Letters From Mumbai

Tiffin Wallahs of Mumbai. Photograph by Steve Evans

Dosa Data

Having only known American buffets of naan and samosas, Our correspondent’s final dispatch from Mumbai pays tribute to pani puri, a Szechuan Cheese dosa, and the peppered popsicle.

Let me tell you, friends, the tale of Sonal and the peppered popsicle.

One fine warm winter’s day, I journeyed with my friend Sonal to Swati Snacks, a Gujarati fast-food joint. Gujuratis are known for their love of sweets and fast food, which may partly underlie their ownership of the vast majority of America’s Dunkin Donuts and Subways.

But the food of Gujarat, in western India, does not sit well with me. Unlike north Indian food—the kind most commonly found in the U.S.—“Guju” food is too buttery, too oily, too sweet, too cloying for my taste. While the meal started out on a good note with more-than-tolerable pankis—thin rice pancakes steamed in banana leaves—things went downhill with “wheat pellets in sweet ‘n’ sour pink soup” and “Mexican refried beans on crumbly cracker.” Sensing my displeasure, Sonal suggested we order a gola for dessert. Gola is a chunk of crushed ice on a stick that you dip into a cup of flavored sugar syrup. It’s shaved ice backward, and one of the more refreshing things in Mumbai. We got grape flavor and it was delicious. In my mind, the meal was saved.

Sonal, however, was not pleased. Vexation crossed her face. Something was missing. She flagged down a waiter and soon a small bowl of spice appeared. It looked like the usual Indian “chaat masala,” or snack food spice mix, a combination of dried mango, cumin, coriander, ginger, rock salt, black pepper and other goodies. It couldn’t be, though. I mean, who takes a perfectly decent popsicle and seasons it?


* * *

Most Westerners know India best through the food served at restaurants opened around the world by members of the country’s diaspora. For us, India means naan, samosas, chickpeas, lentils, palak paneer—wholesome, hearty, unique food, possibly vegetarian and certainly cheap. But when you’re in India, things get a lot more complicated than choosing between biryani and vindaloo on a prix fixe menu.

New Delhi is known for North Indian food; Calcutta, in West Bengal, for Bengali food; Gujarat for Gujurati food. Authentic Maharashtrian food is almost as hard to find in Mumbai as a Maharashtrian. It’s a city of immigrants, each with their own diverse cuisines. The one common denominator, though, is chaat: Mumbai snack food.

What Mexican food is to Americans, Chinese food is to Indians. It’s the foreign cuisine of a neighbor easily tailored to meet local tastes.Snack food though, is a terrible translation. Chaat are snacks assembled from some combination of potatoes, bean sprouts, puffed rice, crisp-fried cracker shells, yogurt, pomegranate seeds, fried vermicelli, sweet sauces, sour sauces, and spicy dry mixes. More or less. As with nachos, one shouldn’t make a meal of chaat, but one easily can.

As luck may have it, I live a three-minute walk from Elco Restaurant, a culinary landmark in Mumbai. Elco is a mecca in town not only for hungry people seeking “hygienic” street food but also for foreign press correspondents eager to write 800-word articles on where to find “hygienic” street food in Mumbai. Mumbai has become something of a cause célèbre in the past year, thanks to the 26/11 attacks, Slumdog Millionaire, and an economy seemingly impervious to recession. Every month, regular as clockwork, the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Guardian, or Travel & Leisure writes another article on the street food of Mumbai, always closing with the reminder that while the authentic stuff is sold on the streets, the “safe” stuff is sold at Elco.

Pani puri is a classic Mumbai chaat and Elco’s specialty. It’s also the only way I know of to eat soup inside a cracker. The starting point is a puffed-up puri: a crispy hollow cracker sphere, about the shape and size of a slightly flattened ping-pong ball. You tap on it gently with your forefinger until you’ve opened up a hole in the top. Then you spoon in a mixture of pebble-sized squishy flour balls and mung bean sprouts. In front of you there are two bowls: one with a spicy light-green pepper soup and one with a thick brown tangy tamarind sauce. With your fingers you submerge your half-filled puri, hole-side up, in one (or both, in sequence) of the liquids until the puri is filled up with liquid. Then, quick as you can, you pop it into your mouth whole. It puts the other major bread/soup combo in my life—Panera’s French onion bread bowl—to shame. Pani puri are surprisingly filling; little boys (and sometimes grown men) have informal pani puri eating contests, and while I have to bow out after seven or eight, Elco does a brisk business in 25-puri baskets.

Elco started as a traditional Mumbai pani puri street stall. At these stalls, the snack’s construction is left to a seasoned professional, who assembles each piece to your exact specifications (more sprouts or fewer? sweet sauce or sour?), while simultaneously keeping track of how many you’ve eaten and also making and counting pani puri for five other customers. The stalls aren’t permanent—or even really what Westerners would think of as a stall. Usually it’s just someone with a steel drum-like contraption who roams the streets until he find a good place to unpack and do business for an hour or two before moving on.

The original Elco stall made damn good pani puri and the owner, to use an Indianism, met with great success and ended up purveyor of a modern three-story restaurant with a 10-page menu and seating for 200. All things considered, it isn’t a bad place for an international correspondent to recommend. Besides having excellent food, it is hygienic. One can imagine the gastrointestinal dangers posed by poorly prepared pani puri. When buying it off the street, you are essentially drinking whatever water the peripatetic purveyor is offering you. A place like Elco, which promises to and actually does use “filtered water,” is a godsend for sensitive stomachs.

Anthony Bourdain makes culinary risk-taking look fun, but I think they edit out a lot of the teary eyes and running noses.Beyond the chaat, Elco’s menu brings its own surprises; for example, a whole section is dedicated to Chinese dishes. What Mexican food is to Americans, Chinese food is to Indians. It’s the foreign cuisine of a neighbor easily tailored to meet local tastes. And what Tex-Mex is to Mexican food, Chindian is to Chinese. (NB: If you ever find an Indian restaurant abroad with Chinese dishes on the menu, you’ve found a keeper. Or at least something authentic.)

My favorite mind-bender of a menu item isn’t found in Elco’s Chinese section, though. Rather, it’s buried at the bottom of the dosa section. Dosas are probably familiar to Western readers, at least those from countries with enough Indians to properly call a diaspora. They are flat, crispy, rice-batter pancakes, oftentimes rolled up crepe-style around spiced potatoes and eaten dipped into spiced tomato soup (sambar) or coconut chutney. A dosa can go around anything, though, and Elco’s has its own special: the Szechuan Cheese dosa. It’s a regular dosa filled with lo mein noodles and covered in cheese. Indian food stuffed with Chinese food, covered in cheddar. Has there ever been a more apt metaphor of Asian affairs than that?


* * *

Whether you’re talking about chaat or broader Indian cuisine, the stereotype is that all Indian food is spicy; I find that to be only 70% true. The fact is that much of the population not only is vegetarian but also subsists on a few staple ingredients: rice, lentils, flour, beans, and in-season vegetables. So that means that sometimes, to get something tasty, you need to add some spice. But while a perfectly seasoned okra dish is something to behold, things can get a bit extreme in the south, where delicately seasoned acquiesces to spicy hot.

As befits the tastes of my spiced-popsicle-eating friend, one of my few encounters with authentic Maharashtrian food was a chicken dish that Sonal’s housekeeper made. I try not to be a wimp about spicy food, but there’s only so much you can do when soda, water, and even yogurt don’t help. Eventually I had to eat a plate of plain rice and go lie down in a dark room. Though Anthony Bourdain makes culinary risk-taking look fun, I think they edit out a lot of the teary eyes and running noses.

I’ve found my Indian friends to be ambivalent toward very spicy food. When you’re new to a culture, like me, you feel that you’re the one with the issues, the outsider unable to adapt to hot chilis, sulfur-scented herbs, or glasses of turmeric-flavored milk. However, I’ve heard almost as many of my Indian friends as American grouse about over-spiced food. I’ve also found that some of the most fastidious eaters are Indian. While my American friends will give an open bottle of beer nothing more than a suspicious glance at a seedy restaurant before polishing it off, most of my Indian friends will ritualistically clean the glass and the bottle’s mouth with a napkin, pour the beer, hold it up to the light for examination, and, finally, drink it down. I’m not sure whether it’s that my Indian friends are more aware of the dangers of unknown food and drink than I am, or if they just aren’t afraid they’ll be perceived as too cautious, too skeptical, too foreign.


* * *

I’ve been in Mumbai just more than 18 months, and I can’t say my love for Indian food is any greater or less than before. In the U.S., Indian food was always good: a special treat from a favorite restaurant or a friend’s long-laboring mom. In Mumbai, you drop the “Indian” modifier and it’s just food: sometimes good, sometimes mundane, infrequently wretched, and occasionally sublime.

I’ve discovered new flavors and dishes—asfoetida, sugar cane juice, and brain fry—but have also come to rely on safe standbys: butter naan, chicken tikka, and vegetable biryani. I also still miss Mexican food. Mexican food and lettuce that doesn’t bring with it the promise of a nine-month bout of giardiasis.

My stomach, constantly in a state of unrest despite my best attempts to eat at “hygienic” restaurants, will be glad when I’m back on home turf with my own food. It will be nice to push a shopping cart down grocery store aisles, not jostle through a market. And it will be nice to know the names of vegetables, not point quizzically at whatever is the newest in-season arrival. My Indian friends tell me about the Parsi restaurants, pani puri stalls, and dosa shacks that are their first destination—even before home—after returning to India from extended trips abroad. For me, it’s straight from JFK to Chipotle, and I’ll save the salt for my Corona, not my popsicle.

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler