Mumbai is the setting of my upcoming novel, THE BLUE BAR, and one of its highlights is Mumbai food. Street food, in particular. Years ago, I spent a few months in Mumbai gorging on said street food when I interned there at a shirt factory. That internship was another life, another experience, to be shared at some other time.
My earliest ‘eating out’ experiences go back to the times Dad would take me along to his meetings (read: boring meetings) and other work-related hazards with the promised bribe of a trip to an Udupi restaurant. This was back in the early 80s, and Udupi restaurants were a phenomenon. My staple then was the batata vada dunked in sambhar and a bottle of Mangola (the mango-flavored beverage craze). Udupi is close to my native town in Karnataka, but the batata wadas made by Mumbai’s Udupi restaurants were with our infused with local flavors, and hence I maintain this as a typically Mumbai dish, which fueled (and still fuels) hundreds of thousands of hungry office-goers every day.
I wasn’t introduced to Mumbai’s so-called ‘Chinese’ cuisine until 1998, which was when I was 23. A friend treated me to Chinese fare at Night Evil, Borivali, for his birthday. He ordered Chicken Royal soup and Chicken Lollypop (drumsticks) to start with, and I was immediately sold. Until then I had only had Maggi chicken soups and they contained only little dots of chicken in them. Looking at the hunks of chicken in the Chinese dishes laid out in front of me tantalized my tastebuds like nothing else. I admit I had a phase when I was hooked onto Mumbai’s Chinese fare—Chicken Manchurian, American Chopsuey, Hakka noodles being favorites—and had them once a week, often to the disdain of my mother who had to keep away her homecooked meal as leftovers for the next day.
College times also introduced me to another perennial favorite. This was the frankie (now popular as Tibbs frankie all over Mumbai and beyond). I remember bunking college lectures and walking all the way from Matunga (where my college was) to Shivaji Park, Dadar, which had one of the only frankie stalls in those days. Biting on the succulent mutton roll and naan frankie was heavenly bliss. For just 19 rupees a pop, it was divine!
I figured out by then that I was a hardcore meatarian. My trysts with Mumbai’s foods have taken me to the nooks and crannies of the city, often just in search for a memorable dish. I’ll name some of my popular haunts to this day—Bade Miyan near Taj Mahal Hotel for its delicious kebabs (I drool even at the mention of those), Stadium Restaurant and Kyani’s Café for their Irani goodies, Mahesh Lunch Home for its never-ending spread of seafood, Food Inn in Lokhandwala for the best Mughlai and Arabic cuisine in Mumbai, and Uncle’s Kitchen in Orlem for its Chinese.
It is often said that Mumbai has no original culinary ethnicity of its own. But I beg to differ. Though most of the iconic cuisines have walked into Mumbai from other parts of the world, Mumbai has infused its original flavors into them and made them their own. All my favorite eating joints in the city are examples of this attestation.Kanchana Bannerjee
Kanchana Banerjee lives in Gurgaon with her husband Sandeep and her three boys Rohan, Archie & Casper. In another life she used to write for various publications and companies, but now she’s a full-time author. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and playing with her dogs. Eye on You is her third book. Twitter/Facebook/ Instagram.
Mumbai is many things, but for me, it’s the spiritual home of the vada pao. Full disclaimer: I was, until five years ago, acquainted, but not personally invested in this beloved, ubiquitous Mumbai street food. I don’t live in India, but I’ve visited Mumbai, mostly on work, uncountable times. The trips made all the more significant for the chance to revel in the city’s myriad street food offerings. Yet, somehow, I remained inexplicably aloof with the vada pao. It’s just a wannabe burger, I had foolishly concluded.
Until one July, many Julys ago, when I arrived in the city for a full-day meeting with film studio execs. During lunch, the director on the project seeing the posh spread on offer, groaned. He asked if I wanted to join him for some real food. Twenty minutes later, we were standing at his favorite roadside vada pao stall where a food miracle began to swiftly unfold. Perfect mashed potato balls draped in chickpea flour batter descended into hot bubbling oil and were extracted as soon as they turned into crisp, golden, miniature suns (the vada!). One was pressed down in a soft square locally baked pav (bun) and the real magicking began.
Fingers morphing into blurs adorned the vada with a melange of chutneys. First a sinus-clearing dry red garlic chutney, next a wicked green coriander and chilly chutney, and then the showstopper: sashaying over the other two came a sweet and sour brown tamarind chutney. The final garnishing was a fried impossibly curvaceous green chilli. The heady creation was hastily newspaper wrapped and handed over. As the crunch, the softness, the fiery hot, the sour and the sweet collided against my taste buds, a meet-cute movie cliché came to mind: where have you been all my life?
Sonia has lived and worked in India, Indonesia, the US, Belgium, and South Africa. She now lives and writes in Singapore. She quit her advertising job as Executive Creative Director at McCann-Erickson for full-time screenwriting. She’s also written two novels: The Spectacular Miss and A Year of Wednesdays. The Spectacular Miss has been optioned by a leading Bollywood studio for a screen adaptation and in a perfect plot twist, Sonia has also written the screenplay. Check out her latest, “A Year of Wednesdays“. Find her on Twitter/ Facebook/Instagram
So, I have a history with pani puri. When I was a little girl, I fell virulently ill with jaundice. I think I went months with no appetite post it, and could barely eat a decent meal, and this when my mother was a great cook. On the way back from school one fine day, my mother stopped at the pani puri wallah.
This, you must remember, was back when pani puris were not yet introduced to Bisleri and the quality of the water was terribly suspect, a microcosm of bacteria and protozoans intent on wreaking even more havoc to a little child’s already shaky immune system. But I was hooked from the first one.
From then on, it became a routine for me to have one plate of pani puri every single day on my way back from school, and luckily I didn’t really take ill again. (Also those were the days we drank water straight from the taps and took our chances that we would be okay.) I think pani puri played an important role in helping me get my appetite back again and sort of fired up my deadened tastebuds.
Over the years, I’ve had pani puris, gol gappas, puchkas, and all the variants across the country, but the pani puri from Mumbai’s streets holds a special place in my heart.
The Goddess Durga was pirouetting on the reliable shoulders of deceptively frail looking men; moments before she was to be consumed by the sea as a culmination of her nine-day long journey during the annual festival of Navratri. I was meeting my would be in-laws for the first time against this colorful and chaotic backdrop and I distinctly remember my poor father-in-law clutching at conversational straws, passionately speaking of industrial resin and boilers for some odd reason. Perhaps noticing my distress, my husband drew us away from the compulsion of conversations and ice breakers to the row of colorful food stalls lining the beach, selling every imaginable street food. The sizzle of the oil hitting the large circular pans, the roasting spices, delicately burnt butter; overwhelmed us and we bounded with child-like glee to the menus being handed out by each stall owner.
Now I’ve had a tenuous relationship with pao bhaji ever since I moved to Mumbai as a teenager. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it lacked an individual identity. It was an indecipherable and blended mash of vegetables and spices, to be scooped up by paos toasted in butter. I didn’t know what to expect and found it too spicy whenever I ate it. But on that evening, surrounded by the orchestra of street kitchens, listening to the addictive drums in the distance, bursting into giggles as I saw my family-to-be abandoning all hesitation and decorum and licking the food off their fingers, somehow made the familiar dish taste very different. It’s been 13 years of starting that tradition. Every year, the Goddess leaves us and we simultaneously abandon our phobias about germs and hygiene and tuck into delectable plates of pao bhaji, staring into the setting sun. It’s a dish that now reminds me of endings, new beginnings and buttery smiles.
Ragda Pattice. God knows who kept such a intimidating name to a food item that is categorised under chaat –that is meant to be fun. Google tells me that ‘ragda’ is peas gravy and ‘pattice’ are the pan fried potato. Since they are served together the dish is known as Ragda patties. I can’t care less. What matters is the eating. What’s in a recipe? But name matters. I am an author, words matter to me. Why couldn’t it be called a simple batata-matar (potato-peas) if not anything else? Well, not everything has an answer but Mumbai is quite sensitive about the names of their food. Few years ago I was standing in a corner of Sion, busy gobbling up the stuff on the plate in speed. The belly was full after the first few mega-spoons but the heart wasn’t. So I took a pause and looked at the bhaiya on the other side of the counter.
“Why do you call it Ragda Pattice?” I asked with a frown.
He looked at me scooping off the sticky morsels from the teeth with my tongue – mouth closed. “Why not?” He asked.
“It sounds like you will beat up someone. Like ragda!” I gestured like handing a danda (stick) in my hand.
“Barobar (Correct).” He had a smirk on his face. “This is the spirit of Mumbai, madam. The city will give you enough ragda but it will also do the patti (repair). You will have no complains, no one leaves the place. They find a way to deal with it and enjoy being here.”
“Why should anyone like to deal with the ragda happily?” I knew I had lost the argument but still tried to be stubborn.
“I said no, its the spirit.” he pointed at my plate. “In Mumbai people earn a lot, but their pocket is always empty. Ragda patti reminds of life’s ragda but comes in the form of a happy meal in 20 rupees, you see. What else do you want?”
Koral Dasgupta’s books ranging from academic nonfiction to relationship dramas are discussed from the context of gender studies, art, myth and ecocritical literature. Her fourth book has been optioned for screen adaptation. She is currently working with Pan Macmillan on the five-book Sati series – a retelling of the stories of the Pancha Kanya from Indian mythology. Koral is the founder ofwww.tellmeyourstory.biz – a digital publishing media that popularises stories of women’s history and social evolution of the gender dynamics. More about her, here.
I’ve enjoyed the vada pav, the most. I’ve gorged on it at swanky Asian airports and spicy khau-gallies – crowded food lanes of Mumbai, or ordered it via food delivery apps.
Whenever I’ve eaten it without thought, it’s simply been the taste and mulch-mixture of crisply fried potato with the bolus of bread that’s done it for me.
But when I have thoughtfully bitten into it, I quietly celebrated its origins that happened in the 1960’s in a stall outside Dadar Station to cater to the working class, mostly textile mill workers, who had no time to stop or sit down and eat.
Even in today’s time-strapped world, this snack doesn’t ask for a plate, just a crisp potato patty wedged between soft bread to be held by fingers and eaten with fried green chilies and gunpowder chutney. It sets my nuts and bolts, of both mind and gut, wheeling to exultant delight.
I am gladder still that one of my stories in my most recent story collection Bombay Hangovers features the textile mill phase of Mumbai, where I can almost imagine my character Kailas Ranade stopping in his rushed stressful life to gorge on a vada pav… maybe in an earned moment of reflection and respite.
Fictionist | Poet | Screenwriter, Rochelle Potkar is an alumna of Iowa’s International Writing Program and a Charles Wallace Writer’s fellow, University of Stirling. Author of Four Degrees of Separation and Paper Asylum – shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020, her poetry film Skirt features on Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland and on Disney+ Hotstar/ Shorts-English. She was invited twice as a creative-writing mentor to Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Programs, Summer Institute 2019 and Between the Lines 2022. She conducts poetry workshops through the Himalayan Writing Retreat. Check out her latest release Bombay Hangovers.
Have you ever been to Mumbai? Read a story that features Mumbai street food? Have you read books by any of these authors? What role does street food play in the area you live in?
If you liked this post, you can receive posts in your inbox, or keep updated in my writing by clicking on any or all of the following buttons: