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Slice of Life

October 2004
Slice of Life

In Indian cities, it is best done out on the street? in plain view? rubbing shoulders with complete strangers. An Indian-American youngster finds out that sights, sounds and a communal experience are a vibrant part of a basic indulgence ? food.


Chopped up vegetables ? potatoes, cauliflower, onions, peas and more ? are softly frying, and the aroma spreads along with the evening sea breeze. The cook is brisk and focused. He has probably done this a thousand times. He splashes a bit of water and whisks the mixture around with a spatula. Every couple minutes he bangs the spatula on the edges of the wok ? for a dual purpose. Not only does it help the process, but the resultant loud clang is meant to entice passersby. Like Pavlov's bell, such sounds, along with the aroma, are known to draw in salivating patrons.

A stick of butter is added, bubbling and sizzling. Without expression, the cook now comes smashing down upon this vegetable mix with the spatula, turning it into a steaming puree. For finishing touches, spicy seasonings are thrown in, and now this bhaji (vegetables) is potent with its strong and warm scent. A barefoot, silver-haired man takes a plate of the fresh bhaji and delivers it with four butter soaked rolls (pavs) to hungry customers. They stand and eat the pav bhaji at a bar-like table, a wooden plank jutting out from the sidewalk railing. For the typical Westerner who is used to looking down upon veggies as a big yawn, pav bhaji, done right, could be a revealing experience.

When I first arrived in Mumbai from my small Midwestern town, I was shell-shocked with the chaos of sounds, smells and people on the streets. I was not sure how to understand such an enormous city. I was dazzled by what I witnessed: the processes of daily life lived out on the very streets that I walked on; from brushing teeth to washing clothes to preparing and eating food. As I quickly discovered, experiencing the streets of Mumbai is not just a feast for the eyes - it's literally a feast.

Sometimes the best part of the street culinary experience is watching the wallas (vendors) make their mouth-watering magic right in front of you. The creative process can be just as fascinating as the taste?

Since the majority here is vegetarian, most eateries are also. One very popular roadside food is the humble sandwich ? a regional vegetarian version. One reason perhaps for its popularity is its versatility ? it could be a simple snack or a filling meal in the form of a double serving. Either on plain bread or toasted, the Indian sandwich takes on its unique character thanks to the green chutney and the trademark bitter-sweet tomato ketchup which they call "sauce". It is the locals who know which street-side vendor has the sauce worth walking a few blocks for. The "meat" of the sandwich is usually slices of boiled potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers. Boiled beet is optional. Besides the sauce, there is another secret ingredient that often varies a bit in taste from one vendor to another ? the masala (dry, powdered seasoning) that is sprinkled on top.

It is the skill of the sandwich-wallas that is a delight to watch. Some of them are seasoned champions who have been manning a stall since they were ten years old. Their slicing of boiled potatoes would shame a computerized production line ? both, for speed and accuracy. The finale is nine perfectly cut bite-sized pieces of a layered sandwich, each with a clean and contained edge.

If you won't be eating it on the spot, you can always ask him to "parcel" it. And if you do take it to go, you even get a tiny zip-lock pack of ketchup. It's your basic fast food service, without all the grease. If, however, "no grease- no flavor" is your mantra, not to worry; there are plenty of other food stalls that will do you right.

On the walk back to the train station after touring a national park at the outskirts of the city, we stopped to get a snack. This was my introduction to the vada pav, a bun-like bread, split in halves, that houses a deep fried ball of mashed potatoes covered with batter. I couldn't control my laughter when some of the kids in my party came up to me with their warm snack, and exclaimed, "Hamburger!" The garnish on this one, again, is a spicy chutney that sinks to the bottom of your belly with each bite. Vada pav is a Mumbai specialty, and is also the cheapest snack you will find, costing no more than four rupees (about 10 cents). All other street snacks are usually priced from about eight rupees upward.

Then there's the sev puri. For the lack of a better description, one could say it is an Indian version of nachos ? the kind with stuff on it. Yet, it is completely different in taste and character. It is created by piling puffed rice, boiled potatoes, raw chopped onions, fried noodle crumbs, and fresh coriander leaves on top of crunchy flat chips called puris.

Smothered in a tamarind sauce, this is a scrumptious concoction. If you're lucky, you may even get a sprinkling of freshly chopped raw green mango.

All these salty and spicy meals beg for a drink of something more than just another swig of bottled water. Fortunately, Mumbai's supply of tropical fruits is never lacking, allowing you to enjoy freshly squeezed fruit juices around the year. Besides the usual fruit fare, it is the kind of fruits that you never knew existed, is what makes the experience so touristy for an Indian-American youngster like myself: sitafal (custard apple), lychee, pomegranate, mango, mosambi, chikku. If it's a squeezable fruit, rest assured, the many juice centers around town will have it in a tall glass for you.

Of course, you haven't experienced India completely if you've not yet had a cup of chai. Chai wallas can be found pouring their milky brew on almost every corner. But don't complain if the glass you get is only two-thirds full. On the street, this is known as a "cutting". The scaled down quantity is likely a response to the ubiquity of tea in India, not only socially, but also in the business circles. The need to host and conduct business over tea has folks indulging in it every other hour, if not every hour.

Before one gets an impression that the food scene here is only for vegetarians, let me tell you, I have never experienced such delicious ways of eating chicken as I have on the streets of Mumbai. (For religious reasons, you'll rarely find beef or pork served on the roadside). One of my favorites is the roti-chicken: boneless pieces of chicken skewered and roasted, then rolled up with a tangle of onion slices and lemon juice into a thick roti (a tortilla type flat bread).

The non-veg snack stalls are especially popular among the late night crowds, often serving as a local hang out. At the very tip of South Mumbai, in a touristy area called Colaba, one such joint stands out. This particular stall has grown from a typical street corner grill in the 1960s to what could now be called a sidewalk caf�. Here, customers will find themselves waited upon by staff in green-checkered aprons, carrying small laminated menu cards. The name of the stall, "Bade Miya" ("Old Man" or "Big Guy"), is displayed in bold red above an extended counter where the widely known chicken specialties are prepared for everyone to see. Besides the popular tandoori chicken (Indian version of barbecue style) the reshmi chicken (tender white meat) was a stand out. Besides the chicken entrees, Bade Miya is known for his romali (meaning handkerchief in Hindi) roti. Like its namesake, these rotis are soft, thin, yet fluffy delights.

What's a proper meal without something sweet and refreshing in the end? Mumbai's street cuisine is no exception. Your taste buds are in for a wild adventure when you bite into the leaf-wrapped bundle known as "paan." In one of its more typical forms, it contains a mixture of exotic ingredients, including catechu (that gives the trademark deep red coloring), the areca nut, fennel seeds (plain and candy coated), gulkand (sugared rose-petals), cardamom, and many other items limited only by the imagination of the vendor. These are all packed into a triangle, puffed betel nut leaf (paan means leaf in Hindi). This makes for quite a chewy experience, and halfway through, you wonder if you are actually supposed to swallow the stuff. But almost immediately, it releases a strong but pleasant cooling sensation, and your breath no longer will smell like the pav bhaji you just had.

It is the site of these paan wallas and other food vendors that serve as town halls for India. And it is here, on the streets, that elections are decided, as total strangers engage in animated debate over pav bhajis and paans.

Sights, sounds, aromas? and ? thanks to the paan ? color too! For a culinary experience that delights more than just the palate, one has to experience the street side eateries of Mumbai.

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