Photographs by Brandon de Kock
‘To drive in India you need three things,’ said our driver as he weaved, dodged and hooted his way through the Mumbai traffic. ‘Number one: good horn. Number two: good brake. Number three: good luck.’ It’s probably not the first time he’s used that line but I laughed nonetheless because the incessant honking of horns was the soundtrack to my quick stopover in this capital of over 20 million people.
In 36 hours I experienced unadulterated silence only once, on waking at 4am to witness the city come to life. On the way to our hotel we pass the 27-storey home of Mumbai’s richest man, urban cricket pitches and a turreted coppery facade that might be mistaken for a Bollywood film set but is, in fact, a temporary wedding venue under construction. Yet on arriving in the neighbourhood of Colaba, the leafy street scene below my window might be Melbourne or Berlin. Granted, this is a tourist hub, not far from Café Leopold (of Shantaram fame), the Colaba Causeway and the Gateway of India, a British-built monument.
Mumbai’s position as a port city and the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch and British will sound familiar to a Capetonian. What we have in common and how that shapes a food culture in flux came to light during our street-food supper, led by Ritambhara Dixit. ‘I was born in Bombay but I grew up in Mumbai,’ she begins, ‘so I use the two words interchangeably.’ From that opening line to our final goodbyes, Ritambhara remains animated and engaged, sharing stories, history and insights.
We’re collected at 5pm, just before commuters flood the streets. ‘Street food developed because of migrant labour,’ she explains. ‘If you’re living alone without any family in the city, you’re unlikely to shop and cook at home. So vendors set up to cater for these workers – something nourishing, that’s quick to prepare and easy to eat while walking to catch the train home.’ It follows, then, that khau gallis (food streets) spring up in the commercial areas and we begin with a Bombay sandwich on Mumbai’s ‘Wall Street’.
‘When the Portuguese brought bread,’ says Ritambhara, ‘we were amazed. It was so fluffy and so soft!’ Between two slices from what appears to be a very fresh loaf, our vendor layers a slice each of potato, beetroot, onion, tomato and cucumber. It’s toasted to order in a square jaffle iron, finished with a generous smear of butter that melts on contact, and finely grated cheese – not inside but on top. Green and red chutneys and tomato sauce are administered according to heat threshold and taste. It ticks all the boxes: a healthy filling contained in a neat package to be eaten on the go.
The offerings at the next stall are a complete contradiction: an exquisite mess with a three- to seven-minute window before turning soggy. A crunchy mass of sev – chickpea-flour batter pushed through a sieve into hot oil and fried – is topped with diced fresh ingredients (mango, among others). When I comment on the fine chopping, Ritambhara’s eyes widen. ‘Oh! You should see the grandmothers chopping!’ We finish with pani puri. ‘Even when I’m completely stuffed,’ says Ritambhara, ‘if someone suggests we go for pani puri, I’ll say yes!’ These wafer-thin puffed balls are receptacles for water steeped with mint leaves, tamarind, toasted cumin and ground mango root. ‘There are six pani puri in a serving but Mumbaikers always ask: “Where is my extra puri?” ’ she explains, so it’s become tradition to include a seventh filled with potato.
As we make our way to Chowpatty beach, we pass the same shimmering wedding venue to see the groom entering in a Cinderella carriage twinkling with fairy lights. Once we’re on the beach the sky lights up with fireworks to announce his arrival and operators from the cluster of food stalls start bidding fiercely for our business. Ritambhara strides confidently to her preferred stalls for pav bhaji and vada pav – pav (pronounced ‘pow’) being a soft white bun that again speaks of the Portuguese influence.
The vada is a patty of cooked potato spiced with turmeric, mustard seed, fresh coriander and more, dunked in chickpea batter and deep-fried. It’s slipped into the pav and seasoned with date and green chutneys. We watch the vadas being rolled in preparation for the rush as families, dressed in all their finery, start to gather on the beach. The cost of a wholesome, handmade vada pav (with complimentary sea view) is 15 rupees (R3), while similar at McDonald’s costs around 40 rupees (R8).
There are more sweet buns (bun maska), buttered and dunked in tea, at Kyani & Co – one of Mumbai’s few remaining Parsi cafes. The ‘Fashion Street’ is en route. ‘That’s where I go to sharpen my bargaining skills,’ says Ritambhara. On confessing my reticence when it comes to haggling, she looks at me – half joking but mostly serious – and scolds, ‘My mother would be so embarrassed for you!’
At Kyani we follow her lead by grabbing hold of a blue, knotted rope hanging from the entrance and use it to hoist ourselves up the steps. Here she relays a story about the Parsi settlers, Zoroastrians who fled persecution in Persia in the seventh century and landed on Indian shores. Look up qissa-i sanjan and there are variations on the bowl-of-milk theme, but Ritambhara tells it like this: before the Parsis could alight, the king sent a bowl full of milk to signify that while his kingdom was prosperous, he had no space to accommodate them. Taking the hint, the Zoroastrian priest sent back the bowl of milk after adding a fistful of sugar, signifying they will only add sweetness and happiness to the populace.
The following day, with this food analogy and the Parsi leader’s astute response in mind, we’re ferried to an apartment block and welcomed by two generations of Parsi women: Mahrukh Mogrelia, a dedicated cook and consummate host, and her daughter Behnaz, a bright psychology student and talented (tattoo) artist. When Mahrukh opens a jar of homemade carrot chutney, we immediately forge a connection based on our mutual love of cooking absolutely everything from scratch.
I follow her to the kitchen to meet the black kites, her avian companions on the window ledge, and watch her prepare akoori. A base of finely chopped onions is cooked gently in ghee, green garlic and ginger (or ‘GG paste’ as Mahrukh calls it) is added, then very finely chopped tomato, turmeric and salt. I watch as she breaks in eggs, gives them a brief stir and removes the pan from the flame to keep the yolks soft. As Mahrukh’s feast progresses we find more common ground.
We talk provenance over the fish (pomfret), sourced from the market that morning, smothered in spice paste and cooked in a banana-leaf parcel; and what it means to fully caramelise an onion until sweet and golden – these feature atop kesar (saffron) chicken pulao (an enriched rice dish). Just when we seem to reach a crescendo with ‘mutton’ (goat) simmered with Kashmiri chilli, cinnamon quills and apricots and finished with crisp, fried julienned potatoes, the pulao arrives, served with dhansak dal and a Persian raita of pomegranate seeds and walnuts.
While Mahrukh reminisces about cooking crème caramel over a wood fire in the village where she grew up, Behnaz engages in a candid conversation about gender equality in India. At this table, diversity of thought is welcome and the open exchange brings us to Zoroastrianism, which Mahrukh sums up with the motto: ‘Good thoughts, good words, good deeds’. ‘Good food!’ adds Behnaz. She’s right. When so much love, care and positive intent is invested in the preparation, a delicious lunch is the natural result.
It is a privilege to be invited into a private home, but also thrilling to see wholesale piles of coriander traded on a bridge above a railway station until 8am – when it appears the scene never happened. A dawn tour is to watch from the wings as the stage is set for the day and, in this instance, the holder of our backstage passes is Aditya Pai, or Adi, as he introduced himself. Adi takes us along as friends on an adventure, breaking into a smile when he tells a joke, stopping to take selfies and point out details we may not have noticed.
It’s still dark at the Sassoon Dock when the fishing community auction off their catch and graceful women in saris devein piles of prawns, the strings of white jasmine blossom hanging from their neatly coiled buns defying the already humid and pungent air. At the Dadar Flower Market, a heavy-set gentleman massages a lotus flower to unfurl its petals. Under a portico, men sit cross-legged assembling hot-off-the-press newspapers to be loaded onto a bicycle for delivery. The man selling them chai will fold up his stand at 9am and head off to his next gig, as a taxi driver.
These are the citizens that keep the wheels turning in a city that relies on ‘people work’, the most famous expression being Mumbai’s complex but efficient lunchbox delivery executed by young men travelling by bicycle and train. The only time Adi turns serious is when I reference The Lunchbox, a romance that unfolds when a tiffin tin lands in the wrong hands. ‘But that movie isn’t accurate,’ cautions Adi. ‘The lunchbox always reaches the right person.’
After we part ways, Adi will arrive at his desk on time to work his day job as an engineer. The enterprising Mumbaiker spirit is evident right through to our last meal, at Bademiya, a popular kebab joint opposite our hotel. The cuisine is Mughlai, not Marathi, but we have Ritambhara’s blessing. Watching Bademiya’s tireless team with clearly defined roles service a throng of clientele – standing, parked in cars and seated in a makeshift dining room across the busy street – is as compelling as their mutton bhuna. Then it’s back to the airport, past the wedding palace that, having served its purpose, is being pulled down – my parting shot of a place constantly on the move.
Hotel Abode Bombay is centrally located in Old Mumbai and Nobert D’souza, Nilesh Salvi and team take care of guests as if they are family (staffer Yuvraj Salgaonkar woke at an indecent hour to serve us morning coffee, with a smile, before our dawn tour). After a day of exploring, returning to this safe, tranquil space feels like coming home. Guests are provided with filtered water and a cell phone loaded with the hotel’s contact number. From R1 010 per room (sleeps two) B&B.
No Footprints offers authentic Mumbai experiences led by locals. Every one of our ‘explorers’ (guides) was highly professional, enthusiastic, empathetic and showed great attention to detail. Transport is in air-conditioned, private minibuses. Ask for Ritambhara Dixit (street-food tour), Aditya Pai (dawn tour) and Mahrukh Mogrelia (Parsi lunch). Tours cost from R950 pp; prices vary according to the tour and number of people. nfpexplore.com
Ritambhara also explores an 800-year-old Worli fishing village, home to the original inhabitants of Mumbai, and Adi leads a Bombay heritage walk that concludes with the lunchbox dispatch. Mahrukh also offers a morning of provisioning and cooking together.
Published in the March 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.