Mumbai wakes up really early, at least most of Mumbai does. Around the time partygoers are kissing their friends good night, another demographic is wrapping up its night shifts and heading home, while yet another kind of Mumbaikar is waking up for a full day of work.
At 3.25am, there is a surge of electricity in the overhead train cables as the first set of bogies lurch out of Virar station heading towards Churchgate. The train is packed, and most of them have not eaten breakfast yet.
At the other end of the city, joggers, walkers and the elderly have stepped out to welcome the first light. In the heart of the city and chawls, the still-deserted streets can hear the gentle clanging of utensils and the hiss of kerosene stoves firing up to make tea. The chai stalls are opening.
It won’t be long before the rays of the sun hit the buildings and the sounds of frying, stirring and sizzling start filling the morning air. Mumbai is awake and really hungry. And there is no better way to satisfy this hunger than with a gloriously heavy, spicy breakfast.
On the streets of Mumbai breakfast, be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is full of onion, chilies, and masalas. Starting with missal pav. Every suburban railway station sells missal pav. It’s the most dangerously brave combination of farsan (sev ganthia), in a soupy gravy made with moong beans, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, ginger-garlic, garam masala, and (traditionally) coconut. It is topped with a fiery red oily gravy called kat, tarri, or rassa, garnished with chopped onions and coriander.
An honest-to-spice missal pav needs to kick you in the rear with its pungency and make your eyes and nose water in ecstasy. Truth is, no one in Mumbai can do it as well as they do it at Phadatare’s Misal in Kolhapur, or Bedekar at Narayan Peth, or Ramnath Misal at Tilak Road in Pune. But step onto any local railway platform in the city or Vinay Health Home in Thakurdwar or Anand Bhuvan Hotel, Lower Parel, and it’s pretty damn decent.
Next in line of spicy breakfasts is the kheema pav. I hate green peas in kheema and I’ve never figured out who in his sane mind thought of this aberration. That’s why my preferred kheema pav will always be at Olympia at Colaba; no green peas. Hugely popular for its biryani, which honestly is awful, Olympia’s kheema pav, though, is truly a great breakfast meal.
It’s cooked in green masala, with an overwhelming flavour of green chilies, coriander, onions and whole spices. It comes to the table piping hot with a thin film of oil and, on an indulgent morning, you should ask them to top it with a fried egg or a sunny side up. Mop up the yellow runny yolk and the green mince with a hot pav and it’s a breakfast for the gods, but rush, because after half-past-nine in the morning there is none left.
Every Sindhi in Mumbai or Ulhasnagar knows his dal pakwan, and is proud of it. The tragedy, of course, is that there are only a handful of places that serve the dish in Mumbai. For the uninitiated, dal pakwan is a huge, crisply fried puri with a bowlful of dal, served with chopped onions and chutney. It may sound simple and close to ordinary, but it’s quite a treat.
The puri itself is made from maida and deep-fried, crisp and golden brown and is similar to the outer crust of a Punjabi samosa or a kachori. The dal is yellow and simple; made from mashed Bengal gram and spiced with a bit of turmeric, asafoetida, cumin and occasionally, green chilies. Dal pakwan is always served with green chutney made with fresh coriander, chilies, and sweet chutney made of tamarind and jaggery. It is then garnished with finely chopped, raw, red onions.
Guru Kripa at Sion, Tharu Sweets, Khar (west), and, of course, any Kailash Parbat will serve you the Sindhi specialty. But head to Vig Refreshment in Chembur, which undeniably makes the best dal pakwan. Here, the puris come out hot from giant kadhais, straight to your table. Break off a small crisp corner of the puri, and use it as spoon to scoop up the dal mixed with chutney and pyaaz (onion). It is heaven on earth.
The gustatory melting pot that is Mumbai, it bubbles with flavours from all parts of the country for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I like breakfast the most, because unlike with lunch and dinner, after breakfast, I’ve got the whole day ahead to eat some more.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar