot off my proud Tagore-loving, Satyajit Ray-phile colleague; his roots, both academic and possibly gastronomic too, clearly hurt with my utterance about the existence of a similarly named clan, in west India.
Of course, this was my first visit to 'Cal' (Kolkata for the uninitiated), and I hadn't anticipated this sort of backlash. Several chais followed, during which yours truly explained that the community wasn't geographically challenged, and that the term had its origins in the British East India Company. Reasoning had to be backed with facts, like how the term was coined in order to differentiate them from the city's Goan Christians. Finally, he accepted their existence, albeit grudgingly. In fact, a few years later, the two, the Bengali and the East Indian (both history nuts), met in Bombay, and dare I say, hit it off famously, as they broke bread over delish East Indian fare (which, he had to admit, was more fiery), and the Company's exploits.
Preserving a legacy
For long, a question has stayed in the mind. Barring the odd pop-up around Christmas and Easter, and several talented home caterers, there is no standalone East Indian cuisine restaurant in the city.
Despite being the oldest inhabitants on the seven islands - a legacy that has been etched, thanks to history textbooks and friends - there was no eatery to indulge in authentic pork chops and fritters, suckling pig, khimad, fish gravies and pork sorpotel. At the other end, communities who've migrated to the city over centuries have gone to great lengths to ensure that their cuisine stays alive, as seen with members from Goa, Udipi, Kutch, Punjab, Bengal and Kerala, apart from others.
Recently, while dining at Soul Fry, the quaint Goan eatery in Bandra, we were pleasantly thrilled to spot an East Indian fish curry dish on the menu. A thoughtful, inclusive touch.
A few years back, during a chat with members from the community who were working on setting up an East Indian Bhavan, the architect revealed that a restaurant serving traditional cuisine, culinary heirlooms sourced from families would be set up at the centre. It made perfect sense. After all, for long, families residing in the bastions of the community, in Khotachiwadi, Bandra West and further north, in Malad and Vasai-Virar, have been holding on to kitchen secrets and forgotten techniques, including the secret bottle masala recipe, to ensure they are carried forward by coming generations. The year-long kitchen would be the perfect space to get things underway.
With a one-dimensional character that looms over the multicultural fabric of Bombay, this vital cog needs to find sanctuary before it gets phased out.
We're hoping that the ambitious project fructifies, and city's foodies are able to tuck into chicken foogath and Chinchoni fish curry; ah, and some guava cheese for later. For East Indians, it will be like coming home, and for the rest, like us, the foundation of a long-overdue archive.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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