It is an area of Mumbai that is as old as the city itself but suddenly comes to prominence with the Hindi film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’. The web of small alleyways lined with distinctly colonial-style buildings, each timber-framed building with tiled roofs built like a military barracks where families lived in a series of rooms connected by a corridor. Each landing could accommodate as many as 40 to 50 families per floor. In this case, and lanes that house a thriving business of call girls, their taskmasters or mistresses, their family members, clients, and general entourage. I speak of the side streets of Kamathipura. Although the number of brothels has decreased significantly, these 14 jobs are still very busy. Brothels line many of the upper floors of the buildings, while the lower, road-facing shops are packed with small businesses, plumbers, skin specialists, electricity suppliers, grocers, ready-made clothing sellers, paan wallas and most importantly cafes and restaurants.
At no point do I want to create an image of romance and beauty like European street cafes and sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong, the place is filthy, crowded, and with a lot of construction and social work going on. But there are more than a few eateries that have stood the test of time and are as famous as the songs played in the middle of the night behind those garish beaded curtains.
I will never forget this somewhat rowdy evening, we were in university and had visited a cheap bar early evening after classes somewhere in Crawford Market. We a bunch of testosterone filled young twenties. After a few hours of steady drunkenness and lively male talk, clearly inappropriate to female ears, someone suggested we test our machismo by visiting the ladies of the night in Kamathipura. For effect, we even hopped in a couple of Victoria’s (horse-drawn carriages) that only ran in the old town. Influenced and happy as punch, singing “tawaif” songs from Hindi movies, the Tonga drove us through the alleyways from Abdul Rehman Street to Mohammed Ali Road towards Null Bazaar and then Foras Road in Kamathipura. By the time we reached the bright lights of the red light district, the alcohol content had dropped and our false bravado had evaporated. After much grumbling and daring negotiations with the local pimp, everyone, except perhaps one or two of us, began to look for an honorable escape from this rather indecent situation.
At that time I saw Sayyad Seekh Kabab Center. We were at Bachu Seth Ki Wadi, deep in the heart of the red light district in Kamathipura. It was still early and the kebab shop had just opened. I could hear the coals singing and the aromas of buff mincemeat with coriander leaves, chopped onions and garlic and herbs roasted on skewers over an open fire. A large block of ice had a pile of very finely sliced onion rings and mint leaves just cooling to crisp. The flash of a ladle occasionally splashed green chutney onto steel plates next to charred seekh kababs. Lust, damn it, I suggested we go for a bite to eat. And all the debauched party found their escape from the folly and descended to the kebab shop. Gluttonously after an evening of pounding drinks we ordered a whole bunch of kebabs. Straight off the skewer, and hot and spicy as hell, these kebabs loaded with fat were the softest kebabs I’ve eaten. Served with a dangerous looking green chutney and those crunchy raw onion rings that cooled on the ice cube and generous amounts of lemon before becoming priceless, this was the king of the seekhs. Sayyad Seekh Kabab Center is still there, on the corner of Kamathipura, although it’s not as great as I remember.
In later years I came to know the area and suburbs of Kamathipura such as Belasis Road, Nagpada and Shukhlaji Street more as an explorer of food rather than meat. Arabia Café, Sarvi Café, Sagar Restaurant whose Chillya Butter Chicken is the Fatty Spicy Flaming Red. Cafe Firdos Restaurant that for some reason claims to be a Hindu hotel. The small Muradabadi Akhni Pulav Restaurant, opposite the Lucknow Hotel on the side streets of Kamathipura. And Muradabadi Khichda in the alleys behind the famous Balwas Hotel.
That’s the treasure trove of eateries that were and still stand, albeit with a somewhat diminished reputation. But if I were you, I’d wander around and try some.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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