Licking the original Manglorean fare
Before Trishna, Apoorva, Fountain Inn, Bharat (Excellency), there was Mahesh Lunch Home. It still is: the first and original Manglorean seafood restaurant in Bombay, famed for its black pomfret curries, its crabs, its fish roe masalas, prawn gassi, lady fish fry. It is 18 years old, inconspicuously located at the junction of Cowasji Patel Street and Pherozeshah Mehta Road, modest in every sense, except its food. It has recently been renovated, nothing grand, the downstairs is still workmanlike and non-AC, the mezzanine AC and 20 per cent extra for that, but it is looking brighter, more cheerful. And the crabs are as good as ever.
Till 1980, only Chinese restaurants in Bombay served crabs. Then Mr. Sooru C. Kerkera decided to introduce them at the Mahesh Lunch Home. (Mahesh, because that is his son's name, and 'lunch home' because that is how it started, though today the city's cognoscenti dine and wine over there and you won't get a seat around 9 p.m.). The crabs the lunch home serves are curried, Rs.90, and tandoored, Rs.140. (These are the air-conditioned mezzanine prices, they are 20 per cent less downstairs.) Each serving gets you a full crab, legs and claws flopping over the sides of the plate, or, if the crab is not big enough, two medium sized crabs.
That is value for money, you cannot deny that. Compare the prices with crabs anywhere else, compare them with Trishna's salt and pepper crabs.
So, let me tell you how the crab is prepared, knowing it should enhance your taste for it. First, the outer shell is removed, and the crab cleaned and marinated in a red masala or dhania, mirchi, jeera powder, elaichi, jaifal, tej patta, garlic, salt, mixed with curd. When the order comes, it is put in the tandoor bhatti. Then served direct. Be careful you don't burn your hands, also, break your teeth. The curried crab is done in a coconut masala, and the curry has a high flavour of crab meat and seaweed. PS: At Mahesh, they do not supply you with a crab hammer, but if you tell the waiter, he will take the crab back into the kitchen and get it gently tapped, so that you may reach into the shell more easily and remove the meat.
Crab, of course, is only one of the seafood available here. Others items include: mackrel, pomfret, halwa, lady fish (kane), surmai, rawas, squid, baby shark, lobster, prawns. And you get fish all the year round, monsoon not excepted. Fortunately, Bombay has got over the superstition of not eating fish in months without 'Rs' (May, June, July, August). During the Bombay monsoons, the pomfret, lady fish, rawas come from Jamnagar, mackrel comes from Karwar and Malpet, more fish comes from Porbandar and Howrah.
The most popular among the lot is pomfret. The restaurant cooks and serves 20 to 25 kgs. daily, deep fried, gassi, as curry, tandoored. Gassi is another name for curry, except that it is a little more body than the curry. It is made with grinding coconut with handfuls of red chillis, plus jeera, dhania, tomatoes for taste, kokum and tamarind water, thereby assuring that the taste is both hot and sour. The gravy is boiled and the pomfret gentle immersed into it, taking care that it does not flake. Slowly the gravy (curry) acquires the taste of the fish, and the fish acquires the taste of the curry. The pomfret curry is my favourite, pomfret and surmai. The pomfret must be among the cleanest of fishes, white, no smell, the meat extremely tasty when fresh. The surmai is more substantial and it has a thicker skin. Pull the skin off and eat it separately, that is my advice to you. A pomfret gassi in the air-conditioned section costs Rs.50. Downstairs, it is Rs.38. I eat it with boiled rice, parboiled. This rice is an acquired taste and you should acquire it. It is an appropriate sop for the curry. The restaurant also serves Surti kolum, appropriate sop for the curry. The restaurant also serves Surti kolum, and if you do not specify your rice, it will serve you this. It is small grained and clean. Basmati is also available, but you will have to ask for it.
Goan cuisine also uses the parboiled rice and there are similarities in Goan and Manglorean curry. But there are also major differences. The Goans squeeze the milk out of the ground coconut. The Mangloreans use the ground coconut itself, so their curry has a rough edge to it. Again, the Goans use palm vinegar, the Mangloreans use tamarind water.
There is more to Mahesh Lunch Home than seafood: karai chicken, eggs Peshawari, shahi kurma, plus an entire Chinese menu, but I would like to stick to the seafood for this piece. I will, however, make a special mention of the chicken neer dosa (Rs.50), available in the afternoons only, and all of Sunday. The dosa is prepared from rice and salt, nothing else. Neer means water, and the dosa is made from a thin paste like water. It is served with chicken curry, though, if you like, you may eat it with mutton fry, prawn gassi, shark gassi. There is also a chicken roti (Rs.45), available on Sundays only. The neer dosa is soft, the roti is crisp, like a papad. You crumble it in your hand and drop it in the chicken curry. It is a worthy Sunday special.
And I will end with this suggestion: You have been to Apoorva, you have been to Trishna, tonight return to the original, go to Mahesh Lunch Home. Lunchtime at Mahesh Lunch Home in Cowasji Patel Street, off Pherozeshah Mehta Road.