If you’ve ever wondered what keeps a city like Mumbai going, you can find the answer in her streets.
Peddled out of baskets carried on their heads, off impromptu mats laid out on street corners and from rickety carts on narrow bylanes, the city’s street food, washed down with endless cups of cutting chai, feeds the millions-strong Mumbai workforce in a ritual starting long before dawn, as street food sellers prepare to deliver their goods to the hungry hordes.
It’s an orchestra that begins with the clacking of trays as unbaked batches of pav enter cavernous ovens hours before dawn. As the sky lightens, vada pav vendors begin cranking up their stoves, chaiwallahs clank pots on to boil milk, and eggs softly click against each other, awaiting the first commuters eager to grab a quick breakfast.
As the sun rises over the shimmering city, knives click furiously, chopping chillies and onions for those who might opt for a more elaborate spread of spicy bhurji or masala omelette with hot, toasted pav and steaming, sugary tea.
As the first batch of harried commuters take their seats at work, an army of women bearing large stainless steel vessels thudding together begin boarding the still-packed local trains.
Arriving at office districts across the city, they set up shop next to thela Chinese stalls and dosawallas clanging humungous spatulas against iron woks and tavas, to dish out simple meals of dal and rice on shining stainless steel plates.
Lunch hour concludes with fruits plates laid out under the sky and openers clinking against cold-drink bottles. Then the chaiwallas take over, offering tiny plastic cups of comfort to tide people through the afternoon, until the chaat and pav bhaji stalls come into noisy action at day’s end, to fortify the hungry for the long commute home.
As night falls, skewers clink together as kebabwalas begin briskly grilling meat to melting softness. This will continue late into the night, and when the skewers are finally still, the night chaiwallas will set off on their cycles, their shrill whistles fading into the music of a new day of business.
Ours is a metropolis that knows no boundaries and never sleeps, so it’s no surprise that Mumbai is the Indian city most associated with street food. Where other cities have a few select favourites, specific claims to piquant fame such as the kathi rolls of Kolkata or the chaat of Delhi, street food in Mumbai crosses every barrier.
Here you will find succulent kebabs right next to a Jain pav bhaji stall, with people from every community jostling for a taste of both.
Just like the legendary bhel puri of Mumbai, each distinct offering combines to form a unique, delicious whole.
Mumbai street food was born of the need for quickly put-together food that was cheap and satisfying. Stories about the creation of some of these delights are now urban legend, such as the one about pav bhaji being invented as midnight sustenance, thrown together from leftover vegetables mashed up to disguise their mixed breed, spiced up and served with a couple of pavs for workers coming off the night shift.
The vada pav itself is born of a marriage of the Maharashtrian batata vada and the Portuguese-origin pav, the union blessed with an anointing of spicy chutney.
Delicious stories are still being created today, like the chop suey dosa, created by the merger of a South Indian and Chinese stall.
These anytime-you-crave- them palate pleasers can be customised too; they don’t have to be hot enough to blow the top of your head off, though that is always an option, but they will more often than not be an irresistible combination of spicy, sour, sweet and salty.
More potatoes or less? Hot and spicy or cold and extra sour? Crunchy or soft? Not only is it interactive, most of it is constructed as you watch, requiring a specialist to put it together in just the right ratios. And in the hands of that specialist lies the power to send aficionados miles across town to get their favourite treats, even if that means standing hunched as you gobble from a rinsed-in-a-bucket steel katori while avoiding zipping traffic on the street.
All in search of that perfect bite, where every flavour on your plate comes together in one heavenly mouthful, garnished with the essential flavour of the human touch.
Of course, deciding what to eat is like trying to pick a favourite song — every option comes with its own special memories. I’d like to introduce you to six of my favourite Mumbai street food groups…
The Puri family
Most likely rooted in the fried snacks found outside temples in historic times, variations include sev puri, in which the disks are topped with potatoes, sev, onions and chutneys; and pani puri, where the hollow version is filled with sprouted beans and boiled potato, then dunked in a sweet tamarind chutney and in ice cold ‘paani’, a mint-flavoured liquid spiked with chillies. Once you have the whole thing in your mouth, the puri cracks with a satisfying crunch to release a rush of sweet chutney and spicy icy pani.
The Dosa/Dosai family
Another legacy of the temple snacks are dosas, paper thin crepes made of fermented lentil and rice batter, usually served with sambar, a lentil and vegetable curry, and a spicy chutney of fresh coconut and green chillies.
The pav family
Pao or pav, small swollen buns that are a legacy of the Portuguese, have become an essential accompaniment to a myriad of street food offerings, since they are cheap, filling and ideal for soaking up spicy gravies or munching on with curried eggs. Try not to think about this at mealtime, but legend has it that pav was so named because the dough was kneaded with the paav or feet!
The sandwich family
The Mumbai street sandwich is a jumbled and delicious delight. Layered between three slices of white bread slathered with butter and spicy coriander chutney are paper-thin slices of boiled potato, raw cucumber, onion, tomato and beetroot. This concoction is toasted, then topped with a vibrantly orange pumpkin sauce or ketchup and a sprinkling of sev, then sliced into small, bite-sized pieces.
The thela chinese family
No Chinese person would recognise the ‘Chinese’ food served up on Mumbai’s streets. The credit, in many ways, goes to Nelson Wang, a second-generation Chinaman who dressed a chicken pakora in a spiced-up cornflour gravy and christened it ‘Chicken Manchurian’. He went on to open the landmark China Garden and changed the face of Chinese food in Mumbai, spawning, perhaps unknowingly, the current array of highly spiced, fried and gravied ‘Indian Chinese’ now dished out of the city’s ubiquitous mobile carts — and
even out of most Indian fast food restaurants. Try the truly bizarre Manchurian Cauliflower and Schezwan Paneer.
The fusion family
Mumbai’s street food sellers are always mixing and matching, using leftovers and mistakes to invent something new in the hope that it will become the new rage. Bhel is now tossed with sweet corn, to make Mexican bhel. The chop suey cheese dosa has the crepe filled with noodles. And now there’s even a Schezwan vada pav, with the spicy red sauce replacing the chutneys.
So far, no one’s complaining.
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal is an author, food consultant and blogger.