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Mumbai Masala

As we walk towards Aaswad, a small restaurant right opposite the Shiv Sena headquarters in Dadar, Mumbai, the first thing that strikes me is the long queue of hungry Mumbaikars waiting outside for a table. “If you serve good, honest food, people will come back for more,” says Ranveer Brar, host of various TV shows such as Snack Attack and The Great Indian Rasoi on Zee TV and judge on Masterchef India. It’s on his recommendation that we are dining at Aaswad, a restaurant that he loves for its traditional Marathi cuisine and homely flavours.

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As we walk towards Aaswad, a small restaurant right opposite the Shiv Sena headquarters in Dadar, Mumbai, the first thing that strikes me is the long queue of hungry Mumbaikars waiting outside for a table. “If you serve good, honest food, people will come back for more,” says Ranveer Brar, host of various TV shows such as Snack Attack and The Great Indian Rasoi on Zee TV and judge on Masterchef India. It’s on his recommendation that we are dining at Aaswad, a restaurant that he loves for its traditional Marathi cuisine and homely flavours. “They don’t overdo the flavours here. It’s like eating at a Maharashtrian home,” he explains as we are served a kothimbir vadi — crispy fritters made of besan, steamed dal and coriander — along with a traditional peanut chutney. There has always been a direct correlation between the climate of a place and its cuisine. Maharashtra’s hot and humid climate has resulted in most chutneys being peanut or dry-garlic based, explains Brar.
 
Brar started his love affair with food at the age of 17 in the narrow streets of old Lucknow. “In Lucknow food is served with stories — one plate of food with one pateela of quissas (pot full of stories),” he laughs. Brar volunteered to work for free at a small eatery serving mouth- watering kebabs. “I used to trick the cook-owner, to divulge his recipes and methodology. If you asked him directly, he never said anything. But if you said, how come your kebabs are tastier than the other fellows, he would glow with pride and tell you,” Brar reminisces fondly.  It was there, while doing odd jobs such as drying coal, grinding spices or ‘stirring nihari in his sleep’ that Brar learnt his biggest lesson — there is more to food than just tingling your taste buds. It is about connecting with people.
 
And that’s just how I feel as the waiter serves me a plate of pola usal, with great pride. It is the typical food of the Maratha Kshatriya community, he explains. I bite into the dosa-looking rice cheela (pola) and take a spoonful of usal (made of beans and black peas). It’s delicious. I smile appreciatively and he beams at me. I immediately feel the connect — his Marathi pride and my taste buds are on the same plane. 
 
Brar’s first job was with the Taj group. He set up the newly renovated restaurants at Fort Aguada, Goa. “Goa gave me a chance to develop a style of my own,” says the IIHM Lucknow alumnus. His experience in Goa came in handy when he was hired by Radisson Blu, Noida. As the executive chef he set up four restaurants, including Made in India, which reflected his Lucknawi roots.  
 
In 2005 Brar joined The Claridges, New Delhi. Seville, the Spanish restaurant set up in place of the erstwhile Corbett, was one of Brar’s great success stories. As he tells me all about it, we are served thalipith, a crisp multi-grain chapatti. Two dollops of white butter enticingly melt over the hot chapatti. “It’s popular in Ratnagiri, Raigarh and the Malwan area. In the arid areas of Maharashtra where due to water shortage rice is not grown, they use various multi-grains such as jowar, bajra etc,” explains Brar as I lick butter off my fingers.
 
Next we try amba dal. It’s seasonal and I'm just in time to try it,  informs my waiter. Amba dal is made of raw mango, chana dal and aambe halad, a particular kind of raw turmeric that smells like mango and is available only towards the end of winters. It’s cooked particularly during the month of Chaitra (generally March-April as per the Hindu calendar) when Marathis celebrate New Year. While it is a standalone dish, during New Year celebrations it is generally served with kairy panhe — a drink made of raw mango and jaggery. 
 
Brar spent six years in Boston running several Indian restaurants before returning to India, and joining Novotel, in Juhu, Mumbai. While he was there, TV happened. “When you see food in different forms and how different people connect to it, you evolve as a chef. And your evolution reflects in the way you cook. That’s what food travel and TV has done for me,” says Brar as he asks me to try the rice bhakri, a chapatti made of rice. Rice powder is cooked with boiling water and then kneaded and made into chapattis. “This has been my big learning from this place, how to make good chawal ki roti. See, I’m still evolving and learning,” he smiles.  
 
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-06-2015)


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