An Indian in Winter
Photos by Michael Piazza
I grew up in Bombay, India, in the 1980s. We didn’t have supermarkets back then, so our way of sourcing produce was eit her at one of the big open markets—Crawford, Colaba and Byculla markets were the largest and best-known—or from small vegetable vendors who’d be sitting at a neighborhood corner or roaming the streets with a basket on their head, peddling a seasonal assortment of fruits and vegetables in a nasal song.
My paternal grandfather—my dada—was a well-known society gourmand popular for his obsessive interest in food. He had a collection of menus from restaurants around the country and world. He routinely handed out cyclostyled shopping lists of fine-food products to anyone traveling abroad: Stilton blue cheese from Harrods, truffled pâté de foie gras, capers and tinned asparagus featured prominently in his wish list. At home, we were serving Burmese khow suey, Swiss fondue and hand-cranked, homemade spinach fettuccine at dinner parties way back before most anyone knew what they were.
Almost every Saturday morning, he’d drive from our home on Chowpatty Beach to suss out the best mangos and lychees, hand-pick the tenderest long-beans and okra, knock on watermelons, sniff pineapples for ripeness. It was highly unusual for men of his status to take such an active interest in grocery shopping, but that’s what I loved most about him. As a young child with little interest in the limited children’s programming on the one government television station we received, my excuse for waking up extra-early on Saturday mornings was to accompany my dada to Crawford Market. He’d climb into the front seat of our boxy white Fiat, sitting bolt upright, his shiny pate nearly touching the compact roof. I’d scramble into the back seat and take in the morning sea breeze as we cruised a virtually empty Marine Drive, listening in amusement as he colorfully swore at the occasional speed demon or wayward pedestrian.
Crawford Market itself is a historical monument. Completed in 1869, the massive building is a blend of Norman and Flemish styles, featuring friezes of Indian farmers on the outside and fountains inside designed by Lockwood Kipling (the father of The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling). The market was also the first in the country to be lit up by electricity, in 1882. But none of that mattered to my 7-year-old self: To me, Crawford Market was a thrilling whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells, colors and activity.
Farmhands crowded the unloading docks, jostling crates of sweet limes and coir sacks filled with onions and potatoes. The maze of corridors was strewn with trampled carrot fronds, loose soil and puddles of water, all escaped from the volumes of produce being transferred from farm to stall. One alleyway featured the imported-goods sellers, touting their sealed jars of Tang and seductively wrapped Snickers bars, which I had to wistfully forgo. I remember putting my hands in giant baskets of fresh green peas, loving the feel of their waxy pods, as my grandfather haggled over ivy gourd (tindora) or got the latest intel on baby corn and mushrooms. He knew the best vendors for each item, and they knew him. When I visit Bombay now, Suresh the fruitwallah always lights up when he sees me, thrusting a fresh rambutan or slice of dragon fruit into my hands as I remember my grandfather and the vendor’s daughter, who would be about my age if she hadn’t died of a sudden illness mere days before her wedding. His eyes moisten; my heart swells: In those moments, food holds us and keeps us going through love and loss.
So when the New England winter hits, and my tropical blood yearns for color, warmth and fond memories, I turn to my stove for solace. It’s no fun living in one place and wanting to be in another; instead, I choose to love where I am and remember where I’m from. This menu is a reflection of that synthesis, and an homage to the man who inspired me to cook for life.