Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stuff I ate in Mumbai

I ate at a lot of places in Mumbai, because there was nothing else to do. Not when it was raining like that. Mumbai rain is singular, that's what any native will tell you, but there's times when it gets worse then that. The rain pounds down so hard on your umbrella, you get convinced the sky is falling in, the End of Things. The wind kicks up real strong down a narrow street, ringed by buildings, and your cheap umbrella blows out and you're soaked to the skin, your clothes clinging to you. (Showers at night become superficial, bandaids become a luxury (they fall right off). I wash swirls of dirt off my entire body at night but I don't know what the point is). Mumbai smells of wet-dog mixed with motor oil, and all the kids with their perfect hair wander around with plastic bags over their heads, looking pissed off. The Monsoon that Never Ends.

I went to go have chaat at Kailash Parbat, because I couldn't go to Chowpatty. Not in this weather. It's a small vegetarian restaurant very close to the center of Colaba, and is very well loved by the young and impoverished of the city. It's open air and gets a decent breeze, especially when the rain is pouring down, and they have every kind of chaat you could want, and tons of vegetarian food besides.

Chaat is the catch-all phrase for "tasty Indian snacks that come from the street most of the time but not always." Chaat is the lifeblood of India, the base heart and soul of the cuisine (in my mind) - it's what plain folks eat. Bhel puri, sev puri, pani puri, aloo chaat, bhala papri chaat, and on and on, too many varieties to name. Common ingredients in chaat are potatoes, dahi (yogurt/curds), chopped onion, mango, tamarind sauce, chili, lentil wafers, tomato, and puffed rice. Many chaats also involve chaat masala, a spice mix usually involving amchoor (green mango) powder, cumin, coriander, ginger, and black and red pepper. They're usually served on disposable bowls made of leaves - don't ask where they came from. All chaats share one commonality: they revolve around some form of fried dough. How can you go wrong?

My favorite chaat is bhel puri. The best way to describe it to a Westerner? Savory Rice Krispies. It's a combination of puffed rice, diced potato, red onion, tamarind and chili sauce, sev (fried strings made from besan powder), and fried papri puris (wheat bread). Most places will toss in chaat masala and chopped green mango as well. Every bhel puri cart makes it a little differently, and that's half the fun of it. No bhel puri is ever the same twice. Bhel puri is the iconic dish of Chowpatty Beach, and you are officially Doing Mumbai Wrong if you leave the city without consuming the stuff on that sandy and infamous stretch, fending off seagulls and souvenir-sellers alike. Use the papri puri as a "spoon." Kailash Prabat is said to make one of the better bhel puris in the city, and I'd have to agree. A great ratio of chutney to crunchy stuff, plenty of sweet and savory interplay of flavors, delicious and savory.

I also ordered a mixed vegetable "tawa". Pretty good, if not exceptional. Didn't really need it. Bhel puri is surprisingly filling. They do a fine thali and pav bhaji (buns with spiced vegetables) here as well. A good spot to try Mumbai-style chutney sandwiches. I've never quite "got" them.

I had come to Mumbai wanting to try Parsi food, but was pretty much totally confused. The classic Parsi restaurants seem to offer monumentally depressing menus of "Continental" stuff -think baked chicken, baked beans on toast, spaghetti Bolognese - and none of the reputed ethnic recipes of the subgroup. I remember eating at one of the supposed Parsi/Iranian restaurants and being primarily impressed by its badness. Sort of a half-assed ripoff of the omnipresent Persian and Lebanese restaurants found in the USA, with hummus that tasted powdered. Maybe the only way to get at Parsi food is to make a Parsi friend. Any takers?

I paid a visit to the Mahesh Lunch Home one day. It's one of Mumbai's rather exclusive clique of high-end seafood restaurants. The interior is futuristically blue-lit and small, and the waiters are friendly in the pompous, overly-sophisticated way of Indian servers in all quality establishments.

I ordered the rawas tikka. Rawas is India's "salmon," and it's particularly beloved here in Mumbai. It's a tasty and firm fish, and I ordered it Hyderabadi style - this means the fish is coated in a spice mixture involving plenty of green chili, and given a quick char. The flesh is firm and has a mild salmon-type flavor. Really quite excellent. Had an extremely butter-centric vegetable jalfreezi with. Bring your ghee glasses.

When I got my food, I, as is usual, took out my camera and began shooting pictures. The waiter grandly came over and asked, "Would you like me to take the picture?" Not sure what he meant. Me with the rawas - a family portrait? Taking the photograph of the food itself?

I politely declined. I always wonder what people in less internet-centric countries and age groups wonder when they see me ardently and extensively photographing my lunch. Kids these days.

I'll put together a Mumbai restaurant suggestions directory in a bit here. Seems like the right thing to do for all the major cities I hit on this here trip.

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