Bombay Meri Jaan: What is Mumbai Without its Vada Pav, Bombil Fry, and Cutting Chai?

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Bombay Meri Jaan: What is Mumbai Without its Vada Pav, Bombil Fry, and Cutting Chai?

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

I am having a strange, strange day in London. It is my 17th day away from home, the longest I have ever been away. London’s a foodie’s paradise. I’ve obviously OD-ed on fish and chips, I’ve dug into Peruvian food, kangaroo sandwiches, lots of legal steak, and just enough Chinatown duck. Yet, two days away from my flight home, I’m having a visceral craving for ghar ka khana. And I can’t stop thinking about the opening lines of Gerson da Cunha’s poem “Bombay wallahs” – Nowhere is ever home, but this may be the town of least effort for me – which I heard recently in an interview with Mumbai Mirror, where the legendary Mumbaikar reminisces about the city. This feeling of longing only magnifies when I find myself standing in front of Dishoom, a modern and elegantly nostalgic Irani café-style Bombay food export. All I want is a bite of home and familiar flavours and the menu looks like a Greatest Hits compilation from every khau galli in Mumbai, priced in hurtfully expensive pounds. It was hard for my hungry, homesick self to define what I wanted, but I felt like something that tastes like Bombay. 

That got me thinking, what even is Bombay food? It is firstly, at least chronologically, the food of the native kolis and Maharashtrians. It is Bombil fry, misal pav, and jhunka bhakar. Next, it is food from every community that came from anywhere to help lay Bombay’s commercial foundation. It is as much dhansak as it is masala dosa, it is much bun maska as it is biryani. They are all foods of Bombay, because they were made here, as the city transitioned over the last 200 years from seven fragmented islands, to an embarrassing number of BMWs clogging up Pali Hill. You would be, and pardon my French, batshit crazy to imagine the city’s culinary landscape without any of them.

In this episode of the #MumbaiMirrored video series, adman, actor and activist, Gurson da Cunha recalls the days when Bombay was a very different city. Where one could safely drink water from any tap and where streets were washed with chlorinated water.

Video courtesy Mumbai Mirror

Just like a wardrobe, where you stack things to reflect every version of you, there’s food in Bombay that complements every bit of you. When you are feeling jhalla, you can just sit on a footpath and strike up a conversation with a cycle chaiwala, and on payday take a date to a plush Colaba pub for a craft beer. The lanes near Sena Bhavan, is where you go for Malvani seafood lunch. You hit Kalina for northeastern fare, or Fort for an Onam Sadhya. And vada pav is everywhere, but at Ashok, next to Kirti College is where to go, if you want extra crunch. The snack has become synonymous with the city, and if you think about it, it was the Portuguese who introduced us to both the potato and the pav.

In his blog on the journey of the Portuguese pav, Vir Sanghvi refers to historian Lizzie Collingham’s book Curry. Collingham talks about how the Portuguese missed their bread when they landed in Cochin and Goa, where locals were rice eaters. “They could find wheat flour in Goa but yeast was hard to come by. So they started using a few drops of toddy to ferment the dough and created the various Goan breads we know today: the round gutli, the flat pav.” From Goa the bread travelled to Bombay, where it became a staple, Sanghvi writers.    

The food of a place then reflects everything about its history and people, and not just where they came from, but also where they’re going. The Bombay of the ’50s and ’60s was truly glamorous, where jazz thrived, as da Cunha reminds us in his Mumbai Mirror interview. This culture also gave birth to its own food and the city was introduced to the continental cuisine. While most dishes have disappeared from the menu, the Russian Salad has somehow survived.   

There was also a humble side to the city, which was home to migrants. Thousands of South Indians came to Mumbai in the early 1900s and settled in Matunga. Café Madras, Arya Bhavan, and A Rama Nayak Udipi have ruled Matunga for longer than any triumvirate governed the Roman Empire. Students imported from Goa feel at home at New Martin (crumbling Colaba, shared tables, probably no card machine) and those from Kolkata will soon throng the Pujo pandals at Powai and Shivaji Park for some khichuri bhog and mishti doi. You could be from Bengal or Bihar, but you’ll be made to feel like belong to the city in Britannia & Co, where Boman Uncle (RIP), sometimes doled out free custards; his mere presence bridging Bombay to Iran and England. 

The food of Mumbai then is a lot like its people – cosmopolitan in nature.

“Mumbai has always seen migrants from many communities all living side by side with each other; they pick up tastes and techniques from each other and mix them with their home recipes and come up with something new. So Gujarati/North India potato bonda was mashed into a Goan pav with a fiery masala from interior Maharashtra and you got vada pav. Mysore sambar was sweetened to make it tastier for Gujaratis, and you have Mumbai style sambar. Mumbai mixes everything up,” says Vikram Doctor, one of India’s most respected food writers.  

The food of Mumbai then is a lot like its people – cosmopolitan in nature. And as the city has changed, its food has evolved too. Today, the humble Parle-G has gone from a generously stacked five-rupee biscuit, to a hipster dessert, served in a cutting chai glass at a Lower Parel food du jour spot. We see bombil go from 400 rupees for three pieces at a dive to 800 rupees for palm-sized bits served with wasabi in Colaba. And iconic thali joints from the Doordarshan era are still going strong. 

Just like Mumbai’s local trains, the food landscape allows for everyone, too many of us, and yet, there’s space for everyone. 

Factories closures like Parle-G or setbacks like what we saw with Wibs come and go. For a city that simultaneously stands and yet prances around the way Mumbai does, its food culture is locked in a chicken and egg battle of catch up with itself.  We will always have meals that transcend space and time, but fluctuate in price. Like our 30-rupee Bombay sandwich has made it to London’s Dishoom, where it costs so much that typing the number might be ridiculous. 

Mumbai’s bustle (and maybe even its hustle) seem as eternal as our need for carbs (if you don’t believe me ask someone on keto). So like we do when cutting each other on our alleged two-lane “highway”, we find a way. And every now and then, we’ll pause before dipping our biscuit into cutting chai, feel melancholic, and talk wistfully of food from times we believe were simpler.

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