The walk before the walk
We were walking beneath the JJ flyover late last Saturday night, headed to a Finely Chopped food walk in Bohri Mohalla, and we were lost. Jude, our trustworthy driver, had dropped us at the wrong location. We weren’t anywhere near Saifee ambulance stand, the meeting point for the food walk. Last year, we had attended the walk with a friend, whose driver is Muslim. Pete’s driver knows Mohammed Ali Road and had no trouble getting us to Saifee ambulance stand. Our driver, however, is Christian and unfamiliar with the area. He had been told to take the WEH to the JJ flyover. Ahmed had given landmarks from there. But, during monsoon, the WEH resembles a parking lot more than a highway, so Jude decided to take the new Eastern Freeway, which rendered all the directions (and, more importantly, the landmarks) useless. The misdirection also meant that we would miss any other landmarks we might recognize from last year. Normally, when Jude is uncertain of an exact location, he will ask directions from people on the street. But, he refused to ask any locals (read: Muslims) for directions. Communalism cost us that night. We ended up more than 10 blocks away from our intended location.
During Ramadan, Mumbai’s Muslim neighborhoods, particularly along Mohammed Ali Road, are abuzz with activity late into the evenings. Last Saturday, the sky was a shimmering, pitch black; the rains had cleared. Everyone in Mumbai had decided that road was the place to be that night. Women in burqas, men in skull caps, and police in crisp, starched uniforms teemed around us. Pop-up stalls bursting with Ramadan treats cluttered the sidewalk, forcing us to walk on the road. Cars, rickshaws, and tempos whizzed past us.
We called Kalyan, or Finely Chopped as he’s known to foodies throughout Mumbai; he determined we needed to cross Mohammed Ali Road and walk away from CST. Crossing the road in Mumbai always resembles a game of Frogger. Pedestrians dodge cars, ricks, and buses as they navigate across eight lanes of speeding traffic. Brian calls me “the boat anchor” because I often hesitate when crossing, costing us valuable time on the journey. I was never good at Frogger.
We easily crossed the southboard lanes, but when we reached the median to cross the northbound lanes, the traffic was more congested. I spotted a small group of women and cozied up to them. As they started to cross, I shouted, “GO!” and pushed Brian to move. My strategy was successful, and we reached the other side safely. Maybe, I was better at Frogger than I thought.
We continued along Mohammed Ali Road. When we reached Minara Masjid, the only landmark I recognized, Brian texted a photo to Kalyan.
Kalyan told us to continue walking away from CST. We were on the right track, but we seemed to be walking longer than we thought we should.
Finally, we reached an Indian Oil petrol station, a good landmark. As we walked a little further, but we seemed to be getting no closer, I suggested a taxi. Brian said, “No, we have a driver; we shouldn’t need to take a taxi. Jude’ll never find us in this chaos anyway.” We decided to double back to the petrol pump. Two police officers were standing on the road.
“Taj Ice Cream?” we asked.
One officer pointed. “Yelo…Left hai” was all I could understand between my limited Hindi and the din of the traffic. “How far” or “how many lefts” was beyond my capacity to inquire or understand. We decided to call Jude while we were at an easily recognizable landmark. Brian reprimanded him for dropping us in the wrong place and explained our location as best he could. The Indian Oil station and the Kohinoor Jewelers opposite were the best landmarks we could offer. Fifteen minutes later, Jude arrived. We insisted that he ask the police officers for directions to Taj Ice Cream. He did, and still he turned down the wrong lane. At that lane, we asked for Saifee ambulance, and were told to go one more lane and then left. Finally, we arrived more than 60 minutes late and met Kalyan outside the Saifee ambulance stand. Finally, we started the second phase of our adventure.
The Finely Chopped Bohri Mohalla food walk
Editor’s note: If you want a different take on the food walk, check out this blog by Jyotika Perwar, which offers an excellent summary of our stops: https://followmyrecipe.squarespace.com/events/2014/7/20/the-finely-chopped-walk-bohri-mohalla
A Finely Chopped food walk is always an adventure for the taste buds. After our jaunt down Mohammed Ali Road, we were ready for some great street food. The Borhi Mohalla walk is well known for the exotic meat on offer: cow udder, fried brain, and trotters (hooves) feature alongside the less exotic beef pulao (rice dish), chicken spring rolls, and enormous malpuas (fried pancake-like desserts). We were pleased that our adventures on Mohammed Ali Road turned out to be less exciting than our culinary adventure.
We enjoy these walks because they stretch us beyond of our five-star dining comfort zone. They force us to rethink how we think about food and challenge our cultural assumptions. No other walk has challenged these assumptions more than the Bohri Mohalla walk. Last year, I tried everything. This year, I was more selective, but enjoyed everything I sampled.
As Kalyan pointed out at Villibhai, our final savory stop, the food featured on the walk would never feature on a five-star menu. Dishes like khiri (udders), pichhota (oxtail), paya (trotters), and nalli nihari (bone marrow) would never cut the mustard with an upscale hotel’s swishy clientele.
The street food featured on the walk was the Muslim equivalent of “down-home” cooking you might find in the American Deep South. The sauces in which the meats were cooked were subtle, not spicy. Quite easy on the expat palette. Yet, even the most carnivorous among us had to forget deep-seated cultural assumptions about whether such pieces should be eaten at all. I loved the oxtail, but have to admit my favorite dish was the beef pulao.
The beef was tender, succulent. The pulao was so perfectly buttery that I suspect the restaurant owner owns a slice of the Amul milk co-op.
Wonderings after our wanderings
As always, the walk opened my eyes to the Maximum City and its inhabitants. Brian and I try to be adventurous as we explore Mumbai, but the truth is that we spend more time at five-star hotels than we do under flyovers. Nevertheless, as crowded as Mohammed Ali Road was that night, I never felt unsafe. My biggest safety concern was my purse, and that was secured diagonally across my shoulder. People stared at us, but that’s hardly a new behavior. The teeming masses around us were more annoying than they were dangerous. We pushed through them like locals, weaving between people and cars effortlessly.
Had our adventure occurred last year, I’m not sure if that safe feeling would have been the same. Cultural common sense reflects our perception of our environment, and my sense of Mumbai has changed a lot. I still think my instinct to hail a taxi, ask for Saifee ambulance stand, and pay Rs. 100 no matter the distance was a good one. But, Brian was right that Jude would never have found us without the major Indian Oil landmark we used that night.
After the walk, I saw an infographic on Twitter about meat consumption in India.
— Jean Spraker (@Magnolia2Mumbai) July 21, 2014
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsHaving just been to Bohri Mohalla where almost every possible part of the cow was consumed, and was clearly being consumed by large quantities of people, I puzzled at the exclusion of beef from the graphic and asked why. The Twitterverse responded that including beef and pork would hurt religious sentiments.
Which brings me back to why our “walk before the walk” was even necessary: communalism. Our Christian driver thought he knew better than the Muslim colleague who gave him directions to the location, and, ultimately, did not trust the local Muslims to give him good directions. Westerners have the perception that India is a happy place filled with all religions where everyone gets along and attends one another’s festivals. Hindus attend the feasts at Mt. St. Mary’s and just as many Christians attend Ganesh festivities. When Mumbai Muslims celebrate Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s known here), everyone heads to Mohammed Ali Road to partake in its culinary rarities, as many foods are available only during Ramzan.
Everybody’s happy? Right?
Well, let’s just say that if any religion in India had to post a Facebook relationship status, it would read: “It’s complicated.”
Yes, people have tremendous respect for another person’s religion. That’s why the infographic dropped beef (so as not to offend the Hindus) and pork (so as not to offend the Muslims). But, people often have fear, too. The roots of that fear are deep and powerful. They stretch back to India’s independence from Britain and the Partition that followed. They spread wide to the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which played a major role in the debate about Narendra Modi’s suitability as a PM candidate in the latest election. Modi’s election is seen by some as an indicator that Indians are ready to move past the communal tensions that have occasionally plagued India’s history. Hopefully, they’re right. Perhaps, we could start by getting my driver to ask for directions.