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Mumbai’s most 'dangerous' dinners
Mumbai's southeast corner became a hangout for the underworld in the 1980s -- and also home to some mean dishes. It would be a crime not to dine in these restaurants
As the financial and entertainment capital of India, it should be no surprise that Mumbai attracts a fair share of criminals. Gangs battle for dominance using the same tools as gangsters everywhere: extortion, money laundering, prostitution, drugs, financial fraud and arms trafficking.
Mob crime in Mumbai spiraled out of control in the late 1980s.
Any activity that generated money was fair game. 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.
Considering all the major gangs had a free communal eating place or a 'handi' in their strongholds for their members, it wasn't long before several 'dons' took a fancy to the restaurant business.
A series of unfortunate events in the early 1990s and the public outcry thereafter spurred the Mumbai Police into a revamped and rearmed force which began to answer bullet for bullet.
The big dons -- Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan -- fled the country. And it scarred the rest 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 last year troubled the underworld too. Shootouts, extortion calls and contract killings in Mumbai almost came to a halt in early 2010.
It had 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 was and still is a hangout for the foot soldiers and the dons, is the focus of my culinary journey.
So roll up your sleeves, splash yourself with hand sanitizer and get ready for a feast in the dons' lairs. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a table with some rough looking characters.
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; +91 98 3353 3305. Open 9:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
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 it melts in the mouth, the kebabs could pass off as galoutis (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.
Sarvi has other signature dishes too.
The bheja masala fry (brain fried with spices) in a subtle gravy is superior. 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.
In general, the food is far more sophisticated than I’d expected.
Simple marble top tables, peeling paint and a high ceiling are all the décor you can expect. They cook their kebabs by the windowsill, cleverly seducing passers-by with the aroma 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; +91 (0) 22 2347 6188. Open 8 a.m. - 11.30 p.m. 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 Urdu 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 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, I wouldn't recommend it.
The chicken white biryani, on the other hand, 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 -- 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. +91 (0) 22 2261 7171. Open 9:30 a.m. - 11:30 p.m. 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.
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 twist to it, 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 has to keep the kitchen fires going, which were first lit in 1935.
197, Corner of Grant Road, Kamathipura; +91 (0) 22 2387 5656. Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 a.m. 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), Delhi Durbar still stands on its own when it comes to good food.
Among their memorable dishes, I would definitely count the raan sikandari. A whole leg of young baby lamb marinated in a lightly spiced masala, mixed with yogurt 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.
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).
The owner, Jaffer Bhai, sums up his philosophy on food this way: "Only when you can be generous and large-hearted towards others with food will you really enjoy eating yourself."