Mumbai Street Food

CHOW DOWN The cooking and eating of street food in Mumbai is a daily ritual that begins long before dawn. Its origins lie in the city’s vanished mills, where a need for cheap, fortifying meals drove streetside vendors to create a new cuisine

If you’ve ever wondered what keeps a city like Mumbai going, you can find the answer in her streets.

Peddled out of baskets carried on their heads, off impromptu mats laid out on street corners and from rickety carts on narrow bylanes, the city’s street food, washed down with endless cups of cutting chai, feeds the millions-strong Mumbai workforce in a ritual starting long before dawn, as street food sellers prepare to deliver their goods to the hungry hordes.

It’s an orchestra that begins with the clacking of trays as unbaked batches of pav enter cavernous ovens hours before dawn. As the sky lightens, vada pav vendors begin cranking up their stoves, chaiwallahs clank pots on to boil milk, and eggs softly click against each other, awaiting the first commuters eager to grab a quick breakfast.

As the sun rises over the shimmering city, knives click furiously, chopping chillies and onions for those who might opt for a more elaborate spread of spicy bhurji or masala omelette with hot, toasted pav and steaming, sugary tea.
As the first batch of harried commuters take their seats at work, an army of women bearing large stainless steel vessels thudding together begin boarding the still-packed local trains.

Arriving at office districts across the city, they set up shop next to thela Chinese stalls and dosawallas clanging humungous spatulas against iron woks and tavas, to dish out simple meals of dal and rice on shining stainless steel plates.

Lunch hour concludes with fruits plates laid out under the sky and openers clinking against cold-drink bottles. Then the chaiwallas take over, offering tiny plastic cups of comfort to tide people through the afternoon, until the chaat and pav bhaji stalls come into noisy action at day’s end, to fortify the hungry for the long commute home.

As night falls, skewers clink together as kebabwalas begin briskly grilling meat to melting softness. This will continue late into the night, and when the skewers are finally still, the night chaiwallas will set off on their cycles, their shrill whistles fading into the music of a new day of business.

Ours is a metropolis that knows no boundaries and never sleeps, so it’s no surprise that Mumbai is the Indian city most associated with street food. Where other cities have a few select favourites, specific claims to piquant fame such as the kathi rolls of Kolkata or the chaat of Delhi, street food in Mumbai crosses every barrier.

Here you will find succulent kebabs right next to a Jain pav bhaji stall, with people from every community jostling for a taste of both.
Just like the legendary bhel puri of Mumbai, each distinct offering combines to form a unique, delicious whole.

Mumbai street food was born of the need for quickly put-together food that was cheap and satisfying. Stories about the creation of some of these delights are now urban legend, such as the one about pav bhaji  being invented as midnight sustenance, thrown together from leftover vegetables mashed up to disguise their mixed breed, spiced up and served with a couple of pavs for workers coming off the night shift. The vada pav itself is born of a marriage of the Maharashtrian batata vada and the Portugese-origin pav, the union blessed with an anointing of spicy chutney.

Delicious stories are still being created today, like the chop suey dosa, created by the merger of a South Indian and Chinese stall.
These anytime-you-crave- them palate pleasers can be customised too; they don’t have to be hot enough to blow the top of your head off, though that is always an option, but they will more often that not be an irresistible combination of spicy, sour, sweet and salty.
More potatoes or less? Hot and spicy or cold and extra sour? Crunchy or soft? Not only is it interactive, most of it is constructed as you watch, requiring a specialist to put it together in just the right ratios. And in the hands of that specialist lies the power to send aficionados miles across town to get their favourite treats, even if that means standing hunched as you gobble from a rinsed-in-a-bucket steel katori while avoiding zipping traffic on the street.

All in search of that perfect bite, where every flavor on your plate comes together in one heavenly mouthful, garnished with the essential flavour of the human touch.

Of course, deciding what to eat is like trying to pick a favourite song — every option comes with its own special memories. I’d like to introduce you to six of my favourite Mumbai street food groups…

Nuts and legumes - Peanuts (mungphali) roasted channa, Masalla channa, channa jor garam/chapta channa,

Corn - Butta, popcorn, hot corn

The Puri Family Try one (or two or all) of the Puri based snacks from this family! Most likely rooted in the fried snacks found outside temples since historic times, this family of street foods is based on a Puri, a small round disk of dough fried crisp and flat or hollow and puffed rounds depending on which dish they are to go into. These Puris are then combined with a variety of textures and flavours into different preparations. The flat puri is crushed into the famous Bombay Bhel Puri with a horde of other ingredients. A variation includes a Sev Puri in which the disks are topped with different things. The Puffed Puris make the base of the legendary Pani Puri that is filled with a variety of ingredients and makes A perfect bite. Versions include Dahi Puri and a Ragda Puri.  
Types: Bhel Puri, Sev Puri, Pani Puri, Ragda Puri
VendorsSoam, Swati Snacks

The Dosa FamilyAnother legacy of the temple snacks but from South India these are paper thin crepe like pancakes made of fermented lentil and rice batter and come with Sambar (a lentil and vegetable curry) and a chutney of fresh coconut and green chillies. Many variations exist from the simple Butter or cheese Dosas in which butter and/or cheese may be added on top of the crepe just before it is done, to the Masalla Dosa in which the crepe is expertly rolled around a stuffing of savoury lightly spiced potatoes.

Types: Plain Dosa, Butter Dosa, Masala and Cheese Masala Dosa, Mysore Masala Dosa, Pav Bhaji Dosa

The Pao/Paav Family - Pao or Paav are breads that are a legacy of the Portugese. The small round pav buns used to make it are a legacy of the Portuguese founders of Mumbai (bread is pao in Portuguese) who brought the bread making techniques that they passed onto locals of their time supplemented by later migrant communities like those of the Goans and Parsis who took up bread making. These cheap breads quickly became the accompaniment to curries and dishes of every calling. This ubiquitous pav also became the bedrock for many street foods. 

Types: Bun Maska, Vada paav, Paav bhaji, Missal paav, Anda pav, Samosa pau, Dabeli, Dabeli missal

The Sandwich Family – The Mumbai street sandwiches are delicious delights. There is the layered Mumbai Sandwich with many variations.
Types: Bombay/Mumbai sandwich, Toast sandwich, Bhaji sandwich

The Thela Chinese Family - No Chinese person would recognise the ‘Chinese’ food served up on Mumbai’s streets as authentic. The credit, in many ways, goes to Nelson Wang, a second-generation Chinaman who dressed a chicken pakora in a spiced-up cornflour gravy and christened it ‘Chicken Manchurian’. He went on to open the landmark China Garden and changed the face of Chinese food in Mumbai, spawning, perhaps unknowingly, the current array of highly spiced, fried and gravied ‘Indian Chinese’ now dished out of the city’s ubiquitous mobile carts — and even out of most Indian fast food restaurants.
Types - Hakka noodles, chowmien , manchurian gravy/dry, paneer manchurian dry/ gravy Manchurian Cauliflower and Szechwan Paneer

The Fusion Family - Mumbai’s street food sellers are always mixing and matching, using leftovers and mistakes to invent something new in the hope that it will become the new rage. Bhel is now tossed with sweet corn, to make Mexican bhel. The chopsuey cheese dosa has the crepe filled with noodles. And now there’s even a Szechwan vada pav, with the spicy red sauce replacing the chutneys. So far, no one’s complaining. Try the deliciously bizarre.

Types: Chinese Bhelpuri, Chopsuey cheese dosa, Schezwan dosa, Idli chilly fry, Pizza dhokla, Chole /shezwan vadapaav

Types: chai, sherbat, fruit juices, lemon soda, coconut water
Community areas to try local flavor regional street foods- Mumbai is a multicultural city and many areas have become hubs for specific communities. As a natural extension vendors of reagional streetfoods have also set up shop in these areas to peddle streetfoods for local palates. 

Opera house for Gujarati, Mohamed ali rd for Kebabs etc, Matunga for South Indian, Maharashtrian area to identify, Bandra for Goan

Where to look for street food
Chowpatty, juhu chowpatty, Khau galli