One of the world’s most seductive urban experiments, Mumbai captures India’s staggering diversity, its chaotic energy and its rich history of inclusivity more completely than any other city on the subcontinent.
Words by Michael Snyder
In the last hundred years, Mumbai has grown from a bustling port to one of Asia’s most important financial centres. With a population the size of metro New York crammed into one-eighth of the space, India’s largest city is a confounding place, rich in all the sensory experiences for which the country is so justly famous.
From the marigold-scented air of the Dadar flower market, which lies in the shadow of one of the city’s most hectic railway junctions, to the recently re-opened Royal Opera House near the city’s diamond markets, to the humble villages that move at the pace of another century even as glass and concrete towers soar skyward all around them, Mumbai packs a greater punch than most full-sized nations (it’s larger than many of them, too).
For a place as ancient as India, Mumbai is really a young town, dating back to the 16th century, and only truly coming into its own nearly 300 years later when India’s first railway line connected it to the cotton fields of the agricultural hinterlands. Even in its earliest days, Mumbai was a city of immigrants, built through the tireless effort of the Gujaratis, Parsis, Keralites, Tamils, Maharashtrians and Hindi-speaking northerners who flocked there to build better lives. Home of Bollywood, it’s also long been the font of India’s popular imagination: the city that Indian dreams are made of.
As the commercial and cultural heart of a food-obsessed nation, where what you eat is as essential to who you are as your name or your faith, Mumbai is also a cross-section of India’s myriad culinary worlds, offering everything from the richly spiced meat-based cuisine of North India’s Muslim communities, to the ghee-laden vegetarian fair of Gujarat, to innovative modern cooking that both celebrates India’s regional diversity and blurs the lines between the old and new – as this city has always done.
The simple canteens and street stalls along Khara Tank Road in the hectic heart of South Mumbai’s Muslim Quarter offer a rich taste of India’s Muslim cookery (try Taj Ice Cream for hand-churned ice creams flavoured with mango or custard apple, and kebabs made from liver or udder across the street at BBQ Corner). Further north, in the leafy South Indian enclave of King’s Circle, half-century-old coffee shops like Sharada Bhavan serve up steaming cups of milky sweet filter coffee alongside sour, spicy vegetarian snacks.
In the old mill districts, where the city first became a true economic heavyweight, old factories have been torn down and replaced by modern skyscrapers (including one set to be the world’s tallest residential tower upon completion), or converted into elegant bars and restaurants that capture the city’s joyful, cosmopolitan outlook. The best of these is The Bombay Canteen, founded by Mumbai native Floyd Cardoz, who came to prominence as the head chef at Tabla in New York. Here, in a converted mill, a young, ambitious kitchen turns out clever renditions of regional snacks – some popular, others obscure – uncovered during the team’s whirlwind research trips around the country.
Yet despite its many transformations, Mumbai is still, above all, defined by the sea. For people around India, the city’s most potent symbols are the sweeping arc of Marine Drive, sunset over Juhu Beach, and the soaring spires of the Sealink, the grand suspension bridge connecting the swish western suburbs to the historic south. And though the city’s food culture embraces a diversity of cuisines, it is seafood that sets the city apart.
Before the Portuguese made it a strategic fort and the British made it the hub for their colonial economic machine, the seven islands that are now Mumbai were populated by communities of Kolis, an ancient fishing tribe that lived off the sea. The Koli villages have long since been absorbed into the fabric of the metropolis, but walk along the seaside promenade on Carter Road, one of India’s most fashionable addresses, and you’ll notice immediately the briny scent of drying fish wafting indiscriminately towards the posh high-rises behind you – an equalising force in a desperately unequal place. Wander through the picturesque lanes of places like Chimbai and Chuim – villages contained within the fashionable suburb of Bandra West – and you’ll pass Koli women seated behind trays of freshly caught fish: prawns, large and small; sawtoothed kingfish; smooth-skinned pomfret and spindly crabs tapping at the edges of plastic buckets. Water is still this city’s blood.
Most of Mumbai’s fish comes in early each morning at Sassoon Dock, a bustling concrete pier that projects from one of the two small peninsulas that form the city’s southern tip, shaped, appropriately enough, like a crab claw pinching the Arabian Sea. Countless boats, large and small, return from the sandy shoreline running from Mumbai to Goa along the state of Maharashtra’s western edge, and dock here to deposit their catch. That fish goes to canteens and restaurants across the city, serving dishes like prawns gassi (a mild, coconut-thickened curry), tisriya sukha (clams fried with coconut and spices) and fish fry (the daily catch marinated in lime, chilli and turmeric, then crusted in semolina and fried to golden perfection).
These dishes form the closest thing to a native cuisine that Mumbai has. Some of the best versions are served up in the Maharashtrian enclave of Shivaji Park, where no-frills canteens like Sindhudurg, Sachin and Malvan Katta serve up delicately fried morsels of silky-smooth bombil (a local fish known within the city by the misleading name Bombay duck) and fiery coconut-based curries, all washed down with cooling cups of sol kadhi, a pink beverage made from spiced coconut milk infused with a sour berry called kokam. Even in Mumbai’s swanky, old-money south, where the most fashionable restaurants serve European or contemporary Indian cuisines, it’s a quartet of classic seafood restaurants – Trishna, Ankur, Mahesh and Apoorva – that command the deepest loyalties.
Because Mumbai lacks the star sights of a city like Delhi, the version of the city you’ll see will depend in no small part on where you eat. To see the India of economic miracles and fashionable nostalgia, head to NRI or SodaBottleOpenerWalla, serving foods of the Indian diaspora and Mumbai’s famously eccentric Parsi community, respectively, in Bandra Kurla Complex (better known as BKC), the city’s slick modern business centre. To see an international, outward-looking India, growing into its own peculiar iteration of global cool, try Bombay Canteen or any number of bars, like PDT or The White Owl or Café Zoe, clustered nearby.
But if you want to see Mumbai as itself, a city grown from real roots and not just symbols, a city with a past as well as a future, take a seat at one of the countless fish joints scattered around town, order a cold drink to fight the humidity, a thali of crisp bombil served with a dish of fiery coconut gravy, and warm, soft bakhri, a Maharashtrian flatbread made from rice flour, to mop it all up. Even when the sea is out of sight, hidden behind tall towers and tenements crammed onto tiny plots of land dreamed out of the sea, a Formica tabletop and a round metal platter, fragrant with chilli and cumin and curry leaf, is all you need to catch a fleeting glimpse of this mad, marvellous city’s past and India’s exciting, inscrutable future.
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5 Senses – Scent
India is known for its spices, and though Mumbai is littered with spice markets, there’s no place to get a better nose-full than the masala crushers of Chivda Galli, a narrow horseshoe-shaped lane in an obscure corner of the old mill districts, best known for selling its eponymous variety of snacks. The lane ends with a series of stalls specialising in roasting and crushing masalas, using big metal pans to heat up chillies, peppercorns, cinnamon and mace before crushing them under deafening metal pistons.