Binging in Bombay
If you love experiencing the thrill of discovering a new place & all it has to offer, then you might want to consider adding good ol’ Bombay to your bucket list. A historic city, it is a vision of British Raj grandeur effortlessly juxtaposed with decadent Indo-Saracenic architecture & contemporary landmarks of the 21st century. But nowhere is our legacy more widespread than in our local gastronomic activities.
Food. Ummm… the word says it all. While it is hotly debated as to which cuisine is the finest in the world, I must proclaim, that when it comes to taming ‘Goliathan’ appetites, Indians kinda slay. And we Bombayiites, like all Indians, love to play with our food, for our grandmasters in the culinary arts are not to be found in hip up-&-coming restaurants (though they are equally gifted), but on the narrow corners of the city’s crowded streets & ubiquitous Khau Gallis (Food streets).
Behold the street food vendors, the worthy opponents to Michelin Starred chefs, for they are the cooks that originally experimented with food on a grand scale. Armed with nothing more than a basic stove, a few odd utensils & an imagination rivalling Le Cordon Bleu training, to watch them multitask their daily activities is like viewing a well rehearsed one-man show.
Bombay’s cosmopolitan status is also reflected in our diverse culinary scene, for this is India’s New York City; the city of dreams, where people from other parts of India flock to make a living, bringing along a part of their traditions & cultures. The demographics of our street vendors mostly consists of North Indians, South Indians & the local men. Thus Indian cuisine is complex; it’s got character, which is so much more than the universal Naan or Chicken Tikka Masala.
These are the best kerbside meals that Bombay has to offer the wearied & famished.
This stout little treat does a mean twist in the mouth! It is made with crisp hollow puri (a type of bread) that is filled with tangy flavoured water mixed with potatoes, chickpeas & onions. Many vendors have revealed, that the USP of this dish is the flavoured pani (water). To get that refreshing flavour, tamarind sauce and chilli powder is added to plain water with a pinch of salt.
The pani puri is eaten in a single morsel, literally stuffing your mouth & here’s why: each ingredient is a compliment to the other, so one bite is all it takes to feel that characteristic burst of sweet & sour flavour that seems to tantalize your senses & before you know it, your downing a second one in no time.
The Frankie is a greasy (albeit tasty) offspring of a Lebanese preparation of pita bread & a desi stuffing of curried chicken or lamb & cooked veggies which makes this succulent beauty the perfect quick dinner while burning the midnight oil.
Thanks to a certain Mr Amarjit Tibb who introduced the combo after being inspired on a trip to Beirut sometime in the late 60s, it remains a cult classic with the young & old, rich & poor, size zero & double XL to this day. Now that is legacy.
This one is an absolute favourite. Though the sev puri originated in Bombay, the basic ingredients used widely are the same. But the best part about this delicacy is how its made.
In under 3 minutes, the expert hands of the never-tiring chaatwala manages to load 6 bite-sized circulets of puris (per plate) with finely diced potatoes, onions, tamarind & chilli sauces, lastly topping it with sev (tiny crunchy noodles) & a sprinkle of coriander. Then its obvious that you have a plate of pretty artistry & you realize you don’t want to ruin the bit of magic going on there.
So why is it a favourite? Not only is it pretty to look at, but when you eventually dig in, the spice of the sauces combined with the bland potatoes gives off a fiery sensation, spreading through your belly that for a moment you feel capable of breathing fire, but by the second bite, it’s got you hooked.
Tasty & cheap. That’s all that counts to the cash strapped college kid whose go-to meal is the Vada Pav. No surprise then, that it has earned the moniker ‘poor man’s meal.’
Bombay’s answer to the burger, it is simply made from a spicy mashed potato patty coated in chickpea batter that is then deep fried in a wok of sizzling oil till it turns golden, at which point it is drained & then served hot in a bun garnished with garlic chutney. Oh, the chillies are just an add-on, incase it gets too mundane for you.
Most people will confess, that a vada pav is especially appetizing when eaten on a cold rainy day, accompanied by a steaming cup of chai…
Pav bhaji may be the oldest fast food dish in India, having originated in 1850s Bombay, but it is certainly the tastiest. Though it’s deep red hue & rich buttery consistency screams cholesterol, the first morsel is all it takes to dispel any evil thoughts.
Neither bland nor excessively spicy, this mashed multi-vegetable & tomato based gravy is synonymous with the words ‘beach’ & ‘Juhu’, an upmarket suburb located on a tiny stretch of beach, famous for it’s cluster of stalls specializing in pav bhaji preparation.
Another puri incarnation, bhel puri isn’t an elegant dish; it’s ceratinly a mess to look at, but a delicious mess at that. A Bombay speciality, it is a dry dish, made with a combination of spicy puffed rice, sev, diced onions & mint chutney garnished with lemon jiuce & coriander. Served with a few puris that double up as spoons, no leafy vegetables were harmed in the making of this dish.
However, a plate of piquant bhel is best enjoyed on an evening spent at one of Bombay’s beaches, where the salty air seems to compliment this plentiful dish. Rumour has it, it tastes better when eaten directly with the fingers!
If you were convinced by now that Bombay is strictly herbivorous, then rejoice rejoice, for I bring thee glad tidings.
Due to the influence of a 300 year Mughal reign in the state & neighbouring territories, Bombay has a sizeable Muslim population & it is to them we owe our appreciation for an exquisite non-vegetarian Mughlai cuisine.
I’m of course speaking of tender Shammi kebabs & zesty tandoori chicken, sweet Reshmi kebabs soaked in yogurt & succulent Seekh kebabs that can render normal conversation at the table irrelevant…
Come Eid, the khau gallis of congested Mohammed Ali Road are teeming with carnivores of all castes & creeds patronizing stalls selling various types of luscious meat delicacies. The food, is finger licking good & to simply be a part of that lively atmosphere, with its enchanting views of lit up minarets & onion domes that transport you to exotic Middle Eastern lands, will have you planning your next trip to Bombay.
These delicacies aren’t big on presentation. There are no spoons or serviettes, & quite often one has to stand uncomfortably in the heat while patronizing the food stalls. But each time you take a bite, it has you marvelling at the flavours that seem to positively influence your moods & thoughts.