For most Brits, the first exposure to the food of Mumbai comes in the form of Bombay Mix. The Indian equivalent of cracking open a bag of Walkers to share in the pub, it’s a nice enough medley of fried titbits but not the most encouraging portent of this great city’s food scene.
But have faith. For talking about the food of Mumbai is like describing the food of London: you can eat in Mumbai—or Bombay, as most of its denizens still call it—not just mesmerising Indian food but the best international cuisine to be found anywhere on the sub-continent. Hip Italian pizzerias and Japanese sushi bars catering to the young and wealthy sit alongside authentic Maharashtrian restaurants. And the grandest hotel dining rooms sit cheek by jowl with hole-in-the-wall Parsi cafés.
First, get your stomach ready for the adventure ahead with a pomegranate probiotic at The Pantry Cafe in the Fort area. It’s achingly hip— there’s no better introduction to the city’s PYT scene (for whom there’s a whole page dedicated to the “Keto Menu”). Suitably prepared, dive into the city’s street food scene: favourites include bhelpuri (crispy fried dough meets puffed rice, lentils, onions and herbs topped with tamarind chutney), vada pav (deep-fried balls of spicy potato stuffed into sandwiches) and, most famously of all, Pav bhaji (thick vegetable curry dolloped on top of fluffy bread rolls and a thick wedge of butter so your arteries enjoy the holiday too).
There’s a traditional recipe here. Chowpatty beach is a favoured local hang-out spot for street food, though you’ll find khau gallis (“snack alleys”) all over the city near railway stations, offices, and colleges.
To keep you hydrated, sample the incredible selection of teas at the Taj Mahal Tea House, including chais with Kashmir saffron and Kaffir leaf. Or, for the ultimate thirst quencher, nothing can beat an ice-cold glass of sugarcane juice— laced with ginger and lime— crushed while you wait on kerbsides all over the city.
For lunch, make a bee-line for Britannia & Co., a city institution overseen by proprietor Mr Kohinoor and the smiling portrait of Queen Elizabeth adorning the walls. It is one of a clutch of surviving Parsi cafés that once filled Bombay (Sassanian, Café Military and Kyani & Co. are others to try). Eat the pulao (spiced rice) topped with jewels of dried, ruby-red Iranian barberries, and ‘Bombay duck’ (battered and deep-fried local fish). If you’re confined to London, opt for the place that Britannia & Co. inspired and book a table at Dishoom.
For something lighter, jump in a Kaali Peeli (the city’s iconic “Black and Yellow” taxis) and head to Sanjay Singh’s sandwich stall outside Kyber on M.G. Road for a Bombay Sandwich (boiled potato and vegetables between slices of toasted bread with sulfury chaat masala and a mint-coriander chutney). Sanjeev Kapoor explains how to make one at home.
If you’re lucky enough to know a local who is a member, don’t miss the chance to grab a drink and light bite at the CCI— The Cricket Club of India—where the dining room strives for the same old-world elegance as The Long Room of the MCC. It’s a haven of clubby sophistication within the hot and congested city; smiles look even warmer when there’s air conditioning.
For dinner, the choices are endless. From the Muslim quarter of Mohammad Ali Road to South Indian in and around King’s Circle. From humble mutton biryani at Khane Khas and unforgettable late-night kebabs at Bademiya’s, to the elegant and inventive cooking at Pali Bhavan. You’ll find many of the city’s most fashionable spots uptown in Bandra or Juhu (where Soho House have opened up).
In London, take a seat in one of Bombay Bustle’s booths (modelled on colonial-era Indian railway carriages) and witness the classic Indian dish masala akuri given the Mayfair treatment: spiced scrambled eggs served atop a truffled naan. Or try Bombay Brasserie which has been serving up a neatly-packaged version of India’s culinary capital to the Kensington locals since 1982.
Back on the subcontinent, consider a seafood dinner—you will be rewarded by the city’s location on the Arabian Sea. Indeed the seven islands that comprise the city once played host to a throng of fishing colonies some of whom still land their catch at Sassoon Docks, worth a visit for its teeming wholesale market. Eat at Mahesh Lunch Home (for Mangalorean ladyfish and pomfret), Ankur (for Clams sukha, Keralan prawns and fish thekkady) or Trishna (for the butter-garlic crab).
It’s a true food odyssey, and non-stop fun. Though be warned: ‘Bombay belly’ takes no prisoners. Covid is the least of your worries in this tumultuous city; eating here, especially on the street, is playing with fire and chilli.