Unless you were a monk in pursuit of attaining salvation up the Himalayan plains, there is no ordinary human being who does not like to be pampered; be it travel, at a health spa or food. I belong to the same race of evolved species and love every bit of my taste buds going through an intriguing and mysteriously exciting roller coaster dose. I am not a foodie or one with a voracious appetite but cannot keep my hands off sinfully tasty food. It could be diverse recipes like some Methi Theplas with Mango Chunda, fluffy fritter tasting Udupi Vada Sambar with Mint Chutney, mouth drooling caramelized Mishti Doi, glazed Rumali Rotis with creamy boneless Butter Chicken, Rajma Chaawal with spicy Punjabi Papad, the authentic slithering Goan Bebinca, crusty Raj Kachori stuffed with Moong, Curd, Cumin Seeds and other accompaniments or some chilled hard Matka Malai Kulfi.
To me, home cooked food remains an all time favourite for being simple and healthy. But we also like to venture out to treat ourselves to some cultural specialities that our chefs back home may not be adept with. Foodies seem to be increasingly dependent on reviews cluttering the online space through portals like Zomato, Burrp and Times Food Guide. Click on a few options and you are bombarded with a plethora of choices to binge across the length and breadth of the city. Despite all being there, the one place that remains perched on a rustic structure in Agiyari Lane of Kalbadevi at South Mumbai continues to draw throngs of crowds from across the city.
I am talking about truly mouth watering Gujarati cuisine at Shree Thaker Bhojanalay.
Ask any well versed Mumbai-kar about pin code 400 002. The immediate answer would be an extremely crowded business district housing some of the oldest paper, cotton, books, steel, cycle, utensils and cloth traders operating out of decrepit structures. Thakker is no different and except for a rectangular shiny board that precariously extends itself from the beams of the dilapidated building with the name printed in loud colours, there could be a good chance you may fail to spot it despite being around its coordinates. And once you do, a dark long entrance beguiles you to a recently renovated Kota stoned stairway. We Indian love staining walls by generously spitting tobacco variants and leaving our mark. To maintain equality, some Hindu Gods adorn the freshly painted walls that behold religious sentiments disguised to deter offenders.
But once you are on Level 1, a long alley lit with white tubes makes you pause and look around. Each door looks like a regular entrance to any middle class haven. It is only when I turn around that I am greeted with the words “Jai Shree Krishna” by a lad holding a door wide open with a smile that is oozing hospitality. I could feel the chill of the air conditioner as soon as I walked in. To my left is the billing counter on whose wall is the rate board detailing the prices and over a dozen celebrity photo frames carrying elated expressions. Big B being the brand ambassador of Just Dial services had one dedicated to him. To my right is a wall that proudly displays the awards won consecutively as the best Gujarati restaurant in Mumbai.
These were enough to build my appetite and look forward to something absolutely yummy. Being famished post an early lunch, I ended up reaching the place at 7.00 pm. Spot on time when they start serving dinner. It may sound ridiculously early but I had no plans to rush through an unlimited serving of Gujarati Thali. It needs to be savoured over a few hours unlike my insipid breakfast that I rush through on a business day.
The place was extremely clean with every table neatly organized with stainless steel Thaalis (plates) each with an array of multiple circular vaatis (bowls) and spoons. The staff clad in a brown uniform standby waiting for me to settle down. The manager walks up to me to exchange some pleasantries and assures me of a fantastic experience as a reward for money well spent. I nod with smiling anticipation. As I wait, I can hear a chorus behind the kitchen door that reads “No Admission”. It does not take me too long to recognize the reason. It is customary for the staff to begin each business session for both lunch and dinner with a Thaker Prayer. It revolves around candour, purity and requesting The Almighty from exculpating them for any misdoings executed unknowingly in their duties performed. The traditional bell is sounded off and its food time.
Hungry I certainly was but before that was curious to know what would go in the assorted bowls and the rest of the Thaali. Each waiter carries 4 pots in close formation containing similar food types. It starts with the Kachoris, Dhoklas and Farsaans of different types followed by a variety of pickles and chutneys to compliment. Two larger bowls on my plate were reserved for jaggery sweetened velvety Pooran Poli and Dal Bati. If there was anything that I wanted to ask the serving waiter about, I could without batting an eyelid. He was more than happy to explain the ingredients. By then came the turn of the smaller vaatis (bowls) that were filled with curries and sukhas (dry). The steam emanated from each item served so far was distinctively aromatic and started mesmerizing my senses. If that was not enough, two more guys came by to serve chilled chaas (salted butter milk), custard and aam ras (mango pulp), kadi and two types of dal. What was left was an assortment of Indian breads – rotis and baakris that came in shortly. Ghee was generously doused where appropriate.
Here I was with an amazing spread that left me flustered about my starting point. Indian food is best had Indian style. My fingers go around in the same order that I was served and within minutes I feel like a ruminating cow immersed in his own world of blissful aftertaste. It felt extremely embarrassing to have about a dozen waiters and a manager only look at me while I was in the act. I cared to hoots and remained oblivious to their stubborn presence. There were occasional visits from the manager himself who would bow in all humility to check if everything was okay. I was too busy eating and unwilling to return from this concoction of flavours serendipitously gaining appreciation from my fortuitous tongue. He gauged it right and stepped back feeling relieved that my body language was in his favour.
No sooner was I exhausting the delicious spread that the uniformed boys were ready with another serving. I was about 45 minutes into it and could feel the stretch around my waist with each deep pull of air from my lungs. I was there to eat and bloody go berserk. If my shirt pouted a funny bulge I couldn’t care less. I tried my best to follow some table etiquette but the flavoured burps refused to stay put and escaped, plastering my face with a million watt smile each time. Kichdi was available as an option but I chose to be assailed with rotis of various types – Jowar, Makai, Bajra to name a few.
It was time and I had to stop myself from being coddled by this barrage of luscious fare. With my mouth still full, I threw my hands up in the air with fingers carrying traces of Desi Ghee and being absolutely shameless about their indulgence in what I would call a revelation in cordon bleu cuisine. The boys around insisted that I try some more and were dangerously close to filling up my plate again. But I could not handle more and I reluctantly refused. The lower half of my body felt more like a disassembled unit restricted on my numb buns. With some concentrated effort I drag myself to the wash basin and thereafter to the billing counter.
I am pleased to be greeted by the cheerful looking owner. A spectacled guy running the family business now in its second generation with no branches in the world yet. He introduces himself as Gautam Purohit. I was curious to know about the name Thaker. To which he replies his father had bought the place in 1945 from a businessman called Thaker and hence the name. It has never made any pretence about fancy food. Always believed in wholesome high quality unlimited Gujarati Thaali. Till date the owner is personally involved in purchasing and quality inspection of every single raw material that goes into the making of what is served on a customer’s plate. Incredible isn’t it.
I did not leave without clicking some pictures. To which they gladly obliged.
i stepped out with some Mukhwas (digestive aid) in my palm and was greeted once again by the same door guy.
I am reminded of a quote “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food”.