Buttered buns in Bombay

LOOKING A BIT LIKE A GRUBBY SWISS chalet, Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery is in a busy lane within a stone’s throw of Bombay’s elegantly designed Horniman Circle. Named after the Persian city of Yazd, where one of the nine Athash Behrams (the highest grade of Zoroastrian fire temples) still stands, this establishment was founded by a Parsi family in the very early 1950s. It has been suggested that the premises occupied by Yazdani were previously occupied by a Japanese bank.

Yazdani, which looks as if it has not been redecorated for many decades is one of Bombay’s many ‘Irani cafés’, which were founded by Iranian zoroastrian refugees, who had fled to India (in the early 20th century) from other parts of Asia to escape religious persecution. Irani cafés, like Yazdani, retain a nostalgic charm, providing an atmosphere that transports the customer’s imagination back to a gentler and simpler past. Sadly, the number of Irani cafés in Bombay is diminishing.

It was at Yazdani, when I first visited it a year ago, that I bit into my first bun maska. It was love at first bite. What is it, you may well ask, that gave me so much pleasure? It is simply a round bread bun, often very soft, filled with a generous, if not excessive, amount of butter. Some of the buns available at Yazdani contain bits of raisin and others, the brun maska, have crisp crusty coverings (similar to ‘crusty rolls’ available in England).

Bun maska has become popular outside Bombay.For example, I have discovered good ones in Ahmedabad (at Lucky’s and also at the New Irani Restaurant).

In addition to bun maska and brun maska, Yazdani sells bread, apple pie, and a variety of delicious biscuits. Everything is baked on the premises at Yazdani, which calls itself “La Boulangerie”. Tea is served at simple tables within sight of the aging glass fronted cabinets that are constantly being restocked with freshly baked products. It is common for customers to dip bits of bun maska into the tea.

On one wall, there is a large poster in German advertising Bauernbrot. Apparently, Yazdani is popular with German visitors to Bombay. Portraits of various Parsi personalities also hang on the walls.

Unless you are gluten intolerant or trying to lose weight, a visit to Yazdani is a real treat, and not a costly one.

A few footsteps away from Yazdani, stands another treat. This is the Peoples Book House. It is a small extremely well stocked bookshop which supplies mainly, but not exclusively, left wing books. Whatever your political leaning, you are likely to find fascinating books here (in English, Hindi, and Marathi, mainly). In its window, you can spot, for example, “Das Kapital” and books about Karl Marx translated into Marathi. I bought what promises to be an interesting book about the naval mutiny in Bombay that occurred just after the end of WW2 (early 1946), an event that hastened the British decision to quit India for good.

So, visit Yazdani to fill your stomach and Peoples Book House to feed your brain.

Canine celebration

IT IS NOT SO OFTEN that I am invited to a dog’s birthday party in Bombay, let alone anywhere else. Yet, early one Sunday morning this February we were picked up by a friend and driven to Marine Drive with its elegant curving seafront lined with apartment blocks, many of which are designed in the Art Deco style.

We joined a group of our host’s congenial friends, all of whom had brought their dogs to the party. Everyone had arrived with snacks for breakfast. The group meets every Sunday and their dogs greet each other like old friends.

While we humans filled ourselves with sandwiches, patties, samosas, cakes (some eggless for strict vegetarians), biscuits, and hot tea, the dogs lapped up icecream. A few stray dogs joined the party whilst crows looked on enviously. Some of the stray dogs had thin string collars with small labels. These dogs are being considered for adoption by dog lovers. Stray dogs, often intelligent and very ‘street wise’, make good pets once they have had appropriate vaccinations.

We had attended our friend’s dog’s birthday two years ago. It was a relatively quiet occasion because the seashore promenade on Marine Drive had been fairly empty apart from occasional joggers and cyclists. This year it was different.

The promenade was chock full of children out for an early morning charity fun(?) run. Swarms of children of school age were moving along the wide pavement, some bearing banners with the names of their schools. There was much shouting and maasti (fooling around). Most of the children were wearing black tee-shirts with the name of the charity for which they were raising money (Terry Fox Cancer fund). At first glance, this seemingly endless procession of kids with banners looked like a political rally.

Some of the children seemed not to know or care about the direction they were supposed to be running. Many of them stopped to pet the dogs and to take photos of each other with the creatures. We asked some children why they were out running. They answered that they had no idea but their teachers had told them to do it.

While the kids were running or walking past us, they made a great noise as already mentioned but every few minutes this was drowned out by powerful motorcycles racing at high speed along Marine Drive. We were told that this also happens late at night and each year this reckless, careless driving (‘rash driving’ in Indian English) results in many fatalities on Marine Drive.

When we arrived at the party there was a thick mist or haze that almost hid the buildings around and far across the bay. By the time we left, having enjoyed the party and all that was going on around us, visibility had improved and we could see across the bay much more clearly, but not perfectly.

I am looking forward to another doggy birthday party in Bombay next year! Take a lead from me: canine celebrations can be great fun.

Italian abroad

I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.

Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.

Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.

Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.

When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.

One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”

In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.

It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.

Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.

Rice and meat

Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.

The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.

The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.

One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)

Sighting the high Himalayas

TODAY, WE WERE LUCKY. When we awoke at about 630 am, the sky was almost cloudless. There was no mist. We headed for breakfast at Bakers Café on MG Marg. We took a table by a window with a view of the hills that face Gangtok. To our great delight, we could see the snow covered slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga far beyond the nearer hills. Even though the great peak was partially obscured by clouds, we had managed to see it at last. Until 1853, this mountain was believed to be the highest on the planet. More accurate surveying showed it to be the third highest, K2 also known as Chhogori.

After breakfast, we strolled along MG Marg and then its continuation, New Market. At the far end of the latter, the hitherto fully built up thoroughfare began to be punctuated with greenery, trees and other plants.

After a short ascent, we reached the Ropeway station. It is the halfway point of s cable car service that runs from a much higher station to a far lower one. Currently, the service only runs from the midway station to the lowest one. We boarded one of the two red cable cars to make the descent. Unlike other cable cars I have been on, each cable car has its own cable instead of being on a continuous loop. When the car reaches a station, its driving cable reverses its direction of motion.

The views during the descent are dramatic. The usually tall buildings of Gangtok appear to have been built on step like terraces cut into the sides of the steep slopes of the terrain on which the city is situated. The cable car glides high above a winding road along which an unending stream of small local taxis flows. Looking left and right the tree covered hills surrounding the city offer exciting vistas. The return journey, the ascent, was less dramatic, but enjoyable nevertheless.

We dawdled back the way we had approached the cable car station, enjoying the warm sunshine. Many people were walking around including a significant number of police men and women carrying lathis and short sticks. Wearing berets and dark blue uniforms, they appeared to be milling around casually and without seeming menacing. Every now and then, we saw porters carrying what looked like heavy loads. They wear a thick padded strap over their foreheads. These straps are attached to cords that are tied around what is being carried on the porters’ backs. As they walk, the porters incline their heads slightly forward. This kind of portering looks like a tough way of earning a living.

The shops on MG Mar were open, but those lining the steps leading down to Lal Bazaar were shuttered up, closed. In Gangtok some businesses close on Thursday and others on Saturday. Today, it is Thursday. Fortunately, the excellent, albeit somewhat scruffy, Potala Restaurant in Lal Bazaar was open. I enjoyed a good number of delicately flavoured delicious beef filled steam momos.

After lunch we visited the Organic Market, which is housed in a curved gallery, one of the floors of the so-called Super Market, which is not a supermarket but a multi-storey covered market. Next, we strolled along some of the elevated pedestrian walkways that run above the National Highway, the main thoroughfare of Gangtok.

Before returning to our hotel, we stopped in a small café for beverages. It had a range of breads and pastries that equalled that you would expect to find in large European cities. This was not an isolated example. Gangtok abounds with well stocked bakeries.

The temperature had begun to drop when we reached our hotel, where we sttled down for a siesta.

PS We were fortunate to sight Kanchenjunga on the 28th November, the anniversary of the independence of Albania. Sadly, that country had just experienced a terrible earthquake.

Check the toilet!

One of my cousins in France gave me a useful tip.

He said that clean toilet facilities are often associated with satisfying restaurants. What he meant was that if the restaurant’s management took care of small details such as the toilets, it was likely that they would take care over the more savoury aspects of the business such as the food and customer care.

Since I was given that tip, I have noticed that there is a remarkably high correlation between my degree of satisfaction with the restaurant and the state of their ‘loos’.