James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Nothing Like Delicious Bar Snacks to Normalize Alcohol Consumption

Nothing Like Delicious Bar Snacks to Normalize Alcohol Consumption

Chakna in Mumbai

Growing up, my parents, with my younger sister and a 12-year-old me in tow, ritualistically followed up a seafront walk in our neighborhood with a visit to the restaurant and bar Sea Lord. This bar still knows my secrets, as do the bowls of complimentary chakna, or savory munchies, that accompany my drinks there.

I remember gin and tonic being my folks’ staple drink. After my parents placed their order, my sister and I squabbled over who would claim the first portion of the imminent cheeselings—petite and salty square cheese puffs. My impatient anticipation for the free snacks gave way to curiosity for conversations at adjacent tables, heaving with laughter and a sense of abandon. My otherwise coy mother, dressed in a sari, glass in hand, was a picture of defiance. Peopled by unaccompanied women, couples, families, and coworkers, the unshowy Sea Lord welcomed a middle-class crowd looking to drop their guard.

Over chakna came confessions and confidences. In this twilight period, bonds blossomed. Colleagues became friends. Even the most reticent ones grew bold, calling out to the waiting staff, “Boss zara chakna lana” (Please bring more chakna to the table). There was no shame in asking for more; it was your inalienable right as a regular. These dry pre-appetizers boasted enough starch to stave off hunger while lining the stomach for more drinking.

I would scoop up a handful of salted white peanuts, and the bowls would be promptly replenished like magical chalices. Though the literal meaning of the term chakna is “to taste,” the act of incessant nibbling was like freezing time—delaying dinnertime, prolonging the moment.

After working through a mound of roasted chickpeas, the lightly spiced, fried squiggles made of soya powder, tapioca starch, and black gram flour were next. Despite mild warnings from the parents about making a full meal out of chakna, I regularly rounded off my one-course dinner with symmetrical streaks of cucumber slathered with agreeably sour chaat masala, a blend of spices like black salt, chili powder, dry mango powder, and cumin seeds.

A year ago, I moved back to this neighborhood that I had called home for more than 20 years after a long stint outside it. One evening, when I sought a momentary salve for my exhaustion, I reached out to my comfort food in Sea Lord. I almost abandoned my drink when I was reunited with the crunch of the peanuts. The decor of the place stood resolutely unchanged. People still did not bother to photograph their food.

In a city where the nightlife is swiftly being shaped by Instagram-fueled, mercurial dining habits, the existence of this place that normalized alcohol consumption for me is reassuring. This untrendy neighborhood bar is once again a place of provisional peace, where the spread of chakna continues to spark the same joy.

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