11 October 2017
In the last five years or so, food hygiene and quality in India has vastly improved. Still, many travellers are often cautious about what to eat and can be hesitant about trying food on the street.
A busy street in Mumbai’s business district is the ideal spot to try Indian street food, writes MADELENE PEARSON.
“Chai, chai, chai,’’ calls the tea seller, scooping up his steaming brew of India’s famous spiced, sweet, milky tea, mixing it with a grand flourish of his spoon. “Chai, chai, chai,’’ he bellows, competing with the vendors on either side of him – each trying to hawk their snacks. There’s cut fruit plates, samosas and dosas, and Mumbai chaat (snacks) – to name just a few of the edible delights you will find on these crowded footpaths in one of Mumbai’s commercial hubs.
It was a steamy January day in Mumbai recently and we had just spent the best part of the morning at a local bank sorting out some accounts. Midday had come and gone and we’d had no lunch, let alone morning tea. We were at Nariman Point – for a fast, tasty refuel there’s only one place to go.
Maker Chambers is a series of office towers in the heart of what was once Mumbai’s main business district in South Mumbai. These days many companies have expanded into North Mumbai favouring cheaper rents, newer buildings and larger offices, over the heritage and prestige that was once attached to working in South Mumbai.
In this tree-lined street, just two blocks walk from the Oberoi and Trident hotels on Marine Drive, you’ll find dozens of street food sellers.
Office workers from the nearby towers flock here for cheap eats, and for years I was one of them, taking a break from my office in Maker Chambers IV in search of some sustenance and fresh air.
Side-by-side under their red umbrellas, the food hawkers sell their meals. Workers from the towering offices stand around drinking tea, eating snacks and lunch, and chatting. And if the crowds are a sign to go by, this is the place to eat lunch on the street in Mumbai.
The big decision though is what to have, with so many things to try. I suggest perusing the stalls first to see what grabs your fancy, then navigating your way along the uneven footpath and past the office workers already eating to see what’s on offer.
There’s biryani – a rice dish rich in spices and flavours – with meat and without; masala dosa (a savoury pancake made from rice flour); the famous Bombay sandwich of tomato, cucumber, beetroot, potato, capsicum and red and green chutney; fresh juices; idli (a steamed fermented rice cake) ; bananas; pakora (vegetables that are battered and deep fried); parantha (flatbread); pav bhaji (thick curry served with a roll); coconuts to drink and of course, multiple chai sellers.
South Indian snacks are very popular, so taste one before the lunch rush. You can try wada, a fried dumpling shaped like a doughnut eaten with coconut chutney and sambar, or uttapam, a type of thick rice pancake with toppings such as tomato or onion cooked into the batter – both classic South Indian snacks.
Be prepared to stand and eat your lunch, huddled on the pavement like the others. Some places will give you a spoon, but your fingers are your best bet!
We chose the vegetarian biryani, savouring the soft rice bursting with flavours like cardamom and cloves, served on a paper plate. It had just the right amount of spice, without being overwhelming. We also had a dosa, a South Indian rice flour pancake, hot off the grill, washed down with a fresh coconut, slurping up every last drop as we held it between two hands. Lastly, there’s always room for chai – a great Indian past-time – which we drank and watched the office crowd around us.
Nearby a man talked on his phone – the mobile pressed between ear and shoulder as he eats Mumbai chaat with his hands – scooping the snack from an A4 sheet of paper rolled into a cone, recycled documents the vendors use to serve their snacks in. A group of female office colleagues chewed slowly, sharing news. Behind them papaya and other fruits are for sale. Some workers linger – especially over tea. Others eat and go.
The crowds swell during the lunching hours, though you’ll find workers taking tea and small snacks at any time of the day.
You’ll also notice how much 100 rupees (about $2) will buy. Chai is 10 rupees, biryani starts at 60 rupees and gets more expensive if you take the chicken option. A dozen bananas is 40 rupees but you can buy just one.
Some of the food sellers will speak directly to you, inviting you to try their meals. “Wadapav, samosa pav, batata bhaji, kanda bhaji,” says the snack seller, looking directly at us, trying to tempt us with his samosas, fried potato and onion snacks and deep fried lentil dumplings on a bread roll. “Wadapav?” (a spiced fried potato patty in a roll) he asks. I am partial to a fresh, hot samosa.
A good rule of thumb is: where it’s busy, the food must be good and fresh. A place like Maker Chambers with its demanding office workers and daily crowds is a good place to sample some of India’s delicious street snacks. You won’t find tourists here – only locals – another good sign.
Ask us to include Mumbai into any custom made journey in India for you and we can arrange your local guide to take you on a food tour of the city’s best eats. For foodies, we can recommend our 16-day Cuisines of India tour, which also includes a visit in Mumbai.
This article first appeared in India Unbound’s independent travel magazine The Unbound Way. Contact us to receive a copy. Images by Nikhil Gaude and copyright to India Unbound.