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Mumbai’s Mount Mary Basilica during the Bandra fair in 2017. (Hindustan Times)
Mumbai’s Mount Mary Basilica during the Bandra fair in 2017. (Hindustan Times)

Pandemic or not, food customs know no full-stops

The famous Bandra fair could not be held this year, only the second time in 350 years, but Mumbai’s Catholic communities continue the feasting tradition culminating on a Sunday with hearty meaty dishes

In September, when Mumbai’s monsoon begins to slow down, hundreds of thousands of people from the city make the annual pilgrimage to Mount Mary Basilica, a church in suburban Bandra. They come to pray and celebrate Mother Mary’s birthday on 8 September. The Sunday that follows marks the beginning of a week-long fair. The area within a 2km radius of the church is packed with people, the air thick with the smell of Goan sausages and roasted peanuts, and ringing with the squeals of children on giant wheels. In the 350-year history of the Bandra fair, this year is only the second time it has had to be cancelled; the first was during the bubonic plague in the late 19th century.

This year, the fair was scheduled from 13-20 September. The streets that would have been bustling with stalls selling pav stuffed with chorizo, Calicut halwa and the unique crispy Goan sweet kadio bodio, are empty. Mass was held online and the traffic police has put up signs saying “residents only" to deter people from visiting the Basilica. “I miss the halwa and the fresh grilled kebabs that are sold at the fair. This year, we had a quiet celebration at home," says Faye Barreto, who lives in the neighbourhood.

Chicken vindaloo.
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Chicken vindaloo.

In September, when Mumbai’s monsoon begins to slow down, hundreds of thousands of people from the city make the annual pilgrimage to Mount Mary Basilica, a church in suburban Bandra. They come to pray and celebrate Mother Mary’s birthday on 8 September. The Sunday that follows marks the beginning of a week-long fair. The area within a 2km radius of the church is packed with people, the air thick with the smell of Goan sausages and roasted peanuts, and ringing with the squeals of children on giant wheels. In the 350-year history of the Bandra fair, this year is only the second time it has had to be cancelled; the first was during the bubonic plague in the late 19th century.

This year, the fair was scheduled from 13-20 September. The streets that would have been bustling with stalls selling pav stuffed with chorizo, Calicut halwa and the unique crispy Goan sweet kadio bodio, are empty. Mass was held online and the traffic police has put up signs saying “residents only" to deter people from visiting the Basilica. “I miss the halwa and the fresh grilled kebabs that are sold at the fair. This year, we had a quiet celebration at home," says Faye Barreto, who lives in the neighbourhood.


Although celebrations were confined to homes this year, staying indoors didn’t subdue the spirit of the festival. The kitchen was busy as ever, for the city’s Catholic community prepares lavish family feasts on Mother Mary’s birthday, just as it does for Easter and Christmas.

“Usually, preparations for the feast begin a week prior," says Patricia Nath, an Anglo- Indian Bandra resident. The recipes have roots in Indian cooking traditions but are heavily influenced by British kitchens too, she says. As a Mumbaikar, Nath’s festive platter also has a sorpotel and vindaloo cooked Goan style. “We serve them with Anglo-Indian specialities such as pulao, rice cooked in coconut milk and ‘bad word curry’ (mutton mince ball curry)," she says. It’s not all non-vegetarian food. Last Sunday, her menu had green salad and baked veg pasta too. For dessert, there was tiramisu and caramel custard. She shared these details in a WhatsApp message that ended with one word—burp.

In Mumbai, the Roman Catholic population is broadly divided into three groups—Anglo Indians, Goans, and East Indians, who are considered original inhabitants of the city. Over the years, their food practices have overlapped, with many commonalities emerging. For instance, they all have meat dishes like potato chops with mince meat, vinegar-spiked pork sorpotel or vindaloo, but each has a distinct take. East Indians add their signature spice blend, the bottle masala, while Goans use toddy vinegar. In Anglo-Indian homes, vindaloo and sorpotel share space on the dining table with mutton ball curry.

Heavy meat dishes are best paired with wine, whisky, even gin. In fact, drinking precedes mealtimes and a toast is raised once mass has ended. “On Sunday, everyone attended the mass online, then we had cake and copp (Konkani for peg)," says Maya Reggo, a Bandra-based tourist guide who runs Maya’s Mumbai Tours. She takes travellers for heritage walks in south Mumbai, shopping in Dadar’s old markets, with pit stops at iconic Irani cafés. Reggo is Goan and chicken roast is a speciality in her home. It is stuffed with bread croutons, innards like the liver, vegetables, drizzled with a brown sauce and paired with mashed potatoes. A vegetable is served too. These are accompanied by a rich pulao made with cashews and almonds, commonly known as the wedding pulao. Usually, Reggo would get kadio bodio, a traditional Goan crispy sweet snack made of flour coated with jaggery and spiked with ginger, from the Bandra fair, where it is sold by the kilograms. Making it at home is laborious. “It’s too good to be true," she says.

In Jeanne D’Silva’s East Indian kitchen, fugiyas are a must. These fried breads made with fermented dough are unique to the community. D’Silva, 79, has fond memories of her mother’s kitchen—“In the good old days, about 25 people would gather in our home for this feast and there was stuffed pigling roast and the rustic East Indian duck moilee." This year, her brother’s family visited her and spent several hours over a meal of mutton paya curry, stuffed chicken roast filled with cold cuts, vegetables and innards, sorpotel seasoned with bottle masala, a vegetable dish, and blancmange for dessert. Unlike Reggo, D’Silva isn’t missing the crowds and cacophony of the Bandra fair.

Food for family feasts is made in large quantities. The one guiding principle is that it should not spoil quickly. Pre-prep is everything; breads, rolls or pav are ordered from local bakeries. Most families adhere to nifty cooking techniques that predate the refrigerator. Meat dishes, for instance, are prepared a day earlier. Ingredients, like the vinegar for pork sorpotel, act as a preservative and flavour enhancer. Even the dough for fugiyas can be left to ferment overnight. Braised roast meats acquire a deeper flavour with time. By the time lunch is served after morning mass on Sunday, the flavour of each dish has matured fully.

A celebration for Mother Mary would be incomplete without cake. For “Our Lady", Goan homes prepare or order in ribbon cakes topped with marzipan or chocolate cake with icing. There are no rum-soaked versions like Christmas and dinner tables do not heave with sweets. But there is cake for all and food is served through the day.



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