I was born into a South Indian family. My family used to take pride in the ‘simple living and high thinking’ motto. In fact, it was our way of life. I am not sure about how much ‘high thinking’ I personally did, but my recollection of our food is, of it being simple. Nutritious, balanced, wholesome foods, fruits of the season and the occasional treat, was what it was all about. Needless snacking and eating street food was frowned upon. Visits to restaurants would not be very often. In fact, these were treats and I would look forward to them.
When I left home to go to University and thereafter to work, seeking out culinary delights was one of my favourite pastimes. There’s no better city to discover in India than Bombay (now Mumbai), where I started work. The first thing that caught my attention was the sheer breadth of street food that was on offer. This was much before street food became fashionable and was served in top end restaurants! Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, has always been a city on the go – people commuting to work, leaving home early and coming back late. Street food was thus everywhere – literally on the streets and in small kiosks and little hole in the wall restaurants. The commercial rise of Mumbai post India’s independence had attracted workers from all regions of India and with them came the food as well.
The Vada-Pav is the quintessential Mumbai grab and go snack. It is the India ‘chip butty’. Eaten all over the region of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the state capital. The Vada-Pav is a mashed spicy potato ball, deep-fried in gram flour batter, squashed inside a bun with dry garlic chutney. They’re often served with a small tumbler of Masala tea. Typically, the Vada-Pav is the working person’s snack to eat at any time.
The dosa is a breakfast snack from the South of India that arrived in Mumbai with the South Indian influx. The fermented savoury batter of rice and lentil flour is made into a crispy pancake. The beauty of the dosa is in the customisation! They can be served plain or with any number of your favourite fillings inside. The breakfast favourite pairs particularly well with a strong coffee, ready to start the day.
The Bombay sandwich is the perfect ‘Raj meets – street food’ snack. A typical sandwich has a filling of boiled potato, sliced onions, tomatoes and peppers inside two bread slices laced with a delicious coriander-mint spread. Many street food stalls will add grated cheese and grill your Bombay sandwich for a few extra rupees. Dubbed the office goer’s typical lunch-time snack, many business deals have been struck over a Bombay Sandwich and a bottle of Thums Up.
The Pav-Bhaji is another lunchtime snack that was originally served to factory workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. ‘Pav’ means bun and ‘Bhaji’ means ‘vegetable’ in Marathi – the native language of the original residents of Mumbai. The ‘Bhaji’, served with warm ‘Pavs’ is a thick mash of potatoes, cauliflower and a host of other vegetables, spiced and topped with a dollop of butter and garnished with coriander and very finely chopped onions. Large flat pans of the ‘bhaji’ can be seen bubbling away on stalls, the aroma wafting across and attracting patrons.
Out of all the street foods, nothing defines the spirit of Mumbai more than the Bhel-Puri. This dish is thought to have originated in the little food stalls and cafes of Mumbai. This is a mixture of puffed rice and other savouries, served with sliced mangoes, onions and pomegranate. The crunchy mixture is sprinkled with sweet, tangy and spicy chutneys. Much like Mumbai itself, it is a mixture of contrasting tastes and textures coming together as an exciting whole. I remember eating this with my wife on the beach-side cafes before heading off to Prithvi Theatre to impress her with my ‘cultured’ side. Prithvi Theatre, by the beach, was an oasis of peace in the suburbs of a noisy and chaotic city and had a café that served Irish coffee! Bhel-Puri, Irish coffee and great company. It doesn’t get any better!