Though many Westerners still call it Bombay, Mumbai reclaimed her Indian name on the 50th year of the nation’s independence, Aug. 15, 1997. It is a city for the senses. Locals and tourists alike make their way up to the Hanging Gardens at night to see the coastline against the moonlit sky. The jeweled buildings studding the shores of the Arabian Sea bear a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria’s legendary diamond necklace. In this bustling metropolis, legacies of the British Raj linger in the majestic Gateway of India and the sprawling Victoria Terminus, while the aromas of ragada patties (golden fried potatoes with hot and sweet sauce) and spicy chai are pure India.
Just saying the name Mumbai, I think of forbidden dishes on street corners, of the smell of frying onions and cumin seeds, of ginger, garlic and chilies. I can hear my sister, the ever-cautious medic, admonishing me, “Don’t eat the foods on the streets. You have no idea under what hygienic conditions they were all prepared.” Still, I’d sneak out to see the budhiya mai (old woman), dressed in her cotton sari, jade green with a red border, draped over her head to protect her from the searing rays of the sun. She resembled my grandmother, stacking her guavas just so. I’d reach into my pocket for a char anna (barely a penny) and she would pluck that light green ripe guava and, with her shiny pen knife, slice off the end and cut the fruit three-fourths of the way in four quarters, then smother it with salt and potent cayenne pepper to elevate its intensity.
In the sweltering heat of the early afternoon sun, vendors, men wearing white half-sleeved vests and dhotis wrapped around their waists, set up their folding tables and kerosene stoves that support heavy kadhais (woks). By late afternoon, the heavy scent of frying and spices thickens the dusky air, tempting office workers heading to their homes to briefly sate their appetites before their late 9 p.m. suppers.
No one uses silverware on the streets. It’s impractical; it’s unnecessary. Eating with silverware is akin to making love through an interpreter. Far better to hold this food in your hands or eat it from the bowls fashioned from leaves held together with toothpicks. Once emptied, these “bowls” are fed to the wild dogs, cows and monkeys that roam Mumbai’s streets.
Mumbai draws people from all corners of India and its street food reflects a mosaic of cultures. One vendor from Old Delhi sells chana bhatura, garbanzos simmered in a tart mango sauce with puffy fried breads; the next, a hawker from Madras, is selling vadaa sambhar, split black lentil fritters bathed in a sweet yellow lentil stew sweetened with coconut and spiked with red chilies. Here you’ll find vadaa paav, garlic potatoes spiked with green chilies and cilantro, served in a soft bun with garlic and red pepper chutney, or chili-stuffed vadaas. With your mouth on fire, find the toothless 60-year-old man in a garb similar to that worn by Gandhi, ready to offer a cup of freshly brewed chai, Darjeeling tea brewed in whole milk and many spices.
Near the train depot in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai, vendors sell everything from used books to soaps and perfumes imported from the West on makeshift tables or in permanent stalls like the newsstands of Manhattan. A distinguished older Muslim man looms above the rest with a traditional white turban wrapped carefully around his head of shocking white hair. He sells seekh kebabs along with a salad of fresh mint, raw red onions, cilantro and wedges of plump limes. He squats on the sidewalk over a grill he’s fashioned of a broken grate set on four large stones. His 12-year old son fans the coals to keep them burning, learning his father’s trade. The father purses his lips, barely visible through his majestic beard and mustache, yellowed with age hastened by fatigue, and draws on his long hookah making a childish bubbling sound while inhaling the intoxicating tumbaako (raw tobacco). Long seekhs (metal skewers) of compressed ground mutton lie across the grease-spitting grates and the wafting aroma makes even a Brahmin vegetarian like me hungry.
Seekh Kebabs (Skewered Lamb Kebabs)
I like to serve these kebabs with a simple salad of raw red onions, slivers of green chilies, sprigs of cilantro, fresh mint and wedges of lime. Ground lamb is widely available in supermarkets. Use ground turkey, chicken, or even beef as alternatives, but adjust your cooking times since they vary for each of these meats.
- Soak the skewers in water for about a half hour.
- In medium bowl combine the remaining ingredients. Divide the seasoned meat into 12 equal portions. Wrap each part around a bamboo skewer while pressing it with your hand to cover about half the length of the skewer, satay-like.
- Preheat a broiler or grill for direct heat. Place the skewers in a broiler pan or the grill grate. Broil or grill, turning occasionally, 5 to 6 minutes or until lamb is barely pink in the center; serve warm.
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning ”660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at turmerictrail.com.
Photo: Basket of samosas. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Slide show credit: Raghavan Iyer