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Food as an ode to beloved people on a menu

Menu dedications carry with them stories that go beyond being a dish well-cooked and served with flair

Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only. (Spencer Davis, Unsplash)

As a student in Manipal 22 years ago, some of my fondest memories revolve around Press Cart – a blue wooden pushcart covered with a tarpaulin, named so because of its location outside the Udayavani newspaper office and our communications college. As students, always hungry and mostly broke, Press Cart was a source of sustenance. Their bun egg masala and keshto with coriander leaves, onions, tomatoes, and green chillies, fried hot and stuffed into a bun being regular orders. A few years later in Bengaluru, when Egg Factory (now closed) opened its doors, with a section dedicated to Manipal and that bun masala (no one could replicate the magic of a keshto perfectly) among other egg specials, we became regulars there after work. I lived the story of this menu dedication and it warmed my heart. Menu dedications have always caught my eye and now, I tried to find out the stories and memories behind some of them.

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And so, after eating a bowl of Aunty Pey Pey’s Guava Salad to kick start a tasting of a new menu, I asked Ankit Gupta, Co-Founder of Burma Burma the story behind this dedication. The story goes thus. Gupta and his team travel to Burma to explore its food at least twice a year. During their April visit this year, they chanced upon street hawker Aunty Pey Pey who was dishing out a range of salads from her cart. “Between the 12th and 19th streets, in the by-lanes of Yangon are where the wet markets and street hawkers operate. We saw people waiting at her cart, and the array of ingredients she had prepped around her, and joined the line,” he says.

Gupta describes Pey Pey as a hospitable woman in her 50s, wearing thanaka (a ground bark paste that Burmese women apply on their faces to cool themselves). Using scissors, she deftly cut up her ingredients for the athoke (salads mixed by hand) and put together her guava salad. “It had medium-ripe de-seeded guava, roasted gram flour, chilli, a lot of onions, peanuts and some tamarind. That done, we also tried the tea leaf and the tomato salads she had. And over our week-long visit stopped by her cart four times, seeking her out if she moved from her spot” says Gupta.

Communicating in a mix of sign language and some English, they found out that both Aunty Pey Pey and the guavas she uses come from Bagan in central Burma. “It is a popular fruit in Burma used to make salads, chutneys, beverages and more. The salad was such a brilliant dish, that we brought it on the menu and dedicated it to the person who introduced it to us” Gupta adds.

For us here in India, this introduction makes for a delicious gateway into Burmese food. Similarly, the Americans enjoyed one such introduction thanks to the celebrated late Floyd Cardoz in 2018 when he introduced Kulcha Club at Bombay Bread Bar, where he was Chef-Partner, in New York City. Always looking to make Indian food less intimidating, Cardoz would invite a chef every month to create a kulcha with him. One summer, chef and restaurateur Daniel Bulud made a kulcha topping with New York summer tomatoes.

Cardoz, also Co-founder and Culinary Director at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro (Hunger Inc. Hospitality) in Mumbai, passed away in 2020, the same year that chef Hussain Shahzad took over as Executive Chef at Hunger Inc. Hospitality. Cardoz’s legacy continues to live on in the Kulcha Club that Shahzad began as a dedication on the menu.

“I never wanted to cook Indian food but I met chef Floyd in the winter of 2013 in New York and his vision for the cuisine excited me, especially because there was so much I didn’t know. Several interactions later, after moving back to India, I joined The Bombay Canteen as sous chef in 2015 and it was Chef Floyd who helped me build a flair for Indian flavours and that took our relationship to another level. I saw my father in him. In America, I used to call him papi (Spanish for dad) and it became papaji soon enough. How I cook today is a lot to do with how he cooked. I wanted a way for the menu to be connected to an integral memory of his, to shoulder his legacy in the right way and Kulcha Club was perfect,” says Shahzad.

“We do seasonally inspired kulchas, stuffed or topped. We have done a smoked baingan bharta kulcha; a crab kulcha inspired from eating butter garlic crab at the iconic Trishna in Mumbai; a bhutte ka kees kulcha and many more,” Shahzad explains. He also strongly believes that kulcha may be a dish, but it’s a great utensil to carry creativity and still be an ode to Cardoz. “Tomorrow, if someone takes over from me, they can continue to innovate at the Kulcha Club,” he adds.

While Cardoz’s memory lives on in the Kulcha Club in Mumbai, in the state of Goa, where his family hails from is the story of a menu with not one but several interesting dedications. Slow Tide in Anjuna stands in place of San Francisco, a beach shack that dedicated itself to the flower children or the hippie Anjuna commune, whose many members travelled from across the world to reach the beaches of Goa looking for peace in the 60s and 70s.

“The commune put Goa on the international map. There were so many interesting people who came together, without asking about each other’s past, bringing with them so many adventures and talents. We want to be able to tell their stories,” says Neil Dsouza, Co-Founder of Slow Tide who moved back to Goa from Mumbai, spending a lot of time with commune members in the 90s. Along with a gallery showcase of photos and memorabilia of the commune, Slow Tide is also designed as a platform for community endeavours, art, literature and a dedicated art space.

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On the menu here, you are going to find the likes of Susanna’s Leaf and Grain Salad, Jack’s Burrata, Therese’s Black Pork and more. But what interested me was the story behind the cocktail Sailor Fred, the description of which says ‘month-long catamaran sailings to Africa from our shore. You'll still see him around’.

“Sailor Fred is from England. He is a brilliant sailor and was even offered the Captain of Ports position in the Maldives which he declined because he considered the commune and Goa his home and life. The first night he came to Goa, he couldn’t find a place to stay and so slept on someone's porch. The next morning, people around helped him find a home,” says Dsouza. “He made two solo sailing trips to South Africa, going as many as 26 days at sea. He would come to the beach every day for sunset, walking or on his bicycle. Fred is in his 70s now, but refuses to move out of Goa” adds Dsouza. The cocktail dedicated to Sailor Fred is in keeping with his fondness for bananas and his intrepid sailing spirit and has banana-infused rum, dill shrub and caramelised banana orgeat.

These are just some of the stories I unearthed. The next time you read a menu dedication, try and dig into its story. It will put your meal in a whole new context and who knows you may just have stumbled on the next Eggs Kejriwal before it becomes a phenomenon.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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