Nila Mehta, an entrepreneur known as Mumbai’s ‘Bhel Queen’ who introduced the city to sumptuous homemade Gujarati delicacies, passed away on Tuesday, 15 October, at the age of 83.
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Starting in a tiny one-room chawl in South Bombay (present Mumbai) in the ’70s, she single-handedly elevated her passion to a business, Nila Mehta Snacks, which went on to become a major national and international favourite.
In a conversation with The Better India, her son Pratik Mehta took a walk down the memory lane and chronicled his mother’s incredible journey.
Originally from Bharuch, Gujarat, Nila moved to Bombay after her wedding.
“My mother was a homemaker running a sizeable household of six, in a small chawl on Napean Sea Road. When it became difficult to make ends meet, she started taking orders for stitching sarees and garments at the local Hindu Stree Mandal,” recalls Pratik.
The job was painstaking—creating intricate embroidery on one saree needed no less than a month—but the money was not satisfactory.
Nila was an excellent cook, so one fine day, she decided to prepare a considerable lot of dhoklas and headed to the local women’s association, with around twenty packets of the same.
The crowd there predominantly comprised of wealthy, privileged women, and when one of them casually tried the dhokla, she was instantly smitten by its heavenly taste.
So much so, that she demanded the entire lot from Nila, to serve to her guests at a house party that day.
“But mother had always had incredible foresight, and respectfully turned down her request. She said that if one person takes all the packets, others would never get to taste her culinary masterpieces,” shares Pratik.
Thanks to her prescience, her Gujarati delicacies soon became a hot favourite in South Bombay, without the need for any grand endorsement. She started receiving more and more orders for dhoklas, which she used to deliver door-to-door initially.
Later, as her business increased, customers were requested to pick up the food from Nila’s house, or she sent her son Pratik to deliver the distant orders.
“We stayed in a tiny apartment on the 4th floor. There was a huge water crisis in our area. Supply was restricted to an hour, and that too early in the morning. There was no elevator, and there was only one community telephone on the ground floor, through which all her orders used to come. But nothing could deter my mother from investing all her time and energy in her food venture.”
While Nila’s husband woke up at 4 AM every day to clean the rice, urad dal and store the water for the dhokla orders, she would be in the kitchen, measuring every single ingredient with the weighing scale.
“She was a true perfectionist, and would never tolerate the slightest aberration from the traditional recipe,” remembers Pratik.
Needless to say, her hard work paid off in leaps and bounds. Bulk orders started pouring in from weddings and parties at illustrious households, and soon, she had to hire more staff to assist in her kitchen.
At any wedding in the area, her dhoklas were an indispensable item on the menu. Top catering services teamed up with her to serve the same, at an average of around 60-70 kilos in a day.
“I remember, at a Bajaj wedding, we had to deliver an order of 1600 kilos of dhokla. There was no water supply that week at our home. There was no disappointment from the clients; rather, the family sent a truckload of water cans to our house. My mother, her staff and none of the family members slept or ate for two days. In the end, we were able to pull that off with elan!” narrates Pratik.
Between 1984 to almost 1996, Nila was the unparalleled ‘Dhokla queen’ of Mumbai, though she used to sell other trademark Gujarati snacks and sweets on a smaller scale.
At the same time, there was an increasing demand for her bhel. Finally, around 1996, her husband suggested that she focus less on the dhokla since the bulk preparation of the same was becoming extremely taxing for her. That’s when she shifted her focus to churning out more of the yummy bhel.
Being a dry snack, the bhel could be exported to anywhere in India, packed in airtight containers. So, within a short period, Nila started receiving orders from Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and many other parts of India. Slowly, the word spread among the NRI population as well, and she began to export her products to the USA, UK and other countries.
Incidentally, Nila was the creator of the much-popular Tirangi Dhokla or Tricolour Dhokla which can be found across restaurants in India on Independence Day or Republic Day. She also created the aesthetically pleasing Panchrangi Dhokla—true comfort food for the soul.
“I was working as a CA at a top firm. However, seeing the huge success of my mother’s business, I decided to quit the job and assist her,” remarks Pratik.
Gradually, the Nila Mehta brand opened up outlets across Mumbai, and the products became a staple on the shelves of all supermarkets and grocery shops.
Recently, they have also opened up their online portal to take orders through Facebook and Instagram.
Nila’s unfortunate demise will undoubtedly leave a void in the hearts of her family, her employees as well as her massive network of customers. However, her legacy will continue to thrive gloriously through her classic recipes and her memories.