Alt/ Urban: What’s on the menu?

Mustansir Dalvi on what the culture of public eating says about a place and the people who inhabit it

Kothari Mansion that once housed the Light of Asia restaurant
Kothari Mansion that once housed the Light of Asia restaurant

Mustansir Dalvi

Sometimes, in the history of a city, one finds an artefact that is located at the crossroads of time and place. The one I’m currently mulling over is a menu-card from 1935. This richly detailed listing is from the Light of Asia restaurant, which, till 2018, was a familiar presence just across the General Post Office in Mumbai.

The name of this restaurant was possibly derived from Edwin Arnold’s well-known long poem, first published in 1879, about the life of the Buddha, and had an iconic image of the sun on its marquee that many older Bambaiwallahs may still remember. This graces the menu, as well. The Light of Asia restaurant was serendipitously located at the point where several forms of transportation converged.

Just outside the Victoria Terminus (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus), a stone’s throw away from Alexandra Dock and Ballard Pier, and connected to the tramlines on Hornby Road that led to the business districts of South Bombay, Ballard Estate, Phirozeshah Mehta Road, Flora Fountain and Colaba.

Whether you came by land or sea, by boat, tram or train, the Light of Asia beckoned. ‘Tourists, seamen, soldiers and civilians’ were all cordially welcomed on the card that also promised catering to the Principle (sic) Offices—‘Government, Railways, Mercantile and Marine’.

This restaurant, ‘the acme of comfort’ with ‘electric lights & fans installed’, flourished between the wars, when Bombay was an international littoral and mercantile hub, a growing city, booming with possibilities, a magnet for international and up-country visitors.

Shipping was the primary means of intercontinental transport and the armed forces of the Raj were in constant circulation across all the major ports of the Empire. Light of Asia seems to have catered to them all, and this, as can be seen from the bill of fare, provides us with a unique insight nearly 90 years later into those heady times with its very specific offerings, so different from the standard nosh on menu-cards across the city today.

The menu card
The menu card

Look at the listings and you are transported into the books of Austen and Dickens, Frank Richards and Enid Blyton. In three tall columns are arrayed the items on the menu, without classification. Ham, eggs and chips is the costliest item (14 annas), while a cup of tea the cheapest (one anna). The phrase ‘non-veg’ is non-existent, making this artificial culinary division even more contemporary than we would suppose.

In fact, there are almost no vegetables on the menu as featured dishes, only fried tomatoes, onion and chips as sides or salads. There is a preponderance of meat, presented unselfconsciously—mutton, fish, chicken, pork (as ham, bacon, sausages) and eggs. Offal is on offer—tongue, liver, kidney and sweetbreads.

Most of the dishes are of the English or Continental variety, to be eaten with knives and forks, perhaps after tucking a napkin under the collar. Bread is not mentioned specifically, only sandwiches, and perhaps offered gratis with the meat dishes.

There is a cosmopolitanism to this menu as well. Indian dishes like biryani and curry are available. Also present is mutton and fish molly, an Anglo-derivation of moilee, a mild curry of Portuguese/ Goan origin, laced with coconut milk, for those who cannot handle the fiery stuff.

Another local offering is mutton baffat, a Mangalorean Catholic dish which is a blazing red meat curry. Clearly, it wasn’t only the out-of-towners that this eating house catered to. Beef is absent on the bill, except as Bovril soup. Bovril was a trademarked thick meat extract sold in jars, the ‘non-veg Nuttella’ of the times.

This savoury gunk could be made into soup or eaten spread on toast. One variation, mixed with hot water, was popular as ‘beef tea’. Tinned food, very much a product of war-time consumption, was also thoughtfully made available. Potted meats, salmon and sardines would ‘be opened and served if desired’ for those who hankered after such specific tastes.

The drinks (non-alcoholic) and beverages on the menu attest that Light of Asia had a soda fountain for dispensing carbonated drinks, manually pumped, like draft beer today. (Regal was one of the few cinema halls that had a soda fountain, an attraction as enticing as the movies.) Popular and evocative brand names like Ovaltine (a malt beverage), Vimto (a purple mixed-fruit and herbs cordial) and Thurstoh (no idea at all) have since vanished from our menus (and memories).

Ice cream sodas, gingerade, ginger-ale, orange champagne and faluda were served, as were oranges from Jaffa (Palestine), one more indication of how small the world was in the 1930s. How different this repast is from today’s Punjabi/ Chinese/ Mughlai mishmash!

Some of the items (like pies or poached eggs) that were such hearty, everyday, affordable fare at the Light of Asia may now only be had in fine-dining restaurants in the city. Have our tastes changed or our demographics? Perhaps both.

The blue-collar foreign traveller (or sailor, or soldier) has gone with the end of Empire. We are much less cosmopolitan, and that is seen in what we consume and what we proscribe. Now we are all ‘desi’, as are our palates. Our loss, entirely. Restaurants and eating houses emerged in significant numbers as the portcity of Bombay transformed into a mercantile city. Their locations were signifiers of their ownership.

Explicitly ‘Hindoo’ hotels would most likely be seen in the ‘native town’ beyond Crawford Market—a kilometre or so north of the Light of Asia—in areas like Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar and Babulnath. These predominantly veg-serving establishments or khanavals chose not to open in trapezoidal spaces that had their wider fronts on the street, as that was considered inauspicious, preferring rectangular or reverse trapezoidal gaumukhi spaces.

This is why the most prominent corners of roads—where they turned—were taken by Irani, Parsi or Catholic restaurateurs, including one as prominently placed as the Light of Asia. The remnants of these restaurants, such as they are, still catch the eye with their street-fronts today.

Over the years, the Light of Asia too changed its menu, and with changing tastes became indistinguishable from other nonveg joints that hocked masala-heavy food. Kothari Mansion, the building that housed the Light of Asia was so badly wracked by a raging fire in 2018 it had to be demolished. Today it is an empty plot, fenced off by construction sheeting. The only survivor is this menu-card.

(Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)

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