Bang outside Matunga Station, Central Railway, is one of Mumbai's oldest and best known Udipi restaurants, A. Rama Nayak's Udipi Shri Krishna Boarding, established 1942. Food is served on plantain leaves, eaten with bare hands, three servings of rice (with rassam, with dal and with dahi), the GSB (Gaud Saraswat Brahmin) special - avial, powder chutney with pure ghee, six payasams for six days, Mondays closed.
It is a quaint, charming restaurant, on the first floor of a municipal market, more like a gentlemen's club, but for all its quaintness it is extremely efficiently run. Service is precise, standards of hygiene high. A sign above the kitchen door welcomes customers to inspect it, with one condition, customers should remove their chappals before entering the kitchen. And there are instructions written everywhere, 'Please buy your tokens in advance'; 'Unused coupons can be used next time'; Try eating in leaf in Indian way, without spoon'; 'Plate meal is ideal for the blue collar man'; 'Udipi means good food'.
About the last, I can vouch, the food is good, it is also wholesome. The rice is surti colum, direct from Chandrapur, brought by truckloads; for the puris and chapattis, wholewheat is bought and personally ground by the restaurant; the vegetables come from the Byculla market every morning; the pappads (udit pappads) are made specially in the village of Kateel, near Udipi; the achars are made fresh every two days; and meals are cooked twice a day, no leftovers are served. It is a balanced diet, rice, wheat, lentils, vegetables, dahi and buttermilk, the calorie count for a meal is 1,500 to 1,600. A. Rama Nayak started life cooking for bachelors at the Saraswat Colony in Santa Cruz, and the inmates of the Ramakrishna Mission. In 1942, he set the menu for the Udipi Sri Krishna Boarding and it has not changed much since then. Before he died in 1981, he told his sons, Satish and Saiprasad Rama Nayak, not to fiddle around with the menu too much. It will hold for another 50 years, he told them, what they had to see was that their product was fresh, the cooking was clean, and that it was served at an affordable rate.
So, let's have a full meal. The procedure is a little elaborate. Take a Central Railway local, get down at Matunga, come out of the station and enter the first building on the left. Climb up to the first floor, gentle South Indian music will greet you, and the bustle of a busy restaurant (lunch 10.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., dinner 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.). There is normally a queue, you pick your token and wait, as in a bank. There are newspapers to read in the waiting room, quite pleasant, and, once again as in a bank, an electronically operated indicator which tells which number can go in for the meal.
When your token number comes on the indicator, you enter. The restaurant is divided into two parts: the plate section (Rs.16 per plate meal, with curd, Rs.15, without curd) and the plantain leaf section (Rs.40 per meal, everything unlimited). In the plate (thali) meal, everything is limited, except rassam and sambar, but the food and the kitchen are the same. The two sections are divided by a counter, either Mr. Satish Rama Nayak is sitting at the counter, or his manager, Mr. Pundalik Vasudev Kamath. You are asked whether you want a plate meal or a full meal. Once that is decided, you buy your coupons and settle down. In the plate meal, everything is served together at one go, in the full meal, things are served on your patra, one by one, but eventually the food is the same.
Then what's the difference? Some customers ask. Satish explains the difference, as explained to him by his father. A plate meal is like eating in your own house, the food is cooked by your wife, it is well cooked, it is sufficient, she serves it, and if you ask your wife for something extra, she gives it. The full (patra) meal is like being a guest in somebody else's house, the hostess keeps urging you to eat more, keeps putting food in front of you, you don't have to ask her for more, it is there.
Regular customers alternate between the two, depending on how hungry they are. The Vadiars, who are a priestly caste with large appetites, always eat the full meal. One reason is that though the thalis are washed and cleaned, they still find them to be second-hand. They also eat worth Rs.40. If on a particular day, they feel they would not be able to do full justice to Rs.40, they would skip the meal but not eat the Rs.16 thali.
The last time I was there, I had the full (patra) meal. Note: the plain plantain leaf itself costs Rs.2. The meal began with a Mysore rassam, prepared from the water in which the dal is boiled, given a tadka with sesame seeds and pepper. I picked up the bowl and drank, as good an appetizer as you can find, and quite fiery. End of the meal, I had another bowl, this time as a digestive. The rassam changes daily, there is a tomato rassam, a lemon rassam on Saturdays, and a kokum rassam on Tuesdays, with fresh kokum boiled in plain water, then, after all the juice is extracted, coconut milk added to it. I would like to go one Tuesday and try it.
To continue the meal, with the rassam, I was served a sambar, to be eaten later with rice, a dry vegetable, cabbage, and a wet vegetable, potato song, which was tiny pieces of boiled potatoes in a red gravy of chilies, tomatoes and chopped onions, cooked with a rye tadka in a little coconut oil. Another name for the potato song is GSB Special, the GSB standing for the Gawd Saraswat Brahmins. There was a third vegetable, I am told sometimes it substitutes the pulses, an avial, made with 24 vegetables in a white sauce, very delicate, cooked in milk extracted from the coconut. I am not in a position to list the 24 vegetables, but the basic vegetable is the white pumpkin.
There was a choice of chapattis and puris, rice, of course, pappads, mango achar, buttermilk with ground green chilies and ginger, a fruit raita, and dahi, and Mysore pudding. The last mentioned is Mysore pak, after it is ready, when you add ghee to it and go on cooking. I must also mention a dry chutney powder, not at all spicy, but well flavoured, made of dried channa and udad dal, with dry tamarind and grated coconut, plus crushed curry patta. All the ingredients are first fried in oil, then hand-pounded, then completely dried. The powder is served with a thimbleful of pure ghee. You mix the powder in the ghee, and then mix it all together in the rice. Make sure that the rice is freshly served and hot. That alone is worth disembarking at Matunga Station and dropping in for an authentic Udipi meal.