Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Palette of Urban Palates

Understanding a city’s form though its food. That’s what we did with Vernika Awal one humid day this summer, on the food-walk she customised for us in Mumbai.

Our requests for ‘no chillies, only vegetarian food, small servings, and architecturally interesting destinations’ may have seemed a trifle restrictive for a walk devoted to food. Vernika (who, among other things writes a blog which really lives up to its name, didn’t just take these in her stride, but made them the ingredients for a hugely enjoyable culinary and cultural experience. 

And so, we ended up sampling a very eclectic mix of fare and places, beginning with a rendezvous in close proximity to the quite-literally ‘Regal’ Cinema. On our own, it is unlikely that we would have noticed the outwardly modest street-fronted cafĂ©, though it is obviously popular. Its mosaic-tiled interior was redolent with a menu teeming with non-vegetarian dishes, a motley crew of diners, taciturn waiters, cast-iron columns, vintage fans and sepia photographs of the Taj Mahal Hotel. As we registered these details, Vernika filled us in with the history of the place, its specialities, and her favourite snack of Bun-muska & Akoori —and apparently that of a legion of St. Xavier’s students.

Our next destination was a short distance away, and a world apart. A small and no-nonsense eatery, it served Marathi and Gujarati vegetarian food amidst scrupulously clean, business-like tiled floors bustling with diners. We were introduced to a new sort of drink, neither lassi nor chaas, in the familiar company of old faithfuls like Sabudana khichdi and kotmeel vadi. We spent some time in conversation about cameras and cooking, and given that the weather was sultry and we had a car at our disposal (thanks to Vernika’s friend and colleague, a camera/car/cooking buff), drove part of the way to our next stop.

This was a quaint single-storey bakery sitting plum in the middle of taller concrete buildings. Reputed to be the oldest bakery in Mumbai, it led into an all-in-one space dominated by steel trusses and nonchalant waiters, with a brief menu chalked in with specialities like Mawa-cake and fiery ginger biscuits. And finally, we were driven to a family restaurant presided over by a benignly smiling manager, with a grand finale of elegant spinach samosas (not drowned in oil), aamras-puri, fried karela fritters, sugarcane juice and other seasonal dishes, served amidst a view of a magnificent 18th century Shiva temple.

The walk was not just about stuffing ourselves silly with food—which was quite delicious, and covered a varied trajectory. The food-breaks were like interludes, perfect for our small appetites, like pauses for reflection (while chewing!) in between moving. It helped that Vernika is as much addicted to books as to food. So, our conversation was not just about trading information on the best places to eat in Kolkata vs Mumbai vs Delhi, opinions about the relative merits of kotmeel vadi from different sweet-shops, where it is safe to drink sugar-cane juice, where do you get the freshest idlis and dosas, but also about the best bookshops in town, favourite books and films, photography, Satyajit Ray. Since most of the destinations that provided a background to these interludes were situated within a few kilometres of each other, in Mumbai’s distinctive Art-Deco and Victorian Gothic precincts, it more than fulfilled our architectural orientation.

It was fascinating for us as architects, otherwise consumed by the form, detail and planning of buildings, to see these precincts from the lens of the varied sort of food available here. Everything Vernika chose for us to eat was peppered with several stories, including tracing the provenance of an eating place through its name and ownership. So, why are cafes Irani and not Parsi? Why are Irani cafes often situated at the corner of roads and streets? How is this related to the sequence of immigration from Persia and Iran, and Vastu-shastra? Why can seasonal food customs of Gujaratis be sampled only in one particular Gujarati restaurant, in a city filled with Gujaratis? How and why do certain urban spaces transform in the early mornings and evenings because of the schedules of offices determined by the city’s spread? And what time should you show up there if you want to taste the wholesome spread that caters for this schedule!? Some of these questions hadn’t even occurred to us. Others we thought we’d already got the answers to.

The astonishing variety and price, catering to so many sorts of pockets, and the people who provide or patronise these food-options, added a very different dynamic to the architectural facades and spaces. It helped us to appreciate, yet again, what the Dutch architect and educator John Habraken means when he writes of: ‘an environment that is never seen as a whole as we see it when we look at the map, but always partial, in sequence, dependent on one’s movement in it’.[1]

If professional planners did not see cities merely at the scale of plans and maps, our cities would be less impoverished—both in terms of their ability to generate incomes as well as initiatives and innovations. Ordinary people have the potential to transform problems into possibilities not just for earning money, but in contributing to the richness of urban-experience. The form and planning of architecture can greatly help or hinder such human activity. That is why the continuous stretches of buildings lining the street and roads of Mumbai allow far safer and more interactive areas, than Delhi’s roads and streets separated and punctuated with isolated facades and isolating boundary walls.

Habraken sums it up like this: ‘We experience an urban environment somewhat like we experience the inside of a building; finding spaces connected to one another through which we can move.’ [2] These connections need to be both physical and emotional and experiential. And to see these connections, designers, architects and planners need to come down from the vantage point of scaled maps and drawings where people are invisible. The best way to annihilate our arrogance and ignorance, and to put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we design for, is to walk through a city. And to be provided with more than food for thought, the best way is, to structure food-breaks as you walk – just as we did.

As I wrote this, I suddenly remembered Kamu Iyer’s book Boombay, From Precinct to Sprawl, where he leads us through the spaces and history of Bombay as experienced by him from childhood to his professional interventions as an architect. Charles Correa, in his foreword to the book, describes it as ‘a leisurely stroll through the city, sometimes in a tram or bus but most often on foot’. Iyer is deeply perceptive about his city—a circumstance that owes as much to his great familiarity with it as to his training as an architect. He is able to see possibilities gleaned through his own primary experience of walking though the city, as when he writes:
For me, the wide footpaths around King’s Circle (now called Maheshwari Udyan), the plaza outside the railway station and Ruia College, the Indian Gymkhana and Napoo Garden were special. Around King’s Circle, the front setbacks of buildings were merged with the footpath, making it a wide urban spaces where people stroll, vendors sell newspapers, magazines and used books, and stray hawkers try and make quick sales. This is also the place where people meet while waiting for a table in restaurants. It struck me a simple and effortless way of making an urban space.[3]

Here’s hoping more of us find the time to take leisurely strolls through our cities, and to fashion and experience a palette of urban spaces that cater for several palates. Because finally, a city is only as interesting and memorable as its people – and its food!

Photo Credits: Anisha Shekhar Mukherji/ Snehanshu Mukherjee

[1] The Appearance of the Form, ‘Sharing’, N. J. Habraken, p. 26, Awater Press, Cambridge, Masssachusetts, 1988.
[2] Ibid. p.32.
[3] ‘Growing up in a planned neighbourhood’, p.27, Popular Prakashan Limited, Mumbai, 2014.

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