An evening at Marine Drive: Chowpatty and Crystal
Sunday evenings are likely to see a swarm of people on Chowpatty beach in Mumbai. Men playing cards, lovers carving their initials on the sand, kids running around without a care, hungry foodies hovering around the food stalls and Marine Drive coming alive like a bedazzled necklace. Chowpatty has long been known for its street food stalls. Ranging from dosa, pav bhaji and chana, to sandwiches and chinese. There are also vendors selling raw mango (kaccha aam), star fruit and ber - the fruits are cut up into pieces and mixed with salt and chilli powder for a tangy, spicy treat. This post, however, details out a must-experience three course food trail at small joints near Chowpatty, starting with Crystal, a small, vegetarian cafe that is on the favourites list for many a mumbaikar.
Almost across the road from the beach, a little further down the Wilson college lane is signboard that says, “Crystal Ice Cream”. Not an actual ice cream parlour but a small shack that serves perfectly made punjabi food, Crystal is best identified by the line of hungry souls standing outside the narrow blue door, even before opening time. Perfect for college/hostel kids with their always-empty wallets and sad reality of inedible hostel food. “Maa ke haath ka khaana”, at its best for all ages, the light meals at very reasonable prices always result in happy tummies. (Timings: 12 noon - 3 PM and 7 PM - 10 PM)
Must try from the menu include the following: dal, roti, paranthas, paneer (cottage cheese), baingan (eggplant/brinjal), chaas, and kheer. Their Dal fry, golden as the sun is specked with bits of coriander, and served with a flavourful tadka of burnt ginger and garlic, fried dal, jeera, ghee, and coriander. Have it with rice or roti.
Dal makhani is made with whole black lentils, red kidney beans, butter and cream. Their version is a lighter curry without cream. A classic tadka of whole red chillis, sautéed onions and hints of jeera adds just the right notes of spice and flavour. A dash of lime juice enhances the taste by adding a tangy finish.
The rajma (red kidney bean) is light, spiced with red chilli, jeera, and ghee, slightly mellow in its flavour compared to rajma at a dhaba, which is usually thicker and feels heavier.
The palak paneer is bright green plate of soft paneer, palak scented with ghee, and other spices. I, personally, like the paneer bhurji better, paneer chopped into little pieces with lime, red chilli, onion, tomatoes and other spices.
The Baingan Bharta comes with a recommendation too. Roasted baingan mashed with onion, green chilli, jeera, coriander, lime and other spices. A mouthful of smoky, tangy brinjal with a warm spicy finish. These north-indian, home-like dishes are best had with light, fluffy butter rotis, fresh off the tava. Be warned, there's generous amounts of butter and ghee. Their paranthas, the muli, gobi, paneer and aloo paranthas are also a good pick. Very filling, they are served with pickle and a bowl of curd.
To end it all, order the kheer, rice churned in milk spiced with cardamom and sugar, something they're especially known for. Not too sweet, with just the right consistency, it’s the perfect closure to a happy meal.
Only that, there are another couple of must-try eateries on this trail. Do save space for some digestive paan from U.P., in the north of the country. Take the few steps to Suman Paan Bidi Shop, Marina Mansion, Charni Road. Suman ji, from the heart of U.P., has been running this tiny joint for more than 30 years. He doesn’t wear a smile on his face but he makes a good paan, especially his kalkatta pan which is quite a mouthful of ingredients ending in a fresh burst of mint. He also makes a ‘Mogai paan', a smaller version.
Right beside Suman Ji’s paan shop is New Kulfi Centre, an establishment run since the 1960s, a popular haunt for Malai Kulfi. Kulfi or the Indian version of ice-cream is a traditional dessert introduced to us thanks to our Mughal legacy. The cold bricks of the kulfi instantly melt in the mouth, the smooth, rich creaminess accentuated with just the right amount of sweetness. Pick from a staggering assortment of flavours and combinations, ranging from kesar pista to strawberry. Switching the order between the paan and the kulfi would be equally gratifying.
Quite a perfect way to spend Sunday evenings, with friends and soul-satisfying food. The next stop could be the beach itself to take in the sights and sounds of the evening ... the gentle lapping of waves, the hum of people and the buzz of traffic ... all coming together to form the symphony that is Mumbai.