Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mumbai, an Indian dinner at Soma, the Alphonso, and the flight to Guwahati


After arriving in the US , it does not take too many trips to the court to realize that the quality of the average pickup game in basketball is orders of magnitude better than what it is in India (MIT beat the Indian national team in 1984 for instance). There is a related analogy with Indian food.  Much as one might extol the virtues of various Indian restaurants in Manhattan, it is hard to beat the quality of a decent Indian restaurant in any decent city in India.  You can walk into most and the food will be that good.

After a long flight on the first day of June, I find myself in Mumbai at a restaurant called Soma, in the Grand Hyatt Hotel near the domestic airport.  Unlike the US, there are good restaurants at the large hotels here, and locals will visit the hotel just to eat at the restaurant.  

Pomfret is what I am after tonight. This fish is widely available on India’s western coast and I ordered it grilled, with tandoori spices.  It does not much matter what spices one uses: as long as it is fresh, and it is grilled just right, there is little comparison to anything else.  The closest to the pomfret in the US is the pompano, caught off the Florida coast.  These fish share the same flattened disc-shaped body but the taste and texture are different.

What was originally intended to be a quick fish meal morphed into a princely dinner—a whole grilled pomfret, lamb chops with Indian spices, a couple of pints of Kingfisher beer, two kinds of kulfi, and the magnificent Alphonso mango.  Guilt and restraint in front of good food are but vagaries of our vanities and hubris, and I had none that evening after a 14 hour flight sitting in front of the toilets where an over eager little girl kept inspecting the toilets and asking her weary daddy for permission to flush one just for fun because someone earlier hadn’t.

If you are in Mumbai in May, it is a sin not to taste this king of mangoes.  Bombay (now Mumbai) may have been gifted to the English King Charles when he married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, but the real king of these parts in early summer is the Alphonso.  It is the time just before the monsoons when the moisture-laden wind from the seas meets the windward side of the Western Ghats and the rains come pouring down unto the city.  It has been years since I have tasted an Alphonso, and I understood instantly why our friend from Mumbai, who visited us in New York recently, was driven nearly to tears after tasting the Florida grown abomination that I had offered her in the name of a mango (a good American mango is as rare as a good Indian basketball player).

I asked for the mango to be presented sliced in truncated hemispheres with the skin on and served with a spoon to scoop out the flesh which comes out in neat rounded dollops while your palm cradles the bowl of mango skin.  You do the eating.  The mango does the rest.

I chat with my waiter.  Most of the employees in the hotel are young graduates of hotel management institutions that have sprouted to cater to the growing hospitality business.  My waiter, barely out of his teens, is from Goa.  While neither he nor his parents speak Portuguese, his grandparents knew the language well.  Even today, he tells me, there are parts of Goa where this language is spoken.

The Hyatt is a fine hotel except for a couple of stylistic anomalies.  Taking its cues from a rather bizarre Nordic-Euro hotel tradition that I will never understand, the conventional door between the room and the bathroom has been left to minimalistic interpretations.  I realize this may not be a major problem for a single occupant, yet it remains strangely bothersome to me. It is also becoming rather difficult, in a lot of sleek upscale hotels, to find the light switch and execute the simple matter of turning on the bedside lamp. 

I am woken up early in the morning with a cup of coffee delivered by room service.  The waiter who brings my coffee is from Assam.  Many of the workers in the hospitality industry in the major cities are from the North-east—they are like the East Europeans workers in London or Switzerland, and the migration is fed by the income gap opening up between the poorer North-east and the more prosperous parts of Western and Northern India.  I too come from the North-east and they look genuinely happy to hear that I am from Assam.  My morning visitor has been in Mumbai for a couple of years.  He manages to go back home a couple of times a year, but is intent on moving onwards and outwards to put wings on his career.

We all make our pilgrimages.  In the old days, the religious minded would make theirs to the holy cities of India.  Today, the emigrants make theirs, to visit old parents, old ties, old friends and their aging wives and grown up children, roads and buildings and houses that they left behind decades ago, and in them they see their own reflections in a time compressed sort of way, an instantaneous change that is upon you without the predictability of a smooth function. Some of us fly into Mumbai and are energetic enough to head straight to the domestic airport and take the first flight out East--the Jet flight at 2:35 am that heads to Guwahati via Kolkata.  I was tired and and opted instead for dinner at the Hyatt and a comfortable nap, after which an air-conditioned taxi (called a Cool Cab) took me to catch the 6:50 a.m. Jet Airways flight with the same itinerary.

Waiting at the boarding gate, there are people speaking all around me, but very few to one another within earshot, the conversations mostly aimed wirelessly across geographical lines.  Little do they know of the revolutionary changes in the chip within their late model phones that allows all of this information to be processed.  And with this spiraling web of text, data and speech available at an ever decreasing expenditure of energy, there must be some law based upon a humanistic coordinate that seeks the limits to this information's potency which we as a society can absorb when the energies to process them become infinitesimally small.

A party of friends--husbands, wives, and children--is travelling with the carefree demeanor of holidaymakers.  On the bus that takes us to the aircraft across the tarmac, they engage in light banter and the women exchange photographs on their smart phones.  They remind me of the large groups of relatives that would take a train across the country to attend a marriage.  There is a thrill on their faces, a sense of being part of a big river of occasion and gaiety that is hard to replicate in business travel. 

I speak to the young lady sitting next to me on the aircraft—she is a software engineer from Mumbai and one of the breed of new professionals who move around the world with their jobs, at ease in any place.  I mention the old corporate lifestyle of the India of the 70s and 80s that I knew, and she refers to that socialistic time with a sense of history much in the manner that we used to talk about Gandhi.  Duly apprised of my vintage, I arrive at Guwahati airport.

1 comment:

  1. Can totally relate to your comment about the Indian food in US v/s India..I remember going to Seattle in late 90s and being treated to a dinner at the "best Indian place' in Seattle by my hosts. At the end of the meal they asked me to rate the food as compared to India..I was generous in giving a 3/10 rating which encouraged couple of them to jokingly ask me which restaurant would be top of the pile for me..I invited them to India and when they came to visit next quarter, I took them to Bukhara (Maurya Sheraton). I think even today the execs are licking their fingers after a good 15 years!!