Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Life in the City - Vada Pao for the Soul

Chapter 5 - An Ode to the Humble Vada Pao

What's life without soul food? And if you think I'm talking daal-chawal-kadhi, yawwwwn think again. Soul food for the true Mumbaikar is the food that can be easily snagged off the tapris on the road and had with a cutting of adraki chai or ginger tea for the more anglicised. 

There are days when I wake up craving a hot vada pao, that's straight out of the vendor's kadai, still dripping black viscous oil through the sieve scooping it out of the bubbling cauldron. Never venture to look into the oil vat, you might not want to touch a vada again, nor look at the huge vessel in which the potato balls are given its besan-bath.But look at those crisp, crackling vadas that are carelessly tossed into the container near the vendor and the first moment of bliss overtakes you. 

(Disclaimer: Before I go further with my foodie musings, let me at the outset say - I am no connoisseur, I have a few regular places like most Mumbaikars for my secret vices - while the true Mumbaivaasi will scream 'blasphemy' at my dubbing vada-pao hogging as a vice - I must say my health-consciousness makes me admit, it's not an eating habit to be made a staple part of the diet. Precisely why I call it soul food!)

Now, comes the pao, but before that..I must confess I am very particular about how I like my vada pao - that's the reason why I'm no Jumbo person - anyone who's been to Mumbai knows about the big yellow stalls that can be seen across most railway stations and busy areas which sell a burgerised version of the vada-pao. I normally never look that way, not even for the sake of superior hygiene. I still go to my usual man at the Andheri station, when the whim strikes. If it strikes in Lower Parel, there is a shop really close to the traffic signal as one comes down the bridge from the station. Or my third option is the man, who stands by the High Court in Fort. 

The pao is rarely stale and what remained from the stock of the days gone by that went unsold. The churn-out rate in these places is so high, that very often people are forced to wait till a fresh batch of vadas are fried. 

Now when I say fresh pao, how do I describe it to someone who has never held that sponginess between their two hands? The toasty outside has a tiny crackle and when you split it into two to dab on the chutney, the bread isn't doughy, but instead so soft that the chutney sinks into it leaving just a green trail in its wake.

The reason why I like the humble vada pao so much is the skilled carelessness with which my favourite vada paowallahs make mine, in just the finicky way I like it. I like my steaming vada to be lightly crushed on to the bed of the pao which has been soaked with green chutney. Once it has been crushed into a compact form, a generous sprinkling of the dry fiery red garlic chutney is mandatory ( I don't like that sprinkled on to the green chutney, but on to the vada). Now comes the turn of a tiny tiny dab of sweet date and imli chutney on to the upper flap of the pao. And that brings the yin and yang of taste together - a sweetness to the fire generated doused by mildly spiced potatoes of the vada. But if the fire isn't enough to get your taste buds dancing, there are the humble green chillies (deep fried in the same oil as the vadas) to create heat of varied proportions too..

The first bite is like a series of tiny fire-crackers going off inside your mouth. The tongue is on fire, the taste-buds are on an over-drive and your senses are in bliss. The first vada pao is usually finished off, often greedily, in three measured bites. And chomping with your cheeks bulging out, in the manner that Amma says is not how food is eaten politely, gives it an added 'guilty pleasure' quotient. The second comes with the guilt of extra calories. If you can shrug that off, then it is highly recommended. Wash it down with lightly sweetened( I hate sugary concoctions) adraki chai and walk away with an added spring in your step. 

The pocket is only lighter by under twenty rupees and the soul filled to the brim! The journey towards Nirmal Anand (pure joy) is half complete. 

(Images courtesy: Open, Outlook and CNNGo)

And if your heart is still not full, go ahead and read this poem by Ugich Konitari. Entertainment is tax free! :) 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Life in the City - Cheap Comforts

Chapter 4: Mumbai survival 24x7

I am a gypsy at heart- to date no city -across the world- has screamed HOME enough to make me dig my heels in, thrown my anchor down and declare that I have a city to call my own. The truth is now I have several and like a global citizen holding multiple passports, I make multiple claims depending on company and context as to which city I'm loyal to. 

The reason is, in the thirteen years since I first left the home I grew up in (the distinction is made deliberately) I have moved cities eight times. In all fairness, I must admit that Mumbai and Kochi have seen me return a couple of times, my love-affair with the other cities have been rather brief and fleeting at best - a year and a half being the longest period of dalliance.

Looking back at what took me back time and again to Kochi and Mumbai, meant facing some uncomfortable truths. The logic with my love for Kochi is simple. Home is where parents are, however old you grow. When I go to Kochi, I go for pampering. Amma would certify to the embarrassing fact that I have never lifted a spoon or done my laundry while 'at home'. Also, psssstt...I have bundled several of my whites (I have an obsessive compulsion to buy them even if I can't maintain them)back to Kochi while visiting so that between Amma and her maid, it can turn sparkling white again. ( If Malayali daughters are obsessed with buying whites, Malayali moms have this obsession to launder and bleach them brutally till they surrender their yellowing selves and turn pristine again!) So there, in a nutshell, Kochi is about regressing back to a time when parents did the 'taking care' and you exploited it for all it's worth. 

Now Mumbai...Mumbai is another story altogether. Why is life in Mumbai so much simpler? It's something I mooned and moaned about the first time I picked up my bags and traipsed off to live in Brighton, England.( In case, you are interested in that post, click here). 

All the reasons why many people consider this city to be unliveable, I must admit, are all valid and VERY TRUE. It is a nightmare for anyone not used to the Mumbaiyya kind of life - all about living by the clock. If your clock goes awry and the alarm didn't wake you on time, your day can be screwed in ways you can't even imagine. Everything, just about everything happens by the clock. 

The kachrawallah rings the doorbell at dot 6.30, the cook walks in at 8AM and the maid at 10.15AM. If the cook does not walk in at dot 8, she gets late for the next household that anxiously waits her arrival like I do and my sister gets late to leave for office and consequently if she loses more than half an hour extra on the road in traffic, she loses a half-day leave. 

The traffic chaos in this city might mean losing several hours, but that's not an excuse for arriving late for a meeting. Instead, you also factor in an hour extra if you are travelling at peak-time. Indian Stretchable Time, as I have come to fondly refer to it while in the UK, is least applicable in Mumbai.( I must add the 'least', because Mumbai is after all in India and all the characteristics of Indians across the country do tend to get reflected here too, however rare) 

However, what has me enthralled is that the city works 24x7. The maids in Mumbai don't believe in union-baazi ( working by union-stipulated hours). Work schedules are flexible provided adequate notice is provided so that they can juggle their work-charts around. Everyone is contactable via a mobile phone and they are very happy to share the number with you ( none of the Brit-snootiness when it comes to divulging a personal number). So on my phone, I have convenient categories - three Brokers ( or call them Estate Agents), two electricians(one also doubles up as a plumber), stand-by maids if mine decides to take unexpected time-off and has not brought in her aunt or cousin or sister or daughter to work till she gets back and two istiriwallahs - one who does my regular ironing and another when I need some urgent pressing done and assorted numbers for beauticians who swing by to help you look less wild. I have a category for just about everything and they are all filled. Efficient, no fuss, disciplined enough to pander to my weird form of OCD. 

And it is not just the people, the services provided in this city are also equally appreciable and in a way that respects their time and mine. The kirana store delivers just about everything home and also brings in the required change, if you want to pay for a packet of crisps and diet coke with a 1000-rupee note. You can decide on the menu of what take-out food you want to serve your guests after you have set the plates on the table. In the time, they have had their first glass of wine and warming up to eating, the delivery boy would be at the door with food wonderfully packed to keep it hot. Even the ice-cream outlets offer individual ice-cream scoops, packed cleverly and not just family-pack of ice cream slabs as home delivery. Sunday is just another day, unlike in my red-state Kerala where everything including the neighbourhood stray dogs take it as their rightful day off.

The work-ethic of Mumbai is admirable - prompt, very polite and rarely shoddy. Yes, money power does hold sway like in any other metropolis, but isn't that a universal truth? 

For a single girl in a big bad city, this one is a blessing. The nights aren't unsafe, the comforts aren't back-breaking expensive. It affords you your little corner, even if it is no bigger than a handkerchief. 

Mumbai is home today, I'm not sure if it will remain that tomorrow. As I grow older, the need for space and for a more relaxed way of life is growing too. But this city has kept me young, alive and on many occasions soothed, healed and put me back on my feet. Wherever I go, irrespective of my criticisms of its dirt, dust and dinginess - I shall remain a loyal Mumbaikar. This city has character- flawed or otherwise.