Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Third, Last and Longest Bombay Trip Post, OR The Byculla Soufflé

When I did my first internship in Bombay, in the autumn of 2007, I used to find myself at a loose end during the weekends because none of my friends were in the city. I was staying at a hostel in Byculla in Central Bombay, so in my ‘characteristic ever-joblessness’ (not my phrase, Bhavna’s) I would go to the Asiatic Society library, rummage among old books, and read up on Byculla history. It was thus that I stumbled upon a book called The Byculla Club: A History by Samuel T. Sheppard.

The book was written in 1916, four years before the Club ceased to exist, and it is a charming and delightful chronicle, if you happen to like that sort of thing. It has extracts from the Club Minute Book, invoices, croquet scores, lavish dinner menus, and many such fascinating things.

I found many a gem among its crumbling pages. I read an extract from the Club Complaint Book—an 1876 entry by one Mr. Inveracity—which reads: “The gentleman in the bedroom beneath mine is a beginner on the flute. As he has shown no signs of improvement during the last two months, I request that his attention be called to the rule against making voluntary noises in the Club.” I read the transcript of Sir Seymour Fitz Gerald’s speech at the farewell banquet in his honour in 1872, which he concluded by saying: “May the Byculla Club retain the enviable distinction which not only in this country but in other countries it enjoys! May the main drain shortly be covered over! May Byculla mosquitoes be reduced to some reasonable proportions!” (The last wish is one I myself have fervently expressed on many occasions.) But above all, in a chapter on food, I read about the Byculla Soufflé.

But, for the benefit of those who have eaten the fluffy delight, the recipe for the Byculla Soufflé may be disclosed. Take the yolks of six eggs, add three tablespoons of good white sugar, beat well till dry and keep aside. Take half a seer of cream and also beat till dry, now take half a packet of Isinglass well soaked, add one liqueur glass each of Kummel, Chartreuse, Curacao, and Benedictine. Mix the whole well together, then put into a mould, on the top put crumbs of mixed biscuit and keep in ice until wanted. To cooks who attempt to make the Soufflé and fail, a word of consolation may be offered: it can only be made to perfection in the Club kitchen.

At this point, I put down the book and resolved, come what may, to search out and consume the Byculla Soufflé.

This was in the last weekend of my internship, so I could start my quest in real earnest only after another five months, during my second internship in Bombay. After many fruitless efforts which I shall not bore you by describing, once again in the last weekend of my internship, I ran into some luck. Flipping through a food guide in a second hand bookstore, I found mention of Zareen Kotwal on Maharishi Karve Road, a confectioner known for her Byculla Soufflé.

After I recovered from the shock, I gave three rousing cheers and directed my footsteps to the address they had given, only to find that no such address existed. Reluctant to give up, I walked the whole length of Maharishi Karve Road from North to South—a good 6 kilometres—looking for any sign of a confectionery shop. I found nothing. Convinced that I had somehow missed the shop, I walked the entire stretch again from South to North. No luck again. I cursed freely for five whole minutes, and then gave up.

When I came home after the internship, I googled “Zareen Kotwal” and realized that the book had misprinted “1411” in place of “14/1”. So on this, my third visit to Bombay, I finally tracked down the address. To my surprise, it turned out to be a flat in a residential complex, with no signboards or advertisements of any kind. Not knowing what to expect, I rang the doorbell and found myself face to face with Ms. Kotwal herself. I told her my story, and she heard me out with a bemused expression.

“So do you make the Soufflé?” I asked her finally.

“I used to,” she said. “But not any more.”

“And is it available anywhere else?”

“Nowhere,” she said laughing. “Nowhere.”

I thanked her, and trudged away. In the second floor of an apartment block in a quiet corner of Churchgate, my quest for the Byculla Soufflé had run into a dead end.

In the final chapter of the book on the history of the Byculla Club, Sheppard describes the changing face of Bombay: “The Club cat, Freddy, sleeps peacefully on the lawn where the old race course ended and where jackals and hyaenas have sought their prey.”

If he had the gift of foresight, he could have said more. “Where Freddy took his afternoon nap,” he may well have added, “developers construct high-rises and raise ugly clouds of dust. And saddest of all, the Byculla Soufflé is made no more.”

8 comments:

Pratiti said...

BSNL is impossible!!!

What's In A Name ? said...

fascinating post this, that too about a 'dying delicacy'.

Rahul Saha said...

Don't worry dude. We'll figure it out and make it ourselves. What say? We may not have a club kitchen but we have grit, determination, honour and an appetite which will consume burnt, molten, uncooked and mouldy souffle.

Shrabasti Banerjee said...

Aww. Sad, sad.

Revolver said...

This is possibly my favourite among every one of your posts.

Sroyon said...

@Pratiti: It's like Longfellow's Little Girl:
"When she was good / She was very, very good, / But when she was bad she was horrid."

@WiaN: Dead, more like.

@Saha: You remind me of the alternative text on an xkcd comic which happens to be one of my favourites:
When I say we should do something sometime, I'm secretly hoping you'll say 'Why not now?'

@Shrabasti: Way of the world, kid.

@Revolver: Thanks.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

i second revolver.

Karthy said...

OMG...I was going to tell you how dalrympl -ish the post was...except I am too pleased with the fact that the word verification for this comment is an actual word...it's "press". I thought this day would never come!