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Monday, January 25, 2010
My first visit to India took place almost 9 years ago. I still remember how well-intentioned friends and colleagues had tried to prepare me for my trip, loading me with advice and warnings derived from their own unpleasant experiences in India. I was told to always drink bottled water and even with that, one colleague would always drop a water purifying tablet into the bottle before drinking. Others told me how the prevalent evidence of poverty disturbed them and marred their impression of India. Whatever it was, I was too fiercely independent and rebellious to heed their advice. I went to India brimming with eager anticipation and wide-eyed curosity. I observed India like a football match spectator and went away energised and charmed by it. Subsequently, I had returned to India 4 or 5 more times and stopped when I was posted to take on a different business role.
My latest trip came almost 5 years after my last and boy, has India changed! The first sign of change is evident when I landed at the Mumbai Airport. Sparklingly new, the airport is bright, spacious and organised- this is 1000X better than the airport I remembered from 5 years ago. I breezed through immigration within 10mins and luggage came promptly. Of all the cities I had visited in India 5 years ago, Mumbai was my least favourite for with slump quarters everywhere, it was dirty, chaotic and I experienced harassment from beggars everywhere (child beggars, women beggars with babies and what my Indian colleagues called 'Eunachs' but are really transvestites) . This time, the cityscape has quietly revolutionized. I noted to myself that there are fewer slump quarters and fewer beggars would appear at traffic light junctions. I take this as a good sign of progress but I was told that the drive to clean up the city has also created different kind of problems- grave discussion topic for another day...
While I used to go wild shopping for Sari in the past, my shopping expedition this time is more restrained. I bought spices, cheap fabrics for my blog photos and Ayurvedic medication. Also thanks to my colleague R, I learnt a little bit more about Indian cooking and ingredients - she had also tirelessly took me bargain hunting for 12 hours! (10 am to 10pm!) It was after we bought the Chaat Masala, Amchur (dried Mango Powder) and sookhi gulab patti (dried rose petal), R told me we would stop by one of the oldest cafe in Mumbai for tea and buns.
Kyani & Co., established in 1904 is one of the very few Irani Cafes that is still surviving in Mumbai. R told me it is famous for its Chai with Bun Maska and Shrewsbury Cookies - I had no idea what these were but my eyes lighted up at the sight of the cafe - old and worn, this is one coffee shop that appears to have been trapped in a time warp. For those who are not familiar with Irani Cafes, these are cafes opened by Persian immigrants to India in the 19th century. There used to be numerous Irani Cafes around Mumbai - literally hundreds of them but now, probably only a handful remain.Sitting in the 100year old cafe, I waited in anticipation for the famous Chai with Bun Maska... When the waiter brought over my serving, I felt deflated by disappointment... It is a bun with a very anaemic spread of butter....I watched as R continue to gush about how good this is and urged me to dip the bun into the chai... 'the butter will melt with the heat of the chai'... I tried as she suggested but felt no kick at all. The bun was soft but there was too little butter, in fact I thought it had tasted more like margarine than butter. I immediately longed for the Kaya Toast we have in Singapore where generous blocks of butter are sandwiched between crispy toasts with coconut jam (kaya). As R eagerly waited for my verdict, I just couldn't muster enough excitement to match hers... ( I am just not good at being patronising ) instead, I distracted her and asked to order a Mawa Cake, (mava cake) which is another house specialty. The Mawa Cake is a heavy sponge cake spiced delicately with Cardamon. It is heavier because of the use of Mawa(also called Khoya) which is solidified milk (some compares it to Ricotta cheese). The Mawa Cake at Kyani,served like a cupcake has a very delicate hint of Cardamon that I mistook for Rose - possibly because my senses were a little confused by the milk fragrance from the cake. The flavour was exotic but I felt it could be a little richer and more moist. Next on the must-try list is the Shrewsbury Cookies. This is the first time I have heard of Shrewsbury cookies. These are short butter cookies originally flavoured with lemon and caraway seeds. Apparently, they originated from England. The Shrewsbury cookies, fresh and buttery are delicious with tea and are my favourite at Kyani. They also offer different variation including one with cashew nuts.
Overall, I did not get the gastronomy experience I was anticipating but I believe the charm of these food lie in their ability to evoke lineage and certain fond memories. On their own, they are simple and common - not likely to blow any new visitor away with their taste - and to a very small extent, I think I can understand why many of these cafes have drawn their shutters. When the food has to draw on fond memories and is not sustained by efforts to constantly create new memories in newer and younger crowd, places like these will invariably get dusty and stagnant. Once again, I draw upon the parallel in our Kaya Toast experience - this has been revived very successfully over the last 10 years in Singapore. Although the old Kaya Joint in Singapore has become somewhat modernised and has lost its old, coffee shop feel, but the overall culture associated with the coffee and snack experience lives on. I hope Kyani & Co., too can continue to sustain these wonderful experiences as Mumbai continues to progress...