It’s now well over a decade since I moved to Mumbai. But I still clearly remember my first glimpse of Mumbai way before that. I was a young, excitable, curious 20 something design student, on the threshold of adult life. The train from Ahmedabad chugged me into Mumbai and I stood mesmerised by the sheer, mad energy that was this city. Tall buildings, cars, people, buses all rushed someplace urgent and important. Larger than life super stars gazed down from massive hoardings with smiles lighting up their eyes as they promised, what then seemed to me, a marvellous life in this crazy, passionate, generous, trying city of dreams. Hawkers sold everything from jewellery to vegetables, prayer books to bags, dried fish to soaps. The salty smell of the sea. The blare of popular Bollywood music from neon lit auto rickshaws. What an incredible, beguiling, heady mosaic of mixtures this city was. I decided this was the only place to be in.
On the other hand, it’s probably a measure of my own naiveté and how much I loved the food of Delhi, the city I spent my formative years in, that it took me a few years to come around to how Mumbai does food. My initial simplistic measure for food was to check if the dishes measured up to the ones I had loved and grown up with in Delhi. But looking for precise renditions of familiar food is a selectively fruitful task in Mumbai. The dahi in the papdi chaat has a sweet thrust influenced by the neighbouring Gujarat, dahi vada is tempered with mustard and curry leaves in the traditions of the south, the butter chicken has the caramalised tinge of browned onions and is often redolent with coriander powders (the signature spices of Maharashtra), the alloo paranthas, though tasty are distinctly different because of the addition of turmeric and garlic. Sambhar – that to my South Indian mind should be thick and spicy is sweet and thin and the chole bhature are just generic channa with puffy puris masquerading as what should have been fluffy, oblong, pale leavened bread. Disappointed, disgruntled and downright upset, I decided that Mumbai just didn’t know how to do food right.
It took time for me to look beyond the obvious and see what simmered beneath the surface. Look close and you soon start seeing the slumbering history behind this city that’s frantic to keep up with the world. The Mumbai that is made up of myriad cultures and subcultures. The old Mumbai of the Kolis – the city that was originally named after the Mumba Devi, that you still encounter in the juicy plump crustaceans of the versova seafood festival. The Mumbai of the Portugese rule that is reflected in the crusty brun paos of its old colonial bakeries and the salli in the Parsi dishes. The Mumbai of the British East India Company who got the city from the English King Charles II who had in turn received it as a part of dowry when the Portugese King’s daughter married him – that is the Mumbai you can see in the much coveted East Indian bottle masala found in the cold storages of Bandra.
The people who have been drawn to Mumbai for centuries now, are all a part of its food, life and quintessential character. After more than a decade of actually living here, the truest truth about Mumbai I now know, is this mind boggling mix of mingling cultures that makes Mumbai… Gujaratis who came to setup and run the cotton mills, the Bohris and other Muslim communities of Gujrat who came for trade, Parsis who had originally settled around Navsari in Gujarat after coming from their Iran, South Indians who came to work in the mills, Punjabis who dominate the Film Industry and the unending stream of people from around the country who are drawn to the possibilities in stock exchange, media and advertising, and the endless world of possibilities that is Mumbai. What I did not understand initially was that while it is the authenticity of their strong ethnic roots that gave other cities their character (Calcutta belonged to the Bengalis, Chennai to the Tamils, Delhi got its dominant flavour from Punjabis, UPites and Haryanvis), what gives Bombay its vibrant, welcoming and open character is that it belongs to no one community in particular.
And this is exactly what makes the food of Mumbai special. Konkani, Mainland Maharashtrian, Goan, Gujrati, Sindhi, Parsi, Bengali, Punjabis, Malayalee, Tamil, Bori Muslim, Koli and many more cuisines merge to give you dishes that started somewhere, came here and became Mumbaiah. From major state cuisines to slivers of subcultures that aren’t even noticeable in other parts of the country, each own a noticeable slice of the food culture in Mumbai. And just the way the defining aspect of Mumbai is not just the presence of the myriad cultures but the way they merged, the food served up here ranges from the uniquely authentic (mostly native) dishes to recipes from other regions of the country that often blur boundaries and emerge with a new slot-challenging characteristic of their own. The Delhi brought up South Indian in me discovered that Mumbai’s unique magic is that it allows you to remain yourself even as you take on the open, earth coloured shade that is the warm pragmatism of this city. With food on the other hand, flavours, spices, textures in Mumbai bleed through the divide to surface with a new definition, a Mumbaiah identity of their own. The way Bombay’s Gujaratis moulded chaat to create sev puri and dahi puri. The way Bhelpuri is part chaat from UP and part jhaal mudi from Calcutta but a whole other dish of its own. The way farsan shaped Bhel meets Indo Chinese sauces all over the city in the questionable but sparkly chinese Bhel.
And so, slowly, steadily, when I wasn’t looking, the food of Mumbai got under my skin just the way Mumbai had gotten into my blood. It took a visit by one of my colleagues from the US for me to realize that there was so much I had started loving about the food of Mumbai. This week, as I thought of what is Mumbaiah cuisine to me and asked virtual and real friends for their pick, I drilled down to this. What’s most exciting about the flavours of Mumbai is not the ‘authentic’ fare from other states. It’s the native, borrowed, interpreted, re-interpreted, refurbished versions that collectively create the landscape of Mumbaiah cuisine. After much deliberation, I arrived at the conclusion that to do justice to what Mumbai can serve you, you need at least 10 meals in this city. 10 meals that will take you through the lanes of Mumbai, into the heart of its people, culture and past. 10 meals that you will have you understand what food means to Mumbaikars.
PS: Watch out for my next post, where I share with you these ten meals and which I think are the best places to eat them. Meanwhile, I need to rush and get my lunch of roast chicken out of the oven.