Today I went in search of misal.
Misal is as soundly maharashtrian as the pandu, the vada pao, the dabbawallah or the endearing habit of naming everything after Shivaji. No self-respecting station or streetcorner in Mumbai can afford to maintain its status in society without one. I suspect that while pao bhaji is sold to the tourists, Mumbai survives on misal. Even our canteen - which can barely fry an onion - will occasionally serve halfway decent misal (and surprising for so simple a dish, a misal is rather easy to screw up).
The name just says “mixed” but such simplicity hides endless variations on the basic aria. The two mixers in the mix are simple – a spicy, watery pea-centric dal called usal and dried fried snacks called farsaan or chiwda. Optionals such as diced onions, pao, dahi, sprouts, aloo are, well, strictly optional. The droolworthiness is in the details – sprouts or spicy potatoes or poha, all kinds of stuff that can be hidden in there. The defining characteristics of a misal mix are in the spices of the usal (from moderate in Goregaon to flaming in Kolhapur) and the type of farsaan used (I’ve even seen chinese noodles) and finally the options that come as standard equipment. In four bicycled stops I covered quite a few riffs on both.
Stop number one was Cafe Madras. Yes, I know its not what comes right up to the top of your mind when you think Maharashtrian but an old-time Sunday regular to the place (whose table I happened to share) introduced me to the delights of Madras Misal. Of course, nothing in Chennai mentions any kind of mixture, so this is definitely fusion food. The usal is sambhar, the farsaan mix reminiscent of the south, the dahi topcoat flecked with dhania but the mixture is definitely a very nice (though unusual) misal.
Next were two side by side options in the heart of Maratha country – just off Shiv Sena Bhavan and Shivaji Park in Dadar. Prakash and Dattatrey are what can only be described as bastions of maratha culture and misal was a very popular choice at both places. Both had very similar offerings; the basic usal filled out a spicy potato mash and sprouts. In both places, misal was very popular and the dahi variety more popular than the plain. Many a formica-topped table had people digging two spoons into the mixture, and it gave me an intresting insight into the multiple ways it is possible to eat misal.
Now misal is a really shortlived dish – to be consumed within minutes if you are to avoid a soggy mess – and the technique of eating it can change what it tastes like. The old uncle to the left mixed the whole thing throughly, covering every inch till it was all an even whitish yellowish green colour. I personally like to mix a little, which leaves some of the farsaan crunchy for longer but also gives different parts different tastes. Some ate it off the bowl, manipulating the mixture a little at a time while the rest remained intact. Others poured the contents onto the plate, allowing most of the usal gravy to run around while they picked off the solid bits, then soaking the pao in pure gravy. One person had the dahi and the misal separately, a spoonful of this and one of that.
My last stop was somewhat further away, genuinely off the beaten track not too far from Milan Subway. Misal afficionado Kabi found this one out for me (how she stumbled upon it in the first place is a bit of a mystery – it took multiple phonecalls and chatting up paanwallas for me to replicate the feat) – I guess its enough of a local landmark that you can ask your way there, and popular enough that you cant fail to notice the crowds. The easiest way to get there is to come east on Milan Subway, take the road towards the station till you reach a T junction and then follow the rightmost turn past the telephone exchange till you arrive at another T junction where blue tarp and crowds will help you locate the place. Google tells me its close to something called Rane Hospital.
Unlike the other full-service places, this is the one place on the list that is solely focused on misal (well, to be pedantic, it serves usal and misal) and thus the entire crowd is gulping down only that. The place opens in the morning and shuts when it runs out, usually around 4pm but earlier on Sundays. By the time I landed here, though, the three misals I had already consumed had filled my stomach. Number four was not going to happen today, but I’ve tried the misal here before and I agree with Kabi that this one is serious stuff. The usal base is hotter, more flavour-loaded and more substantial than either of the two Dadar stalwarts. The farsaan is the thicker softer surti variety and the usal (a liquidy version in a huge bowl) is alone worth the journey but when mixed into misal – aah, the chunky chewy toothsome strands of besan are brilliant at soaking gravy and add a whole new dimension – al dente rather than crunch. This version feels far more like a fullsize soupbowl meal than a snack.
I find misals too different from each other to make a real ranking, but I certainly enjoyed the Vile Parle stall the most, followed closely by Cafe Madras. There are other place well known for misal – Gypsy, Hiralal Kashidas, Vinay, Aram – and a dozen others; I’ll leave all that tasting to Rashmi Uday Singh.