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Why is Mumbai devoid of authentic Telugu food?

Date: 5th April, 2022

Publication: Times of India

I have stayed in Mumbai for over 12 years and yearned for an authentic Telugu (Andhra & Telangana) food experience in the maximum city. Traditionally, the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai has boasted of being the melting point of the working classes from various backgrounds and tastes from across the country especially south India. The city caters to a large south Indian population and has ample Tamilian and Malabar cuisine options but none of Telugu. The Telugu-speaking people are forced to dine out at other Dravidian food outlets to get somewhere close to their native food. It is tragic and strange to find the city with a sizable Telugu-speaking population not having the option of food of their choice.

As per the national census of 2011, there are over 13.2 lakh Telugu-speaking people in Maharashtra which in 2022 may have crossed over 15-17 lakh people. As per approximate population figures for 2021, Mumbai Metropolitan Region has a population of 2.44 crore people while Mumbai city has a population of 1.34 crore people and the overall population of Maharashtra stands at 12.44 crore people. Some estimates post the Telugu speaking population at 5-8 lakh people (out of 15-17 lakh) in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. An indicator of the large Telugu population is the houseful shows of big-budget Telugu films which release in Mumbai in cinema halls of Chembur, Ghatkopar, and Mulund. This hints at the chunk of Telugus residing in Mumbai city apart from Vashi and other catchment areas of Navi Mumbai.

Are these 8-lakh people not entitled to the food of their cuisine? The last 100-year evolution of cuisine in Bombay and Mumbai has not answered this question. Popular Telugu food basic thali spread consists of unlimited steamed rice, roti/puri, gun powder, curd chilies, gongura pickle, spinach dal, sambhar, a fried curry, a gravy curry, plain curd, an accompanying dessert, chutneys, clear soup (Charu), lemon rice, mango pickle, papad and a lavish sprinkling of ghee.

 

In addition, chicken fry, chicken curry, fried fish, and an onion omelette add enough punch to trigger a food orgasm (anyone who has devoured the food in Andhra Bhavan, New Delhi will know). It is also a safe claim to make that Telugu food is the closest to north Indian food (dal, pickle, rice, ghee, etc) compared to other Dravidian cuisines. While Idlis and Dosas (Telugus alone cannot claim the rights over Idli and Dosa) have reached the breakfast table of every Mumbaikar through restaurants, Udupis and DIY batters and doughs from emerging companies like ID, Telugu food is yet to arrive in Mumbai.

Locations like Matunga, Dadar, Chembur Mulund, and now Navi Mumbai boast of a significant population of south Indians out of which a sizable number is of Telugu-speaking people. Coffee houses like the Madras Café in Colaba or Madras Talkies and Café Madras in Matunga offer mouth-watering south Indian delicacies, however, they are not primarily Andhra (many of my non south Indian friends believe Tamil and Telugu food is the same). Even the famed Mahesh Lunch Home with a lavish spread of seafood does not qualify as Andhra. Sporadic Keralite, Udupi, and Tamilian outlets attract Telugus but do not offer any customized Andhra food.

 

Some Andhra food restaurant owners have quietly admitted to me that they have drastically reduced the spice quotient to appeal to the Gujarati and Marwari (who form a significant population in Mumbai city) palette in their catchment areas, thereby removing the basic character of Andhra cuisine- spice. A google search offers a list of restaurants that do claim to offer Andhra food but have limited options which are often clubbed with Tamilian, Kannadiga, or Keralite specialties on the menu.

It is also surprising that the world-famous Biryani joints of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have not opened any branches in Mumbai. Chains like Paradise Biryani and Pista House have not opened a branch in Mumbai but have outlets as far as the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The unknown reason of these food chains skipping Mumbai is anyone’s guess. Biryani joints in Mumbai are nowhere close to the authentic Hyderabadi experience. Being a neighboring state of Telangana, Maharashtra has had Andhra influence in the border areas but the cuisine has not reached Mumbai, strangely. While the famous Tamilian joint Saravana Bhavan attracts south Indians from across the world, Andhra and Telangana offer no such Telugu joints with branches across multiple locations.

There is some good news however, I found a pure Andhra restaurant nestled away in an alley in Ghansoli, Navi Mumbai opposite the Reliance Corporate Park. The food joint resembles the eat-outs from the lanes of Triplicane in Chennai or Hyderabad. The place has very poor ambience and prompts for self-service like a buffet in a large hall. A rate chart at the reception informs that it has branches in Pune and Gurgaon (known by different names). The outlet offers unlimited veg food and charges a decent Rs 150 for veg and another Rs 150 for nonveg additions. The ambience matters for some, but when it comes to food, the majority don’t seem to care while they indulge in the hot piping food. Navi Mumbai it seems, finally had an answer to the famous Andhra Bhavan of New Delhi albeit in a much smaller way, competing only in food, not in crowds, agility, service, or location.

But again, this secret Andhra joint is hidden from the world in Navi Mumbai and not Mumbai. One cannot be sure of the longevity of this outlet. For an Andhra foodie from Colaba, Matunga, or even Chembur it is possible to make a dedicated trip to Navi Mumbai once a month perhaps but certainly not weekly or daily. That takes us back to square one. Why does Mumbai have no dedicated Andhra messes or restaurants? Why don’t the famous food chains serving delicious Andhra fare in Hyderabad, Rayalseema, Guntur, Vijaywada, or Vishakhapatnam open a chain of restaurants (or at least one) in Mumbai city?

The last many decades have not answered the question and the solution on the vacuum of Telugu food in Mumbai does not seem to present itself soon.