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At Ziya, the modern Indian fine-dining restaurant at The Oberoi, Mumbai, a signature dish is served in a martini glass, with dahi bhalla at the bottom and ice cream on top. Executive chef Vineet Bhatia instructs his guests to have the ice cream with their eyes closed and guess the flavour. No one can. After they have eaten, he reveals the secret. The ice cream is dahi- bhalla flavoured as well.

The “dahi bhalla two ways" is Ziya’s biggest seller, the dish that has regulars bringing in their guests to share the experience.

“You have to play with people’s minds. Take their notions of food and question it," Bhatia explains, when asked why he chose to take on the street classic.

Always the great unifier of Mumbai’s taste buds, street food is now up for reinvention, with the variety ensuring inspiration for chefs for some time to come. The whole city, it seems, is taking Bhatia’s “play" dictum seriously. As professional kitchens stock up on liquid nitrogen, compressed air, dehydrators, sous-vide machines and syringes, chefs find themselves empowered to change the form of a dish—think foam, liquid spheres, powders—while staying true to its taste. Deconstructed vada pav? Check. Jalebi as caviar? Check. Chocolate pani puri, pav bhaji tostadas, non-vegetarian sev puri. Check, check, check.

SpiceKlub, the mid-level vegetarian restaurant in Lower Parel, serves a cheesy pav bhaji in a fondue pot with buttered croutons; a papdi chaat with spherified curd, served on crisp puris and topped with coriander foam; a pani puri with the pani served in test-tubes and the imli in a syringe; a bubbling kulfi where the kulfi resembles popcorn and is topped with salted caramel, chocolate sauce, blueberry rabri or rose caviar; and a paan mousse.

“Molecular gastronomy was usually done with Italian and French food but now the city is ready to accept it in Indian food," says Aditya Gupta, owner of SpiceKlub and the vegetarian Quattro Ristorante chain. It was a risk, he maintains. “But we did a few experiments and found that people are open to tasting street food differently," he says.

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Masala Library’s pine-nut ragda pattice

Their bhel puri has the bhel frozen and powdered and served on a puri; the ragda pattice is served with a pine-nut pattice, ragda hummus and feta salad, and the chaat is a light and fresh watermelon chaat with orange segments. Their most popular dish is the delicious jalebi caviar, served on a bed of pistachio rabdi with a saffron glaze.

“A lot of these dishes are just creative," says Kalra, asserting that the molecular elements actually add value to the plate. “We change the dish form at a cellular level."

Among all the reincarnated street food, the city’s much loved vada pav has the most avatars. SpiceKlub, for instance, serves a deconstructed vada pav. The bhaji is turned into a mousse, the vada batter is transformed into boondi and a spicy garlic powder is wrapped in corn-starch “plastic". Masala Library does an inside-out vada pav, where the vada and chutney are tucked inside crisp-fried bread. Tilt All Day has vada-pao sliders: a panko-crumbed vada of potato, basil, olive and capers served in a slider bun with jalapeño mayo and tomato remoulade. Ziya has served a mini vada pav with the puréed garlic chutney in a pipette that holds the vada and pav together.

For all their adventures with form, however, most chefs are careful not to stray too far from the taste of street food. “Our deconstructed vada pav does really well because it tastes much the same," says Farrokh Khambata, chef-cum-proprietor at Catering & Allied, which owns Joss and other restaurants. “Molecular is just part of the new experience of street food."

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Tilt All Day’s pulled-pork sev puri

Other chefs, however, prefer to go radical. Last month, Lower Parel’s Tilt All Day hosted a Mumbai Street Food Festival. “The idea was to showcase our Continental food and popularize it through a familiar form," says executive chef Aniruddha Bandekar. “There were no Indian spices or masalas in the menu."

Using Cajun spices, panko crumbs, polenta, jalapeño, bell pepper, zucchini and herbs like basil and thyme, the better experiments at Tilt included a pulled-pork sev puri—juicy pork meat topped with barbecue sauce, garlic and labneh on a puri—jalapeño bhel with tortilla chips, pesto-filled pani puri with celery salt and red-wine reduction, and minced lamb samosas with baida-roti flatbread.

Aditi Keni of Hopping Chef. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Aditi Keni of Hopping Chef. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

“When I came back to Mumbai this year, after training at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts and working as a chef in Canada, I realized modern Indian food has taken off in a big way," says Keni. “Everyone was reinventing Indian food. I didn’t want to be left behind!" she says, adding that she believes modern Indian food will be the next big international trend.

For the moment, though, the city’s street food is the new aspirational model. We can raise our dahi-bhalla martini glasses to that.

Yearning for the real thing? Here’s our go-to list:

uVada pav: Kirti college, Dadar

uPani puri, samosa, chaat: Guru Kripa, Sion

uPav bhaji: Sardar, Tardeo and Cannon, VT

uKebab pav: Sarvi, Nagpada

uChicken rolls: Healthy Bite (opposite Bade Miyan), Colaba

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