Eating Well in Mumbai
Mumbai has a robust tradition of eating out for cheap—you can dine out on a dime at working-class diners or stretch your dollar at bars and cafés—but it's also a modern metropolis with an exciting, extensive, and relatively affordable cosmopolitan dining scene.
With its origins as a fishing village, Mumbai is blessed with a strong coastal culinary tradition. And because it's also a historic port of commerce, Mumbai also has absorbed influences from foreign traders and settlers (among them, Portuguese, Iranians, and Brits) and Indian communities that came here for trade. Maharashtrian food, marked by the use of peanuts, coconut, and chillies, dominates home cooking and the city's street-food options. Also significant are the culinary traditions of the Gujarati Hindus, Jains, and Parsis—the first two for their elaborate vegetarian contributions and the latter for its Persian- and British-influenced dishes. Regionally themed thalis (platters with lots of small dishes) are a popular way to sample an assortment of dishes from distinct cuisines.
Dabbawalas, or tiffin carriers, are a symbol of Mumbai's industriousness. An institution since the late 1800s, they ensure that hundreds of thousands of professionals get fresh, home-cooked meals delivered daily to their offices. Wives and mothers fill containers, which are picked up and delivered by foot, bicycle, and train via a supply chain organized by an efficient system of coded marks.
Probably the most common street food you'll see in Mumbai is bhel puri; the crunchy, piquant, puffed-rice snack is sold on almost every street corner. Best savored during a stroll on Chowpatty Beach, bhelwallas blend the puffed rice with onion, tomato, coriander, and a sprinkling of powdered spices like cumin, rock salt, and chilli powder; a chutney made of tamarind, dates, and jaggery (unrefined brown sugar); and a chutney made of coriander, mint, green chillies, and peanuts. The addictive combination is tossed with fine shreds of fried gram (chickpea) flour and, sometimes, raw mango, then served on stitched-leaf plates.
Pav, the local word for leavened bread, comes from the Portuguese pão; "bhaji" is a curried vegetable dish. The combination, pav bhaji, is served late into the night on Mumbai's streets, but also in fast-food places and some hotel restaurants. A spicy mash of potato that's been fried and simmered into an orange paste is sopped up with soft white-bread rolls that have been lightly toasted with butter on a griddle. Slivers of raw onion, a squeeze of lemon, and a coriander garnish add a sharp kick.
The flagship dish of the Parsi community, dhansak is a labor-intensive production that constitutes the big weekend meal. This stew always includes lentils and is usually made with lamb and vegetables like radishes and gourds. Dhansak lends itself to adaptation, though, and can be made with fish, chicken, or paneer. It's a filling dish that can be eaten with bread or rice.
Mumbai's answer to french fries, batata vada are mashed-potato patties coated with batter and deep-fried into a crisp-and-soft salty snack that's irresistible when fresh. Both the potatoes (batata) and the gram-flour batter are spiced, and the fritters are served with green chilli chutney. Every Mumbai barfly has his favorite go-to spot for a postdrinking vada pav: a batata vada sandwiched in a greasy, fried-bread bun. Yum.
An unusual dish found in Mumbai and parts of south India is modak, a type of sweet dumpling. In Maharashtra, modak are usually prepared for the late-summer Ganesh Chaturthi holiday, as they're thought to be the favorite treat of the elephant-headed god celebrated on this day. Filled with coconut and unrefined sugar, these rice-flour dumplings can be steamed and eaten with ghee. Another version less particular to this region uses different flour and deep-fries the dumplings.