Before there was Mumbai—city of ambition, skyscrapers, reveries, and vision, there was Bombay- city of inspiration, nostalgia, history, and Padmini taxis. And before Bombay, there were the disjointed Seven Islands, home to the Kolis. Some things have remained the same—storied Art Deco buildings, lovers at Marine Drive, inescapable and ever-charming street vendors. But each era brought with it the winds of change, which refused to settle quietly into the crevices. It brought new ideas that were impatiently waiting to weave their way into the constantly evolving tapestry of the city’s heart.
Our city has been named after the goddess Mumba Devi. While some might think this a relatively new name, the names “Mombaim” and “Bambaye” have been in common parlance since as early as the sixteenth century. In turn, the history of Mumbai city has been violent and peaceful. From King Bhimdev’s reign to that of the Gujarat Sultanate, from the Mughal dynasty to the hands of the Portuguese, to then being given as dowry to the British! From being visited by Malabar pirates to French explorers—Mumbai has seen diverse communities come, go, and more often than not, settle.
What makes a city a force to reckon with? The dreams of 20 million people. The tales and traditions they carry from far-off lands and the industrious effort to pass them on to a new generation. The city’s grand romance with innovation. We take an object, an experience, a thought, and reinvent it. We make it our own through a kaleidoscope of the collective experiences of our syncretic city. Of course, this tireless pursuit of dreams and duties racks up an appetite as big and boisterous as Mumbai itself!
Each community has both carried forward the food traditions they were raised with, and modified recipes under the changing Bombay sun. As the city expanded and grew, lifestyles adapted and residents made corresponding changes to their palate. Here’s a look at some of the most iconic dishes that you might find tumbling down any road of Mumbai!
With office goers having always been a predominant part of Bombay’s culture, snacks were essential to beat the 4 p.m. lull. Bhelpuri could be regarded as one of the more popular culinary inventions born out of that. Puffed rice, potatoes, tomatoes, sev and puri is tossed together with an assortment of chutneys: cilantro, tamarind, mint and golden. Topped with slivers of raw mango and garnished with a generous sprinkling of more sev, it is assembled in a paper cone and eaten with a flat puri as a spoon. This crunchy street food is a Bombay-beach essential.
Batata Vada and Vada Pav
This much-loved native delicacy is found on virtually every corner of Mumbai’s streets. It consists of a mashed potato dumpling flavoured with green chillies, ginger, garlic, turmeric and lime juice, rolled in a gram flour batter and then deep-fried. You can have it by itself or encased in a soft white bun-bread, but don’t forget to ask for a couple of fried green chillies for that extra punch on the side.
Aamras and Puri
India is famed for her varieties of the king of fruits – mangoes – and Mumbai offers a delightful assortment. When the fragrance of ripening mangoes fills the languid summer days, every Gujarati household lives up to the tradition of extracting mango pulp by hand. Painstakingly preserved in large vessels and stored in the freezer, sometimes with the addition of ghee and soonth. It’s taken out almost reverently throughout the year, when you want to remember the scent of summer-kissed fruit, and paired with a salty puri.
The origins of the East Indian community dates back to the fifteenth century, when Portuguese missionaries converted the local farmers and fishermen to Christianity. It is said the Portuguese used to refer to the Seven Islands as “Bom-baim” or “good little bay”: a fact that I found as cute as their contribution towards the culinary scene: fugeas, or balloon bread. It’s a round, deep-fried ball of dough, sweetened with coconut milk and sugar.
Once upon a time, in the kitchens of the Cricket Club of India, a chef named Nelson Wang decided to add a twist to Chinese food. Little did he know, he had accelerated the growth of an entirely new, flavourful cuisine that traces its origins back to the Chinatown in Kolkata– Indian Chinese. With his signature blend of soy, cornstarch, ginger-garlic paste and a toss of “exotic” vegetables, he gave rise to pervasive sauces like Chilly, Manchurian and Szechuan, and the option of “dry” and “gravy” variants. You haven’t had the real experience till you try a heaping plate of Chinese bhel, go on to Manchurian fried rice and finish with honey noodles with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Bun Maska and Raspberry Soda
When the Parsis and Iranians migrated to India, they brought their signature dishes and aesthetic. Look carefully around our city, and you’ll find the eminently recognizable Irani cafés proudly tucked into the older corners. Besides the chequered tablecloths, gently whirring ceiling fans and requests for dhansaak, the staples are bun maska (soft milk bread slathered with plenty of butter and optionally, sugar and/or sweet cream), and a glass bottle of chilled raspberry soda (tangy-sweet, neon red and fizzy, preferably Duke’s).
This is a sweet, stuffed flatbread that is made across India with its own special variants across regions. In Maharashtra, a sweet lentil mixture is prepared using chana dal and jaggery, and spiced with cardamom and nutmeg. A little circle of it is then placed in the centre of a dough comprising whole wheat flour or refined flour, which is then folded over the lentil mixture to form a little dumpling. Next, it is rolled out and cooked as a flatbread, and served with a generous topping of ghee.
The sizzler experience is part of nearly everyone’s childhood: the thrum of the sauces bubbling and settling in little pools over the cutlets, vegetables and French fries, the clouds of steam that temporarily form a wall between you and the rest of the table, the delicious aromas that waft up and remind you of the pungent flavours long after you’ve left the restaurant. While the savoury option is marvellous, the sizzling brownie with a pillow of chocolate-walnut brownie, rivulets of chocolate sauce and a precariously balanced scoop of vanilla ice-cream is unparalleled.