SPICERY TRAVEL BLOG

Mumbai 2011

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Written by James
Published on 24th July 2012 at 19:56 • No comments yet, be the first!

I've been to India several times before but never to Mumbai, a city I imagined would be like the New York of India - full of energy and ambition as the main city of a future world economic superpower.  It was definitely full of energy and noise but for all the anonymous shiny new tower blocks, it was still very definitely India - there was still exactly the same chaos on the roads and all the colour and vibrancy of the street stalls I remembered from earlier trips around the country.

 
Chowpatty Beach with the city in the background

I was shown round by Rushina Munshaw, a local food writer who leads gastronomic tours round the whole of India and runs cooking classes in India's first kitchen studio, so I couldn't have asked for a more knowledgeable guide (plus she was Gujarati, a local population who are famed in India for the variety and quality of their food). We talked about all the various people who make up modern Mumbai from the countless new immigrants from rural India, to the Anglo-Indians who are direct descendants of the early British settlers and the Parsis who fled from Iran many centuries ago. After a lunch of pani puriwe headed out for a gourmet tour of the city visiting the local markets, street stalls and restaurants to find the best food the city has to offer (all the time pretending this was work?!).

Most of India seems to be fuelled by endless cups of chai, the sweet spicy concoction that's a byproduct of a British campaign to encourage Indians to drink tea. Orginally tea came from China but when the British introduced the tea plant to the hills of India they found they couldn't sell all they were producing, so launched promotional campaigns to convert the locals to the joys of tea drinking (this is why Indians drink tea with milk in the British style rather than the Asian style of drinking tea black).


A spice stall in a neighbourhood market

I doubt they expected to have such success in converting billions to becoming avid tea drinkers, but I'm sure they didn't expect the end result to be flavoured with ginger, black pepper and green cardamon. The chaiwallah I visited made a good brew and did it all with the typical sense of theatre that every good chaiwallah needs - He boils about 5 or 6 cups of water, adds tea and plenty of sugar then 4 or 5 cups of milk, a tsp of chai masala and plenty of grated fresh ginger. He then bashes up a couple of green cardamons, adds them and brings it all to the boil while ‘stretching’ it with the ladle to make it light before straining it. Simple!

It was interesting to see the range of spices used locally is actually pretty small. If you had turmeric, dried chilli, garam masala, cumin, coriander and pepper at home you could make many of the local dishes.


Me trying to identify one of the ingredients at Motilal Masalwala ; Vada Pavstall

Vada Pav is a really popular snack in Mumbai and these stalls seem to be on the streets morning, noon and night. It's basically spiced mashed potato (flavoured with turmeric, mustard seeds and chilli) that's rolled into balls, dipped in chickpea flour batter then deep fried. These crispy patties are then served in a soft roll with lots of spicy green herb chutney and a sprinkle of chilli salt or chaat masala. There are similar stalls around town selling the infamous Bombay Sandwich which is a sandwich filled with sliced potatoes, beetroot, onion, cucumber and cheese all seasoned with lots of spicy green chilli and coriander chutney, a good sprinkle of a chaat masala type blend then coated in butter and toasted.

At night every street corner seems to have a guy crouching over a semi circle of containers mixing up his own special blend - they all consist of various combinations of puffed rice, crispy fried crackers, chopped onion, coriander, lime and usually a spicy tamarind chutney and a pinch of chilli powder and chaat masala.

This one above is a Muslim cafe and is famous for its kebabsand biryanibut there are also a handful of old Parsi (Iranian) cafes and bakeries left in the historic part of Mumbai that are full of atmosphere and a really attractive faded grandeur. The trouble is that these comfortable old places don't make the same money that a McDonalds or a new shopping mall would, so are rapidly being shut down which is pretty sad but maybe the city that these places used to cater for doesn't exist any more?


Mirchi Gali - this is a whole street of stalls selling pretty much nothing but dried chillies.

The scent in the air is pretty pungent as you'd imagine with huge sacks of Kashmiri, byadgi and other dried red chillies. I always think it's interesting to see that although the chilli was brought to India via Central America by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, there aren't anywhere near the amount and range of chillies available that you'd see in Mexico or Central America. According to Rushina there are some wild strains of chillies in Goa (where the Portuguese originally settled) similar to the mild Mexican Poblano but modern Indian cooks seem to view the chilli as merely adding heat and colour, not the full range of complex flavours that you'd see in Mexico. As far as I know there's never been any attempt to bring any of these ingredients to India and broaden the range of flavours available - a task for the spicery perhaps.....?

 

Pork Vindaloo with a Mixed Vegetable Side Dish ; A rather sophisticated Konkan thali. The fried fish fillets are actually Bombay Duck (a small oily fish with lots of little bones, a bit like a sardine)

I was familiar with Goan food such as the vindaloo above but Konkan food was something new to me. The Konkan region is basically the rugged West and Southwestern coast of India, from around Mumbai down to Karnataka. It's a coastal cuisine with fresh fish, coconut and rice being the core ingredients. The famous dish of the region is prawn gassi- a simple curry made with tomato and coconut milk that I now know from experience if it isn't seasoned with enough kokum, mustard seeds and chilli can have a tendency to taste a bit like a spicy heinz tomato soup. After a few attempts we got it right here and made a delicious fish gassi recipe kit which seemed to go down really well last summer, but the key ingredient was definitely the kokum- a dried (and often salted) mangosteen fruit that gives a really distinctive sour fruity flavour when it's added to a dish. It works a bit like tamarind but isn't quite as sour and is particularly good if you add it to any sauce that's based on tomatoes. You can even make a drink from kokum by boiling the pieces together with a bit of sugar which makes a delicious cooling drink on a hot day.

 

Mutton Dhansak

 

The sophisticated cooking of the Parsi community in Mumbai is a really interesting mix of influences and you can see the clear link with the food of Persia where these people originally came from. Dhansak is a good example of this - the different lentils and spicing are similar to Gujarati food but the use of meat and the caramelised pilau rice are definitely closer to Persian cooking. The Parsi community were one of the wealthiest in the city and became influential traders over the centuries so could well afford such a complex dish including lots of meat and hours of preparation time. The real thing is pretty different from the ones we know in the UK - more like a stew with layers of deep dark flavour, sweetened slightly with pumpkin or squash rather than the pineapple chunks you sometimes see over here (although they're not always a bad addition!).

Pav Bhaji

Pav Bhajiis a uniquely Mumbai creation made originally to feed the migrant workers who lived away from their families and needed something cheap, nutritious and filling. It's basically a mix of mashed up vegetables (potatoes, cauliflower, onions, carrots etc) all fried together with diced tomatoes to make a thick sauce. It's highly seasoned with a bhaji masala then served with a big lump of butter on the top, chopped onions and a couple of soft rolls. It's one of those dishes that makes you think "I should make this all the time at home!" - it's very easy, you can play around with the spices a bit but any combination of garam masala and/or chaat masala, chilli, coriander, pepper and cumin would give you a good result.

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