Food writer Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi once wrote a piece in Mumbai Boss, a blog about that city, about why she thinks Delhi’s food scores over Mumbai’s. Well, guess what! Here’s why I think Mumbai’s food scene is streets ahead of ours in Delhi. I’m going to have to name communities, but it’s not because I’m communal: it is because each community in this country really does have its own cuisine. The more cosmopolitan a community is, the more likely it is to go in for sushi and burritos in place of its own food. The converse is also true: the more ethnic a people, the more original its cuisine.
Mumbai has the Kolis or fisherpeople, the East Indians, Mangaloreans, Goans, Parsis, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Bohras, Khojas, Sindhis, Punjabis and UPites. What’s more is that all these communities have co-existed for decades together. Each considers himself a Mumbaiite. Each has added to the rich halwa that is the cuisine of Mumbai. Now consider Delhi. As recently as the 1970s, Punjabis and UPites dominated the scene. To be sure, there were pockets of other communities. Christians, for example, have always existed in Delhi. Have they made their presence felt on the culinary landscape of the city? Dear me, no!
On the other hand, Mumbai abounds not only in Irani, Parsi, Maharashtrian and Gujarati restaurants, catering companies, confectioneries and messes, but there are streets associated with one or the other community and their cuisine which are attractions in their own right. Thus, Mohamedali Road is the Sunni Muslim quarter while just behind it is Null Bazar, the hangout, so to speak, of Bohra Muslims.
When you have a dozen different ethnic groups living in one city, all of them congregate into enclaves. This may be antithetical to a dynamic society, but for cuisine, it is just what the doctor ordered. When I asked for kaari powder in Mohamedali Road, I drew blank looks. Nobody even knew to tell me that it was not a Sunni ingredient but a Khoja one. Three shops away, I found what I was looking for: a pale lemon powder that was fragrant with cardamom. The venerable shop-keeper offered to call up his wife and tell her to teach me how to make kaari over the phone, but I did have one more place to go to for another Khoja ingredient, so I thanked him profusely and sped off to Bandra.
In the middle of uncompromisingly Catholic Bandra, Farida Virani had set up shop making birishta (sliced, fried onions) and other accoutrements of Ismaili cuisine. A short walk away was Jude Cold Storage, an iconic shop, run by the ageing couple who owns it. It is a mom and pop operation where you can get East Indian bottle masala if you’re in too much of a hurry to order it from one of the housewives who actually grind it at home. I was too late for lunch, so on the way back to my friend’s flat in Colaba I picked up some patrel at the very Parsi RTI before heading to Kailash Parbat for some bhel puri.
And that’s the other thing about Mumbai. Bhel puri may be its ‘national dish’ but there are variants all over the city. In Kailash Parbat, a tumbledown building off Colaba Causeway, you’ll get the Sindhi version. In Vittal’s in Fort you’ll encounter the Gujarati type and on Chowpatty you’ll be able to sample the Maharashtrian sort as made by UP bhaiyyas. Then there’s the one treat I never leave the city without sampling and that is vada pao. How two types of carbs (potato and bread) can be combined and made so irresistible, that too, at a price point that Delhiites can only stare at, is beyond me, but the secret of success of this homely Rs 5 snack is the proportions. Just a dash of red chutney flavoured with enough garlic to fight against all the other ingredients but not enough to overpower them; a hint of fresh coriander leaves as a counterpoint to all that fried potato patty – and so on and so forth.
I’m glad that Bade Miyan has risen up in life: now, there’s one more place to go check out on my next visit to Maximum City. But what I have a weakness for is the fish based cuisine of the Gomantak/Malvan region of Maharashtra. Originally set up to deal with the hordes that came to the city to work in the textile mills, the two parallel cuisines are fuss-free and home-style and are usually served in rather unattractive, cramped settings where tables are turned at lightning speed. Gajalee, Trishna, Mahesh Lunch Home, Harish Lunch Home and Pradeep Gomantak provide a Delhiite starved of seafood plenty of mussels, crabs and fish in the trademark spicy style with lashings of coconut milk.
Of course, where there is Mumbai food, there have to be Mumbaiites too. You’ll see society ladies stepping out of their Audis and into the grimy environs of Crawford Market to sit at a table at Badshah and drink a falooda. Catch her counter part in Delhi dirtying her Jimmy Choos in Pahargunj at Sita Ram Dewan Chand, the chola bhatura stall. It’s the Mumbai spirit that has made some icons. Chief among them is Samovar, abutting Jehangir Art Gallery. It metamorphosed into the iconic space that it is, for a variety of factors. The location at an art gallery certainly helps, but the eclectic mix of people has made it what it is. Contrast it to Delhi’s charming Triveni Tea Terrace. On any given day you’ll find young artists sprawled over a cup of tea and a samosa for hours, and very pleasant it is too, especially with the music from the neighbouring dance class filtering into the tiny leafy terrace. But the art-world buzz is entirely missing. Also missing in action are Delhi’s art set.
In short, for Delhi to compete with Mumbai, it will have to have the population of Mumbai!