It’s an area of Mumbai that is as old as the city itself, but has suddenly come into the forefront with the Hindi film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’. The web of little lanes with distinctly colonial style buildings, each wooden building with tiled roofs built like a military barracks where families lived in a string of rooms tied together with a corridor. Each landing that could house as many as 40 to 50 families per floor. In this case and lanes accommodating a thriving business of call girls, their task-masters or mistresses, their dependents, clients and general entourage. I speak of the by lanes of Kamathipura. While the number of brothels have substantially decreased, these 14 lanes are still very crowded. Brothels line many of the upper floors of the buildings, while the lower, road-facing shops are crowded with small businesses, plumbers, skin-specialists, electrical suppliers, grocers, ready-made garment sellers, paan wallas and above all cafes and restaurants.
At no point do I want to create a picture of a romance and beauty like European street cafes and sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong, the place is filthy, crowded, and with lots of construction and civic work going on. But there are more than couple of eateries that have stood the test of time and are as famous as the songs that played behind those garish beaded curtains in the middle of the night.
I will never forget this slightly wanton evening, we were in college and had hit a cheap bar, early in the evening after classes, somewhere at Crawford Market. We a bunch of testosterone filled young 20 somethings. After a few hours of steady intoxication and vibrant man talk, obviously inappropriate for any female ears, someone suggested we test our machismo by paying a visit to the ladies of the night at Kamathipura. For effect, we even jumped into a couple of Victorias (horse drawn carriages) that only plied in the old city. Under the influence and happy as punch, singing “tawaif” songs from Hindi films off key, the Tonga drove us through the lanes of Abdul Rehman Street onto 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 high had come down and our fake bravado had deliquesced. After a lot of humming and hawing and boldly negotiating rates with the local pimp, everyone, maybe barring one or two of us, started looking for an honourable escape from this rather ungraceful situation.
At which point, I spotted 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 mince with coriander leaves, chopped onions and garlic and spices rolled on skewers roasting on an open flame. A large block of ice had a pile of very finely cut onion rings and mint leaves just cooling to a crisp. The flash of a ladle occasionally splashed green chutney on steel plates alongside charred seekh kababs. Lasciviousness be damned, I suggested that we should grab a bite. And the whole debauched party found their escape from folly and descended upon the kebab shop. Voracious 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 laden with fat were the softest kababs I’ve eaten. Served with a dangerous looking green chutney and those crisp raw onion rings cooling on the ice block and generous amounts of lemon before they became prohibitive, this was the king of seekhs. Sayyad Seekh Kabab Center still stands there today, at the corner of Kamathipura though lament fully not as great as I remember them.
I grew to know the area and Kamathipura’s outer precincts like Belasis Road, Nagpada and Shukhlaji Street in later years, more as an explorer of food rather than flesh. Arabia Café, Sarvi Café, Sagar Restaurant whose Chillya butter chicken is the oily, spicy flaming red one. Cafe Firdos Restaurant which for some reason claims to be a Hindu Hotel. The tiny Muradabadi Akhni Pulav Restaurant, opposite Lucknow Hotel in the bylanes of Kamathipura. And Muradabadi Khichda in the lanes behind the famous Balwas Hotel.
Such is the treasure trove of eateries that were, and are still standing, though with a somewhat diminished reputation. But if I were you, I’d wander and try some.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in 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 stand of this publication.
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