Julia poses while enjoying some south Indian food. Photo: Facebook
Amul butter dribbles down my chin from a fluffy bread bun as I use it to scrape the last mouthful of pav bhaji from a stainless steel plate. In front of me, a portly food vendor expertly flips a mishmash of saucy vegetables on a huge flat stove. He dishes out a large portion of this iconic Mumbai dish every 30 seconds to a crowd of hungry office-goers, who are holding out their plates for a cheap, fast and nourishing lunch. And at 70 English pence for all of this, who needs McDonald’s?
This is one of the many delicious flashbacks I regularly induce from my expat time in Mumbai, for the city introduced me to the true depth and breadth of Indian food. Its plethora of flavours, textures and spices truly got into my blood like a bad case of diarrhea.
I was never afraid of trying Indian food. I sampled it in almost any form it arrived in, and found that the most unsophisticated situations usually delivered the most interesting of discoveries. I have eaten mutton soup close to a gutter in Bohri Mohalla during Ramadan; I have gobbled up innumerable pakora and vada pav alongside my driver at the side of the road; I have shared chai with old ladies in Dharavi and celebratory fried chicken with colleagues at the NGO where I worked. I have let enthusiastic Indian friends encourage me to try panipuri at the corner of a street in Bandra, and I have consumed copious amounts of chutneys and coconut relishes that can give you a serious dose of Delhi Belly (and they did!).
I have gone on city food walks with Kalyan Karmakar, and thrown myself into the delights of Maharashtrian cuisine of Dadar, Parsi cuisine of Fort (a particular favourite) and Bengali home-cooking! These walks have made for a much deeper insight into the city that any ordinary tour could possibly provide. I have also learnt to cook Indian food, rather awkwardly churning out a Murgh Makhni under the tutorial of the Pandit sisters. They later invited me to share a Ganesh Chaturthi celebration with their family. This became just one of the many precious memories created as a result of getting up, close and personal with Indian food, and the people who are passionate about it.
I have travelled the length and breadth of India, sampling and savouring every regional cuisine in the shadow of majestic buildings and the lap of sacred waters. Such colourful memories are many - a tangy ginger prawn curry overlooking the Kerala backwaters in Kochi, a gut-busting Gujarati thali atop the roof of a heritage hotel in Ahmedabad, French-inspired, locally-produced cheeses in Pondicherry's Auroville, an insanely tasty candle-lit Chicken Xacuti by the beach in Goa, and divine vegetable curries at a homely hotel on the edge of Tadoba nature reserve, which was made even more memorable by several tiger sightings! I have cherished a snack made by volunteers at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and I’ve even unpeeled a simple boiled egg on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam.
But, I didn’t need to travel far from Mumbai to find India’s melting pot of cuisines. They were always right on my doorstep. And, that is thanks to the itinerant nature of the city, with every new entrant bringing their favourite home-cooked dishes with them. I developed several addictions during my time, cravings that are rarely sated back home in England. Some days, I sit here and dream of the crunchy and tangy sev puri from Soam, the singularly authentic Parsi chicken berry pulao of Britannia Restaurant (oh how I miss the bottle thick glasses and smile of Boman Kohinoor!), the malai kebabs at Copper Chimney, the best-ever vada pav at Swati Snacks (in my humble opinon), sickly sweet and sticky jalebis available at street corners, biryanis delivered to our Bandra apartment by Khane Khas in the claypot they were cooked in, ubiquitous smooth and rich mango lassis that cooled us down just before monsoon (oh how I also miss Alphonso mangoes!), the fabulous and hot off-the-tawa Mysore masala dosas on a Sunday morning in Matunga, Bengali aloo posto, which has to be the most moreish potato dish on the planet, dal tadka in its million variations, and the kheema pav I simply loved at the touristy Leopold Café.
Yes, I could go on and on (and I do regularly bore my friends with my elevated knowledge of Indian cuisine). Sadly, there are but a handful of places here in the UK where I can sample these ‘home-sickening’ flavours, but they never seem as authentic when you take away the steaming heat of Mumbai, the constant thrum of traffic and the culinary generosity of Mumbaikars.
Relish it if you are there some day!
The author is based in the UK, but lived in Mumbai for two years before moving back. She fell in love with the culture and food during her stay in India, which she documents in her blog, Bombayjules.