With great wealth, a great appetite


Mumbai: An invasion on my taste buds

In the beginning … there was only fish curry, occasionally with some vegetables thrown in, eaten with boiled rice. It was fishing community food – simple, basic, and satisfying. Soul food.

And then it became complicated.

By a strange quirk of geographical positioning, this fishing community started drawing people’s attention.

With dreams of gold and wealth and power they came, in droves, to occupy and to serve the occupiers.

And they brought their food along with them. And to feed the millions from their community who didn’t have access to kitchens, they opened eating houses and restaurants. And everyone prospered and as the word spread about this new El Dorado, more waves of immigrants arrived with even bigger dreams.

And soon the Dhansaks were living next to the Dhoklas who were living next to the Dosas who were living next to the Parathas who were living next to the Biryanis who were living next to the Manchurians who were living next to the original settlers, the Fish Curries.

And they intermingled and the communities exchanged their food habits and unfortunately and much to my dismay, the Sambhar became sweet but that’s another story.

Welcome to Mumbai, the only other true culinary melting pot east of New York. Namaste and Namaskar. Kem Cho? Sawadika and Vannakam. Bonjour. Hallo. Ola. Hola. Benvenuto. Ni Hao. Konnichiwa. And ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome’ in a score of other languages and dialects.

Out here, what you don’t speak is what you eat.

So when boredom sets in or when hunger seizes you, all you have to do is choose a language. And a plethora of dining options open up, from your neighbouring street side hawker cart with a phone number to some of the finest restaurants this part of the globe.

But the test of a true culinary culture is one where you can taste the variations of cuisines within cuisines. And that’s where Mumbai scores over a lot of cities in the world. The sheer range of cuisines available makes it a glutton’s delight.

So if it’s local Maharashtrian food you are chasing, then it’s not just about an Amti Bhath lunch, it’s about savouring fiery delicacies from the coastal belt of Malvan, Sindhudurg and even Goa, to digging into spicy food from Kolhapur and Vidarbha.

Or if you fancy a Gujarati meal, it is no longer a collection of hot and sweet vegetarian dishes slapped on a thali but are spoilt for choice from specific regions like Surat, Kathiawad, Kutch and Ahmedabad.

Or if Mughlai food is your craving then it’s not just a grease spoon affair with cholesterol and cardiac repercussions from the ‘north’, it is a treat that comes from the North West Frontier or the Bohra, Khoja, Hyderabadi, Lucknowi, Kashmiri or even the Moplah cuisine from north Kerala’s Malabari Muslims.

Care for a Chinese experience? Not only are all the main culinary traditions from the usual suspects – Sichuan, Canton, Mandarin and Hunan – represented in one fine dining avatar or the other but the intermingling of tastes has led to some unusual pairings from such regions as Punjab, and Nepal. Welcome to Sino Ludhianvi cuisine, with unique ‘Manchurian’ dishes that are alien to the Chinese themselves.

And then it got even more complicated.

As the fishing village transformed into a megapolis, more culinary invasions followed.

The Americans planted their fast food flag. And the locals with their own version of fast food – Vada Pav and Bhel Puri and Pav Bhaji – crossed over to indulge in these new delights. And soon the Portuguese, the English, the Italians and the French jumped into the gastronomic mix.

And then the Far East flooded in. In no time at all, the Burmese, the Thais, the Vietnamese, the Koreans and the Japanese marked their territory. And Sushi became as common as Sol Kadi. And Khowsuey became as popular as Kalvan. And the Korean barbeque replaced ‘tandoori’ on some menus.

And the good news is that there’s still place in my stomach. So if any South Americans and Africans are reading this, they now know what to do.

Jump right into the melting pot. And spread more cheer.

India Boating, Mar 09

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