Why Mumbai is a veggie-lover’s paradise
IN a few decades Mumbai will be the biggest city in the world. Already a sprawling megalopolis that stretches out like a giant crab’s claw, you can travel from the tip to the north for two hours by train or car without breaching its borders. Its growth – fuelled by trading cottons, silks and tobacco overseas for the past 500 years – has beckoned workers from all over India, transforming it into a glorious mix of cultures, people and food. It has made it what it is today: the best place in the world to get a snapshot of Indian food from all around the country.
Among these offerings, the vegetarian food is unrivalled. India is home to half a billion vegetarians, which is more than the rest of the world’s vegetarians put together; Naturally, many of India’s greatest hits are served here. It is a vegetarian’s paradise.
On my last trip to Mumbai I arrived on a 6am flight, intentionally, so that I could squeeze in as many meals as possible during the next 24 hours. I was picked up, as always, in an old Padmini taxi by my uncle, Mahesh and friend, Sam. In all the years I’ve been travelling to the city, our plan has always been the same: to eat the best food in the city, as much as possible, with no rules (except the obvious abstention of meat).
As we moved across town, past the rickshaws and motorbikes carrying families of five, we smelled on the roadside what the city was eating for breakfast: fresh aloo parathas, big vats of steaming poha: flattened rice with caramelised onions, potatoes and lemon. Sandwiched between them, the chai-wallahs, with their muzzein-like calls “chai, chai, chai”, were pouring tea from great heights in an act of showmanship.
Around every corner, another smell, another stall. Amid the smoke and steam of the city, you can eat everything here from lace-edged dosas from the south to creamy chole (chickpeas) with flying-saucer bread baturas from the heart of Punjab, at all times of the day. The best places tend to have one thing in common: they do one thing very well. The egg bhurji man I met near Churchgate station had been cooking that same recipe for 35 years, while Sanjay Singh, a sandwich-wallah in Kala Ghoda, had been making his sandwiches for 22 years. Both are masters of their craft.
This street-level excellence means that everyone agrees that expensive doesn’t equal the best, not here in Mumbai. Few follow food critics; Most prefer to follow their nose, or the words of their friends. It works. Lawyers, students and manual workers all queue together at the best places in a rare show of egalitarianism in a city otherwise split by race, caste and money.
We stopped at Kyani and Co. This is a Parsi cafe, where we ordered akuri: super-creamy scrambled eggs mixed with green chillies, tomatoes and onions and served on toast. Pow! What a start to the day. For a small community, the Parsis have had an enormous impact on Mumbai food culture with slow-paced, airy cafes and an obsession with eedu per (eggs on everything).
A walk through nearby Crawford Market was mandatory to pay homage to the pyramids of pineapples and watermelons before a mid-morning stop at Badshah for a falooda. Falooda is a milkshake with a long tradition. It used to be made using ice gathered from the mountain-tops. Today’s incarnation is a tall glass filled with rose syrup, milk, glass noodles, ice cream and topped with slippery delicious basil seeds. In 40C heat, it was everything I needed in one glass.
Refreshed and in search of the city’s best street food, we took the superhighway north to Bandra – the hipster enclave of Mumbai – and pulled up outside Elco Pani Puri Center. This was no hole in the wall joint, it was discovered by the Bollywood set some time ago. Crispy semolina shells are filled with a mixture of pulses, dunked into a tangy tamarind chutney and then ice-cold mint and coriander water – there you have pani-puri. You have to eat it quick, before it explodes! There’s no other way. It was a vibrant clash of sweet, sour, cold and crunchy: a rollercoaster of flavours. The pani-puri is made with mineral water here, so it’s a safe place to get your fill.
Although dinner options are vast in the city, Shree Thaker Bhojanalay is one of Mahesh and Sam’s go-to vegetarian restaurants. Gujarat, a state on the west coast of India is famous for its thalis: a plate onto which a rainbow of seasonal curries, chutneys and a variety of breads are served. The waiters walked around barefooted hawking our plates ready to top us up until we begged for mercy (just like with any Gujarati mum).
After dinner, we headed to Chowpatty Beach where Mumbai’s young lovers go to hold hands (and escape their parents), while the rest gravitate toward the whizz, pop, bang of the food and entertainment stalls. Ordinarily, I’d have gone to Bachelorr’s across the road for a mango juice or a custard apple icecream but I’m only human and I’d hit a wall. You can eat like a queen in Mumbai, for not very much. The only limitation is always the size of one’s tummy. – The Guardian