Flavours of Mumbai
The best way to get to know Mumbai is to sample its culinary cultures, from food stalls to urbane lounges.
From street carts laden with fried potatoes slathered in hot red garlic and green chilli chutney to upscale dining rooms serving world-class sushi, Mumbai is a city of culinary extremes. Mumbai is a melting pot of diverse cultures and languages, and its colourful story can be deliciously told through its food, from the bread left behind by colonisers to Bombay duck (not a fowl but a fish) to kebab stands that fill the streets at night during the holy month of Ramadan. Add to these older influences the new and the hip: modern bars and Michelin-starred chefs who are sparking a revolution in the way the city eats.
Mumbai, the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra, gets its name from the goddess Mumbadevi. The original inhabitants were Koli fishermen, who still live in the city and take their fishing trawlers—festooned with coloured flags—out to sea for four nights in a row, as they have forever, says Rashmi Uday Singh, author of several books on Mumbai restaurants. Also hewing to tradition, the fishermen’s womenfolk busy themselves, while the men are out, “huddling with their neighbours and friends, hand-pounding their secret, 32-ingredient bhukni masala, putting their bombil [the local fish also known as Bombay duck] out to dry, and waiting for their husbands to bring in the fresh catch.” The results of their hard work are robust and full-bodied dishes featuring kingfish, crabs and lobster.
The Kolis may be the first food influencers of Mumbai, but the city—now home to 19 million inhabitants—has always attracted people seeking their dreams and bringing their culinary traditions along. In the mid-1800s, people from the neighbouring state of Gujarat settled in Mumbai as traders in the cotton industry. The Gujarati community, explains Mumbai-based veteran journalist Vikram Doctor, became rich through the cotton trade, and with that wealth came influence. “Their habits became something to be emulated,” Doctor says.
The Gujarati merchants, primarily vegetarian, created what’s probably the original veggie street-food culture in Mumbai, as well as its abundance of primarily vegetarian restaurants. Other influences on Mumbai cuisine include the Parsis, who came ashore from Persia centuries ago, the Bohri Muslims, also from neighbouring Gujarat but meat eaters, and the Christians from the state of Goa. And that’s but a partial list.
Mumbai has always been known for its street food, and if you’ve never dived into this culture, start with one of its most iconic offerings: vada pao. A carb lover’s dream, vada pao is a fried potato patty doused with hot garlic and green chilli chutney and sandwiched in a soft bread roll. In this one handheld dish, you can trace a number of outside contributions to Mumbai food: The British helped cultivate potatoes in India in the 19th century, and the Portuguese are said to be the ones who brought bread in the 16th century. You can find these delights just about everywhere, says Doctor: “Popular stalls are the vada pao stall Aram opposite CST Station, MM Mama Kane in Dadar, the famous Khidki vada pao in Kalyan, or really any nameless cart where the vadas are fried fresh, the bread is chewy and the chutney tangy.” Vada pao is best washed down with a drink also easily procured on street corners and in high-end restaurants alike: fresh coconut water, sipped straight from the shell.
The best place to enjoy Mumbai street food is Chowpatty Beach. Chowpatty lies at the north end of the three-kilometre-long (1.9-mile) Marine Drive, which stretches from the Nariman Point business district to the posh Malabar Hills. To experience the quintessential Mumbai, sit on the beach and feast on bhelpuri (puffed rice, crisp gram flour, noodle-like strands, potatoes, onions and more, tossed with cilantro and tamarind chutney). “If there is one symbol of this cosmopolitan, cacophonic city, then it has to be bhelpuri. This dish knows no barriers of class and is as beloved by the wealthy as by the poor,” says restaurant critic Singh. After the bhelpuri, head to Bachelor’s Juice House close by for the surprisingly refreshing green chilli ice cream.