It is 10.30am on a Friday morning and my day is already going well because I found a parking spot along Lorong Kurau in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur without wanting to kill anyone.
I am seated at Ganga Cafe located on this street, and its owner Meeta Prabodh Sheth is buzzing around the cafe, greeting patrons and enquiring about their wellbeing.
She makes them laugh, and they in return put a smile on her face.
Two customers in front of me are pinched for time, and Meeta calls out to the waiters, and gently but firmly tells them to drop everything that they’re doing and feed the hungry customers.
The folks here adore Meeta and I soon find out why.
“I can’t believe that you want to review this place. I just can’t believe it. I am so happy, I never expected this to happen,” says Meeta without catching her breath, and I am scared that she is going to pass out from giddiness before I get to try any food.
She is ready to order everything on the menu and is disappointed when I remind her that it is impossible for me to try them all at one go.
It is obvious that Meeta is proud of all that Ganga Cafe has to offer. This is her baby and she, with the help of her husband, has transformed it from the unknown eatery that it was two years ago to what it is now.
“A tourist attraction,” says Prabodh, her husband, with a laugh. “I don’t know what is happening online in France but we have many French tourists who visit our cafe and say that they were directed here by a website or blog that they read back home.”
Ganga Cafe’s previous owner served only vegetarian South Indian food but when Meeta, a Gujerati from North India, took over the cafe, she decided that it should serve a healthy mix of South and North Indian cuisines.
“The South Indian cuisine is more liberal with the use of coconut milk and strong spices, whereas the North Indian food doesn’t have intense, overpowering spices,” explains Meeta.
Speaking of healthy, Meeta is hell bent on not serving food drenched in oil or cloyingly sweet dishes.
“I want the food to not only be delicious but nourishing. We do not use MSG, colouring or eggs in our food at all. We always get the healthier ingredients, even if they are a bit pricier,” she says. She uses lentil from Mumbai to make dhal curries. “It is lighter and doesn’t give you a heavy feeling in the stomach after a good meal. The Mumbai dhal has lesser calories and is easier to digest,” she says.
One of the top selling dishes here is the millet chappati – or as Meeta calls it, “the farmer’s chappati”.
“It is considered food for poor people in India but in other parts of the world, millet is revered as health food,” she says.
The millet chappati is made using millet flour and is darker compared to the regular chappati made from atta (wheat) flour.
“I started cooking when I was 12, and chappati was one of the first things I learned to make. A Gujerati girl has to know how to make excellent chappati to impress her in laws,” says Meeta with a laugh. The chappatis are cooked on a flat pan before being “roasted” on direct fire to give it an extra crisp. They are thin, fluffy and can be eaten without any condiments.
Here, the chappatis are served in a Thali with three vegetable dishes, dhal, onion curry, rasam, salad, pappadom and fried chilli.
Thali means plate in India, but at an Indian restaurant, it represents a set of food comprising a main item and several side dishes. The thali sets at Ganga Cafe range from RM7.90 to RM10.90, and if you prefer something lighter, you can choose the G-Light meals which serves smaller portions of the same thali at a cheaper price.
At Ganga Cafe, the main item includes a variety of chappati, brown rice, tomato rice, briyani rice, a selection of thosai (plain, masala, onion, ghee), roti canai, uppuma and uttapam.
Uppuma is a breakfast dish made from dry roasted semolina, and uttapam is thosai-like pancake with toppings.
I try the soft and fluffy vegetable uttapam, that is generously sprinkled with brocolli, carrots, coriander leaves, onions, ginger, and tomatoes.
Meeta brings out brown and briyani rice, and sides of Venthiyam Fish, Chicken Masala, Mutton Peratal, Tofu Sambal, Curried Chickpeas and fried bittergourd.
“Of course, these are not real meat but mock ones. I tried not to serve them at Ganga Cafe but really couldn’t escape them because people asked for dishes that required the use of mock meats. However, I make sure that I get my supply from a reliable manufacturer who uses soy, seaweed and mushrooms to make these fake meats,” explains Meeta.
The Venthiyam (fenugreek) Fish is good enough to turn me vegetarian for life ... okay, maybe a week or two. The mock meat is soft and well seasoned with lots of spices. I have it with the fragrant briyani, and together, the combination is heavenly.
The chicken and mutton dishes are flavourful and the scent of masala lingers on my fingers.
“This is just how I would cook at home. Whatever you taste here is pure home-style cooking,” says Meeta. I secretly wish that she would adopt me so that I can be part of her household that gets to taste her food for free forever, but Prabodh reminds me that Meeta already has her hands full. “I have three children, but Meeta? She has five, including me and my father,” he says with a loud guffaw.
Running a family and cafe simultaneously cannot be easy, which is why Meeta relegated her kitchen duties at Ganga Cafe to her trusty cooks.
“When we first started, I was in the kitchen preparing the food and taking care of the customers, but I couldn’t do it alone for long. Now, I have help for the cooking but I check on them,” she says.
Meeta shouldn’t worry too much as the cooks are doing fine, although regular patrons claim that the food tasted better when she was running the kitchen.
Meeta promises not to overfeed me but she cannot help but bring out Aloo Chaat which turns out to be my favourite dish that morning.
“Chaat is a type of street food you can find in North India. It is not cooked but is an assembly of different ingredients,” explains Meeta.
The Aloo Chaat has cooked potatoes, chickpeas, onion, garlic, murukku and coriander mixed with a generous amount of yoghurt. It is seasoned with chilli flakes and spice powder. The different textures are a joy to eat and the yoghurt gives a nice cooling effect. “This is meant to be served cold, and it is healthy meal to snack on,” she says.
Meeta surprises me with another dish. “This is the final one, I promise,” she says as she hands over a plate of Paani Puri. Two tiny globes, made of wheat and semolina flour, and filled with potatoes, onions and mung beans, rest next to a bowl of mint water. “This is also a famous North Indian street food,” says Meeta. “Paani means water and puri, is well, fried dough. Scoop the mint water using the puri, and put them straight in your mouth,” she instructs.
I do as I’m told and the heat hits me almost immediately. The Paani Puri, though delicious, is a miniature representation of hell in my mouth. The spice from the mint water burns my tongue.
Meeta grins as I grimace. “The spicier, the better,” says Meeta. Now I have doubts about wanting her to adopt me.
I reach out for one of Ganga Cafe’s top selling drink, the Ganga Tea Crush. The refreshing mix of mint, lemon and lime in iced tea cools my mouth temporarily, and I finish the job with a big gulp of the thick and yummy mango lassi. Oddly enough, I feel like popping another Paani Puri in my mouth but thankfully am distracted by a telephone call. It is a call to remind me of my next assignment. Aha! This is my perfect exit strategy before Meeta has a chance to bring out more food.
“You have to leave already?” “Do you want to pack any of these food to have later?” “Are you sure you don’t want to finish that briyani?” Meeta asks rapidly.
You know what? I already have a mother who overfeeds me at home. I guess I’ll only visit Meeta when I crave for vegetarian Indian cuisine, and thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often.
19 Lorong Kurau
Taman Bukit Pantai
59100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2284 2119