Recently, I read an online guide to eating out in Mumbai. One of the sites clearly targeted the firang tourist who, oddly enough, seems to come all the way here from Copenhagen to eat sushi at Wasabi. (Exchange rate arbitrage? Can you export sashimi? Can I get venture capital funding? I can make a PowerPoint!)
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But if you are a domestic gourmand looking for a little food tour of the city, I have the perfect thing for you. A little half-day programme that is both light on the pocket and requires nothing more than your time, your appetite and a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
First, you must catch a cab, bus or train (best!) and come to Wadala.
Wadala is what they call a “Central Suburb” in Mumbai. That’s because it’s located just perfectly so that no matter where your office is in the city, Andheri to Nariman Point, you will make it to work no more than 15 minutes late.
More kindly put, Wadala is to Dadar what New Jersey is to New York.
And yet it is the perfect launch pad for a culinary tour of the city, nay, of the country itself. That’s because Wadala is nestled perfectly between Matunga with the south Indians, Dadar with the Parsis and Maharashtrians, and Sion, which is rapidly going upmarket, what with the branch of Crossword and all.
We start at a nameless dabeli stall near the HDFC ATM opposite Wadala station. The lanky, young dabeli chap is very friendly and has a great memory for faces. His masalas are proprietary and made to a recipe from his hometown in Gujarat. Dabelis bring together all that is good for instant cardiac arrests: Peanuts? Check. Butter? In little rivers. Potatoes? That’s what the filling is made of. Carbs drenched in fat? Toasted mini-pav gently nurses the filling while you bite down. Excellent value at five bucks each. No need to drop in at the nearby HDFC ATM at all.
Walk down the road a while till you reach one of two chaat shops next to each other. Yes, yes, popular Mumbai opinion is that the Elco place in Bandra has the best chaat in town. Just don’t tell my true-blue Dilliwaali wife that. She will immediately exhaust intense Punjabi rage on your kneecap or shin. And then, after a short break, resume on that soft spot near your temples. The pani puri wallas at Wadala are even worse than Elco. The puris are okay by themselves, but the chaat aficionados will fume at the cooked chana he ladles in first.
Let’s wash it all down with a cup of coffee from the cookie cutter Café Coffee Day that is to the right of the junction in the road ahead. It is a 10-minute walk and bang opposite Don Bosco. If you are a carnivore, then my sympathies. This is a vegetarian outlet, as are most of the eateries in the area. The café is ok. The food can be temperamental. Muffins are safe bets.
Right next door is the family favourite local restaurant, Classic. A regulation Udipi-clone hybrid place with excellent south Indian fare. There is also wannabe north Indian cuisine culled from paneer, mushroom or mixed veggies drenched in one of three possible sauces: Chirpy Chilli,Khatarnaak Kadai (dangerous wok), Mysterious Masala.
Along with the crisp dosas and soft idlis, the owners of Classic have also managed to import the legendary customer service of the quick service southie eatery made haute by the Saravana Bhavans. The waiter is trained to never use two things: a smile or punctuation. Normally, he doesn’t even look at you while you speak. Always ask for the menu. He might throw it and it might scratch a cornea. But it is better than him launching into a sentence that begins at idli and ends at Ganga Jamuna with and without ice, 17 pages later. Little sonic booms occur as his tongue moves faster than sound.
The next stop is truly a Mumbai icon: the local Irani café. And not just any shoddy place with old chairs and bad food in the name of heritage. Oh no! This one on King’s Circle has all that plus hookahs, an obscenely shiny samovar for tea and a owner whose regular volume of conversation is set at “Nuclear Holocaust”. Please to note the large (redundant) poster of Samantha Fox and, to add that extra bit of cheer to the premises, a large blow-up of the cover of The New York Times the day the Titanic sinking became public.
“Koolar and Co.” is very, very endearing, though. The waiters are eager to please and insist that you eat your bellyful. Waste any of that bun maska and you get glares from the entire staff. The highlight on the menu is something called an Irani Wrestler’s Omelette. Made with six or so eggs and a bucket of butter, this is a work of art that must be seen to be believed. If they actually have wrestlers who eat this on a daily basis in Iran, then I really don’t see why they need those nuclear weapons. “No sitting and talking politics”, warns a scrolling LCD banner.
Pop across the road for a more classy (by which I mean middle-class cosmopolitan gujju) experience. The New Yorker on Marine Drive is insanely busy on the weekends. This one on King’s Circle is more accessible. The menu is multicuisine vegetarian.Meat is substituted with cheese everywhere in a healthy ratio of 1:5.
The puzzling noise you hear as you enter New Yorker is merely your arteries bidding farewell to each other. On weekends, pop in to watch several local families trying to appease pesky kids with nachos, pasta and sizzling brownies. Wearing shorts, halter tops and holding hands will lead to large-scale incessant frowning by several matriarchs. “Immoral chhe!” their eyes seem to say.
A short taxi trip away, Ramanayak’s near Matunga station is worth every bit of hype. Ramanayak’s has the best southie lunch possible. And they have an unlimited variant too where you can give a fillip to our agri-sector. Menus change every day. The entrance might look right out of a Ram Gopal Varma underworld lair. But at the end you will find rooms full of loudly burping public. Eat with fingers for extra authenticity.
At the end of it all, when you are just about ready for dinner, pop across to Dadar TT. Walk about and ask for a bhajji pav (surely you’ve had its more illustrious cousin already!) And as midnight strikes, you can grab a nice apple juice from that all-nighter shop at the corner. Many apples, much sugar and a perfect ending to a most eclectic foodie experience.
I hope you enjoy your tour.
I must warn you though. Do it soon. Once those Lonely Planet chaps find out, you might as well stand in line for sushi like everyone else.
Write to email@example.com