India’s Street Food Paradise
As afternoon turns into evening, waves of commuters surge out of the Andheri train station in suburban Mumbai. I move with the crowd as it descends the wide stairway at the end of the railway overbridge, and dodge passengers rushing to catch the bus for the last leg of their trip home. I ignore the hawkers pushing knockoff clothing and used books. This is no place to dawdle. I know where I’m headed. I push my way toward one chaat vendor who every afternoon sets up his temporary stall on the east side of the station.
Derived from the Hindi verb chaatna, meaning “to lick,” chaat are snacks that combine multiple flavors and textures—sweet and savory chutneys, fried dough, various crunchy bits, boiled potatoes, perhaps a spot of yogurt—and are best when assembled to order. Not all of Mumbai’s street food falls under a strict definition of chaat, which originated in north India. But Mumbai’s diverse roadside eating reflects the way this city, as the nation’s commercial and financial hub, has absorbed legions of immigrants from elsewhere in India, as well as immeasurable influence from abroad. Mumbai’s ubiquitous street snacks might have disparate origins, but they are united by one thing: All these treats are enjoyed mostly outside the house and are rarely prepared at home.
I join the scrum around the stand. When the vendor finally makes eye contact, I’m prepared. “Bhel puri,” I say.
In many ways, the colorful dish known as bhel puri is the archetypal street food for this cosmopolitan metropolis. The main ingredient is crispy puffed rice (similar to Rice Krispies). With the addition of sev (small, fried, salty chickpea noodles), boiled potatoes, and multiple chutneys, the snack manages to taste crunchy, soft, sweet, tart, and spicy, all in the same bite. “It’s rooted in the mixing together of two culinary trends,” explains prominent Mumbai journalist Vikram Doctor, who writes about food for the city’s Economic Times, “the puffed rice snacks that are popular in the south and east, such as Kolkata’s jhal muri, and the chaat ingredients from the country’s north.”
One of the greatest joys of ordering this snack is watching the vendor put it together directly in front of you. In a cone made from recycled magazine pages, he mixes the puffed rice, sev, and potatoes along with finely diced tomatoes and red onions. He tops it off with chutneys made from red chilies and garlic, tamarind, green coriander, and dates. Diced green mango is always a welcome addition to this cold dish. No fork or spoon here—a flour wafer serves as an edible scoop.
You can also sample a high-end bhel puri (along with other traditional Mumbai snacks) in the well-appointed splendor of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Its Sea Lounge overlooks the Gateway of India monument.
The basic vegetable sandwich, a staple of Indian snacks and street food, features sliced cucumber, potato, and other veggies on buttered white bread. “We started making sand- wiches soon after sliced bread became widely available here, at least 40 years ago,” says vendor Prem Lal Gupta, who has been selling sandwiches, bhel puri, and other snacks all that time in the Andheri West neighborhood. Prem Lal serves his sandwiches cold, but around the corner his son, Jitendra, offers a popular warm variation: He uses a pie iron—a long-handled, cast-iron press, heated over coals or gas—to toast the bread, heat up extra vegetables, and compress the sandwich. (The pie iron was one of the cooking implements introduced by the British during their colonial control of India.)
Jitendra adds to the butter and cucumber a smear of green chutney and layers of tomatoes, beets, red onions, potatoes, and green peppers. Shredded cheese is optional. He slices the cooked sandwich into six pieces for easy consumption and tops it with two additional chutneys, ketchup, coriander, chopped onions, and sev. The array of vegetables, range of condiments, and personalized touches in arranging it all make each vendor’s Bombay Sandwich unique. The regular evening throngs suggest that Jitendra has hit upon a successful formula.
Legend has it that a century ago, all along Dalal Street—Mumbai’s equivalent of Wall Street— cooks would stew vegetables left over at the end of the day, then crush them together with copious amounts of butter. They served this rich, savory mash, called bhaji, to the traders going home from the stock exchange, most of whom were vegetarians from the state of Gujarat to the northwest.
Today, come evening, snack stalls such as the Amar Juice Centre still keep a mash of potatoes, peas, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers simmering away on the tava, a large disc-shaped metal griddle, prepped with plenty of butter. (The Amul brand is favored for its deep yellow color and full-bodied flavor.) For every order of bhaji, two sliced, buttered paos—puffy white rolls originally brought to Bombay by the Portuguese—are heated on the tava as well. They’re perfect for scooping up the spicy, red-hued mix served on a stainless steel plate with a pile of chopped red onions and a slice of lime.
Wash it down with a glass of fresh-squeezed mosambi (sweet lime) juice, and consider: You’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Mumbai’s street food. Tomorrow, head out to a railway station, see who’s drawing a crowd, and discover more for yourself. A
Where to Snack in Mumbai
TAJ MAHAL PALACE HOTEL: Apollo Bunder, 91/(0) 22-6665- 3366, tajhotels.com
PREM LAL GUPTA AND JITENDRA GUPTA: Jai Prakash Road Market, near Navrang Cinema, Andheri West
AMAR JUICE CENTRE: Opposite Cooper Hospital, Gulmohar Road, Vile Parle West, 91/(0) 22-2624-7917
Adapted from the Amar Juice Centre’s recipe
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup cauliflower, chopped
1⁄2 cup green peas, shelled
4 medium-size potatoes, peeled
8 tbsp butter
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄2 tsp ginger, minced
4 tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp pao bhaji masala (Use garam masala if unavailable.)
1⁄2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground coriander
1⁄4 cup red chili chutney
1 lime, quartered
8 paos (or soft dinner rolls)
1. In boiling water, cook the pepper, cauliflower, and peas until mushy. Strain and set aside.
2. Separately, boil and then mash the potatoes. Set aside.
3. In a large cast-iron skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat.
4. Add the cumin seeds and sauté for 2 minutes.
5. Add 3⁄4 of the chopped onion; cook until translucent.
6. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 30 seconds.
7. Add the tomatoes; cook until very soft.
8. Add the boiled vegetables.
9. Stir in 5 tablespoons of butter.
10. Add the mashed potatoes, pao bhaji masala, salt, coriander, and chutney.
11. Add 1⁄2 cup water.
12. Using a potato masher, pound the mixture until it is thick and smooth (but looser than mashed potatoes). If it becomes too thick, stir in more water.
13. Serve when the bhaji is warmed through. Top each serving with 1⁄2 tablespoon of butter. Serve with the remaining chopped onions, the lime quarters, and the toasted paos.
See the recipe for Red Chili Chutney. This story appeared in the September/October 2011 issue. Photos by Tom Parker.