It was my last day in Mumbai.
As I walked across Crosswords at Kemps Corner, it tempted me to reenter the bookstore that had introduced me to the world of Archies and Harry Potter a decade ago. However, I ended up asking the guard, “Ye 29 kidhar hai?” (Where is 29?)
29 is a restaurant at Kemps Corner where I had invited my friends for my farewell lunch. Without a clue about the theme of the place I was heading to, I followed the guidelines of the guard and found a fine dining air-conditioned restaurant, contrary to my expectations. I had expected it to be a rather average restaurant after looking at the price for two on Zomato.
After I entered the place, I couldn’t help but notice a foodie, probably in his late-20s, telling everyone else on the table, quite audibly, about his food expeditions across the nation. The waiters greeted me with warm smiles and led me to a table of five while my eyes remained glued to the young foodie and his gestures. His energy was infectious.
Hungry, I asked for the menu at once. While I waited at the table, I saw signboards on the walls that read the names of various states of India. My eyes kept staring at the signs blankly as a waiter handed over the menu to me. West Bengal. Karnataka. Gujarat. Madhya Pradesh. I could land up anywhere in the next three months.
I’m a journalist, freshly placed at the Times of India, ready to be thrown into any corner of the country as part of the recruitment policy of the newspaper. But I wondered which city could be as metropolitan and diverse as Mumbai. The state of my mind met the state of my stomach at the esophagus. I choked. Maybe that’s how Eureka moments feel like! I had just conceived a brilliant idea, of opening a restaurant in Mumbai that would offer cuisines of all the states of India. The concept was a hit in the making given the diverse demographics, from all over the nation, that Mumbai boasts of.
However, I gulped the idea down as I began reading the menu. It had already happened. 29, Kemps Corner wasn’t a plot number. It was a pan-Indian themed restaurant that served the local cuisines of the 29 states of the country. Sigh! Back to cribbing about leaving the city.
Minutes later, I was busy debating with my friends on what to order. Because with dozens of options, come dozens of arguments. Shivani wanted a glass of Sattu, a summer drink made of gram flour, because it allowed her to revisit her hot Delhi days. Riddhima insisted on a Kashmiri Guldasta, in coherence with her repeated claims to be as sundar (pretty) as Kashmir ki Kali. Anubha demanded the Goan-Portugese Curry, rightly so, as she was the only one from the gang, who had missed out on a Goa trip in March. Honey, staying true to her foodie persona, kept shouting “bring it on” after every suggestion. My pick was Litti-Chokkha, a delicacy from Bihar. Miniature Kachoris filled with masala spicier than that of Rawat’s Pyaz Ki Kachori (in Jaipur), served with chopped boiled potato and my favourite, baingan ka bharta. “I could live in Bihar for this one,” I told myself as I broke the kachori into half.
As a waiter approached the table with Kanpur Biryani, the only item that we had mutually agreed on, the young zealous foodie from the other table took the dish away from him. Then, he faced us and started explaining the recipes of the three sauces spread across the rice. Yes, he was the owner of 29.
An engineer by profession, a traveler at heart, a Baniya by caste and a foodie by choice – he had incorporated all his identities as ingredients to prepare an exotic menu that screamed and smelled of the entire India. He had traveled across the length and breadth of the nation, discovered the specialties of cities as diverse as Guwahati and Jodhpur. Then, he had taken a page out of the recipe books of these states and improvised to come up with his own set of offerings. While talking to us, he never went out of words as he struck a chord with us, owing to his knowledge of the food that each of us grew up on – though I still don’t agree with him that Sodhani‘s kachoris are better than those of Rawat.
As he served us with complimentary desserts, Double Ka Meetha (Shahi Tukda with Rabdi), he disclosed the USP of his Rabdi – Jaggery. His Rabdi had no processed sugar and was made by widows of the 2001 Bhuj Earthquake victims. “That is the li’ll CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) that I can afford in my startup,” he said, smiling calmly, his eyes beaming with energy nevertheless.
With our stomachs full and heads loaded with anecdotes from all over the country, we posed for a picture in front of a large mural of India’s map on a white wall behind us. When I looked closely, I realized that it was outlined using empty paint cans. “After I got this place painted, I utilized the cans instead of throwing them away. I’m an engineer after all,” the owner said while clicking our picture.
As i smiled for the photograph, with my best buddies around me, I realized that though I loved them and this city to the core, I had countless avenues yet to explore. I wanted to live every place that I had discussed in the past couple of hours, in real time. I looked forward to every challenge and wanted to document these times of India, meri zabani (through my eyes).
Exactly a month later, the Times of India confirmed Indore as my location. No brownie, or poha points, for guessing what this city is renowned for! Slurrp!