It’s simple to end up in a place in Mumbai that is insipidly chic, ambiguously pulsating, and completely full of itself. I will find myself at parties or bars and inevitably things will drone on and wit in conversation will seem like something from a dream. When that happens, stepping away to have a cigarette, there’s another inevitable moment. Eye contact, head nod, a half formed hindi “Do you mind?” question, and I am off to hang out with the help.
That being, I end up again at a kitchen that perfectly personifies the people using it. Like an earlier article, Norman’s Kitchen is a Cabinet, Friday Night Rush is part of an ongoing collection of kitchens. Here, the space and the individual using it become inseparable, and when that happens they become more than function or form, they come to be about everything else.
I spent Friday night in the middle of a dinner rush at the popular local, the Yacht Club.
The Yacht Club is the kind of place where a traveler would tell you, “It’s not for the timid.” It’s true there will be stares.
That being said, get over it and no one will bother you. They even let me in the kitchen. It’s all too common in food and travel publications to push for some kind of superior authenticity. The intrepid “guide” is taking you vicariously where no other foreigners are allowed, to places where some sort of visceral experience is described using buzzwords like visceral and intrepid.
This is the subject of much heat now. Though it has more to do with travel writing than food, the point still floats. Marion Botsford Fraser covers this as of last week in The Walrus. Where else is there left to go? When travel writing used to be so heavily about journeys, albeit journeys that were funded by and promoted colonialism on a whole, what can it be about today? It can be about now.
She elegantly points out that travel writing has always mirrored the time in which it was written:
“Travel literature, at least since the travels and writings of Herodotus in the fifth century BC, has always reflected the enthusiasms, optimisms, passions, and predilections of the period in which it was written.”
– Botsford Fraser, Post-Colonial Journeys, The Walrus, Thursday July 3rd, 2008
So why should that be different now? It isn’t. But if nothing is new in the first place, and all of it is just some sort of postmodern recycling which leads to the death of any Truth in the capitalized letter sense, then travel writing will reflect that.
But the question now may be, what am I reflecting as I write this, go to this kitchen, cook this food? That may be the best way to begin to figure out what this all means.
It seems better to not sway the content though and just give a straight forward account of the place as it was seen. Then it can be taken for whatever it’s worth.
Or, it could be better to sway the content and give a magical account of the place as it was seen. Then it can be taken for whatever it’s worth.
So, this is an authentic, or not, account of two men who cook for a hundred men an hour in a kitchen that has corners that date back to the 19th century. When living in New York, I always wondered what it would have looked like before electricity. It wasn’t that long ago in context and everyone would have been using coal in the cold winters. A black film covers everything when using coal.
Mumbai has that look and it is one of the only things I find romantic about the place. It has a feel of old; shoe shines, proper barbers with proper shaves, dressing “well” in public, and being covered in a black and brown coating; like that left from coal, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. These cooks are on gas now, but the black crust is too thick to take off. That, or they just can’t be bothered.
To further a not being bothered attitude, they cook in shitty plastic flip-flops, or thongs depending on your hemisphere.
In the few hours that I spent with them, mainly I saw snacks leave the kitchen. Chana, or chick peas, and small plates of ambiguous scraps of meat fried in deep red chili oil.
And omelets, a typical Friday night snack to accompany BagPiper Whiskey and soda seems to be an ill formed omelet that seeps chili from within.
Needless to say, I ordered the omelet. It was flat and a far cry from a French classic that is fluffy and tall, with a perfect shell on the outside that achieves the right amount of cooked in the center as it’s folded over and set in the middle of the table for everyone to enjoy. This is not that omelet.
It’s made on the highest heat possible, flipped almost immediately, and thrown at the waiter.
They never wanted to tell me their names nor could they really figure out why I wanted to photograph what they kept referring to as a dirty kitchen. It is dirty, but that makes what they do here all the more interesting. They pull off an Indian equivalent of heavy, dense, lip-smacking bad for you pub food. A food that I find endlessly more complex than healthy equivalents simply for the fact that it has balls.
Yes, that is exactly the word needed here.
When food doesn’t have any weight, love, care, thought, heat, intentional abandon, or swagger, then the only thing that flashes in my mind is a page from a Charles Bukowski novel and the word on the page is always:
I don’t know what to call the two men in this kitchen, cooks or chefs, or the worst possible, real cooks or real chefs. They make food right for this place and time. They don’t want to tell me their names and couldn’t care if I came or went, ate or not, took pictures or not, complimented them or not, died or not. And in that, this kitchen is about everything else again, like it should be.
There is a open floor of two bedroom apartments available above the Yacht Club.