Mumbai Street Food Guide – Snacks & the City
A diverse ethnic and cultural spread gives Mumbai its unique flavour. While the culinary trend is a growing high-end offering, Ishay Govender-Ypma got to grips with the city’s popular street food fare. For Etihad inflight mag Jan 2015
On the Road
Gingerly, I step forward and dart between a tuk-tuk and a car gridlocked on Colaba Causeway, my ears ringing with the hooting cacophony that is Mumbai’s traffic. Like most of India, this is not the place to exercise timidity. You must bide your time with all things here, but when you pounce, or walk in this case, it must be done with conviction. And on the other side, sweet reward awaits.
Head down, his concentration on the task palpable, a vendor chops a verdant bunch of coriander with lightning quick strokes. On his meagre vending tray is a heap of finely diced red onions, chillies, sprouted lentils, a pyramid of golden chickpeas and fragrant lime quarters. A customer stands next to the vendor, eating his chaat, or snack of panipuri, popping it whole in his mouth, in quick succession.
Panipuri is a feather-light puffy unleavened bread crisp, deflated in the centre with the pressure of a thumb and filled with all the colourful ingredients that the vendor has chopped, as well as a splash of coriander chutney and gruel-thin tamarind and jaggery water. Panipuri, which translates to “watery bread” is ubiquitous on the streets of Mumbai and each vendor prides themselves in their unique combination of ingredients, relishes and chutneys. I recall meeting Mohan, a young pickle vendor at Nariman Point, justifiably proud of his neatly styled snack tray.
Equally popular as panipuri are bhelpuri and sevpuri – these crunchy, moreish and surprisingly complicated savoury snacks provide a delicate balance of sweet-tangy-spicy-sour and demonstrate a skill in flavour composition. I watch as the panipuri vendor neatens the pile of onions.
If one pauses long enough in Mumbai, there is art to be found even in the every-day.
The customer wipes the tiny puri crumbs off his mouth with the back of his hand, and burps loudly. I approach the vendor, but my friend, a food blogger and born and bred Mumbaikar, hurries me along. She’s taking me to Kailash Parbat, a snack restaurant near the Strand cinema in Colaba. While millions of locals, and a handful of foreigners purchase snacks like these from the vendors squatting on street corners, a section of the Mumbai middle and upper classes indulge in the love of fast food at restaurants and simple diners like the one my friend takes me to.
“What will happen if you fall ill? There goes your whole trip in one jingbang go,” she scolds.
I’m used to eating food in locations where the hygiene practices are perceived to be questionable, I counter: in the townships of South Africa, the popular carts in South America, and remote curbsides in South East Asia where you can’t spot a tourist for miles. She’s having none of it, though. In minutes our platters of panipuri and bhelpuri accompanied by icy glasses of limbu pani, the beloved Indian limeade, arrive. I forget about the street vendor for a moment.
There really is no specific Mumbai cuisine, asserts expert tour guide Deepa Krishnan, founder of Mumbai Magic.
“Mumbai is like a bhelpuri,” she adds, “the ingredients spontaneously combine to create a mesmerising, complex but largely transplanted culture.”
The character of the city’s dishes and popular snacks is influenced by the sheer volume of migrants from all over India, who’ve trickled into Mumbai over the decades. There are roughly 19 million people living here and that staggering figure places the question of ethnicity, religion and accompanying food cultures into perspective.
The resident Koli fisherfolk, one of the original inhabitants on the islands of Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, make a significant contribution to the taste profile of the city; one specific example being bombil or Bombay duck, the small dried fish Mumbai is famous for – loved by the British Raj and locals alike. The colonisers also left their mark on the city’s consumption habits, and across India for that matter – think of the English predisposition towards drinking tea, and the Portuguese inspired pav bread, eaten with many of the street foods.
Because of the nature of the community structure that’s evolved over time, you’ll find particular foods distributed within the different ethnic boroughs as well as the chawls – the tenement buildings that often house singular groups like Parsis, while others yet can be limited to just vegetarian residents. Locals enthusiastically seek out the specialties of each group – bread from the Parsis, biryanis and kheema – spiced dry braised minced meat from the Bohra Muslims, Gujarati thalis – metal plates containing several tiny bowls of curries and relishes, and the coastal Malvani food – fish fry and crab, for example.
“There’s no other way to put it, Mumbai’s food tends to be ghettoised,” says Krishnan.
In contrast, popular street snacks like the assortment of puri, kebabs, kheema pav (mince rolls), vada pav (deep-fried potato cutlets served in a roll), samosas, chicken tikka, “cutting” chai (strongly brewed milk tea with ginger and spices, served in short glasses) and gola (shaved ice) can be found everywhere. Versions of these dishes and drinks appear in other cities too. The majority of street foods tend to be vegetarian, not just a religious dietary requirement, but a practical arrangement due to the lack of refrigeration and storage facilities in searing temperatures.
Pav bhaji is arguably the quintessential Mumbai street food dish, and is said to have originated here around 1850; a quick and light dish made for the textile mill workers who were short on time. Mashed potatoes and vegetables are cooked with tomatoes in a butter-rich spiced sauce until a soft purée is formed – this is the bhaji, a Marathi word for vegetables. It’s eaten with grilled soft white bap, or pav, smothered in melted butter. Just before serving with the usual assortment of chutneys and spice powders, another dollop of butter tops the bhaji. This is eaten with the hands, and often extra pav is ordered to soak up the luscious sauce. The shacks in Juhu beach serve some of the best, and like many street food stalls, just a single specialist dish is made continuously all day. Rick Stein in his television series about Indian food raved about the pav bhaji but cautioned about its coronary clogging properties.
I’m standing on the street outside Aaswad diner in Dadar West, with Krishnan. There’s queue at least 30 minutes long, so we decide to order a take-away snack. It arrives wrapped in plain paper with two small packets of chutney.
“I’d say kothimbir vadi is the defining Maharashtrian street snack,” she says.
While taxis honk and passersby weave around us, we eat the hot chickpea and coriander fritters that originated in this province, dipping into the packets of spicy tamarind and coconut chutney. I’ve got to agree with Krishnan. As much as I’m fond of a good pav bhaji, these savoury vegetarian patties are what makes street food worth seeking.
The next day, after pounding the pavements for hours, and avoiding near misses crossing the roads, my food blogger friend advises that if I’m ever looking for a three-am snack, I should try the kebabs or chicken tikka at Bademiya, a rustic haunt around the corner from the historic Taj Palace Hotel.
“It’s been around for ever. You’ll love it,” she says. What if I fall ill, I ask, looking at the far from posh set-up, and gently mocking her earlier sentiments.
“It’ll be worth it, promise!” she smiles.
It turns out that some snacks in Mumbai will convince even the fussiest of folk.