Eating Mumbai

By Niloufer Ichaporia King

Published on May 26, 2010

My hometown, Mumbai, is one great big market. Jumbles of shops and stalls and carts spill into the streets, intersecting with one another, creating markets within markets, cities within worlds. Whenever I return from my current home in San Francisco, I love to lose myself in it all, to revel in the fascinating juxtapositions that bubble up out of Mumbai's incredible ferment of cultures.

Some of these markets are official buildings with permanent, licensed vendors; others are informal, cropping up under trees, in alleys, near places where office workers congregate, outside railway stations, in the middle of intersections. Though I was aware of these markets as I was growing up, they were not really part of my childhood; my mother (and many mothers like her) avoided the crowds and the chaos. But when I started shopping in Mumbai for myself, I marveled at the humanity and the grit, and discovered places that (like Mumbai itself) functioned with their own complex and beautiful logic. The markets I returned to the most often were Bhuleshwar and Null Bazaar, two contiguous shopping areas in South Bombay. Bhuleshwar is predominantly Hindu and Null Bazaar Muslim, but neither is wholly the one or the other in the ecumenical Mumbai way.

On my latest trip to Mumbai, my cousin Lyla and I decide to spend a hotter-than-Hades day jostling through Bhuleshwar, dodging hand trucks, scooters, bicycles, taxis, and other jostlers. We start the morning at Badshah Cold Drink Depot (152/156 Umrigar Building), a Mumbai institution I've been coming to since my college days. The tables are decorated with sprays of mango leaves, and the menu is a long list of fruit juices and Persian-style milk shakes. We order falooda, a sweet drink served in tall glasses that reveal layers of basil seeds, vermicelli, rose or saffron syrup, and milk, topped with a scoop of kulfi, a dense and silky Indian ice cream.

As we linger over our cold drinks, happy to be out of the already throbbing heat, I watch the action outside. A street vendor is frying bhajias (vegetable fritters); others wander with baskets on their heads brimming with singoda (green-skinned water chestnuts). A man walks past carrying cages containing colorful birds; a couple of cats follow him. I love how animals are a part of the market experience here: pigeons are given food and lodging; dogs, goats, and cows wander around freely, their presence accommodated, appreciated. Once, not far from here, I turned a corner to find myself up against the rear end of an elephant.

We begin our walk in Mirchi Galli (Chile Alley), and my nose tingles at the scent of dried red chiles and cardamom. At my favorite spice shop, the third-generation owner stops what he's doing and engages in a 20-minute conversation with me about the merits of his jardalus, dried Afghani sweet-kernel apricots.

Next we head over to the pots-and-pans market, Barthan Bazaar. I've come here to buy perforated molds for making panir (a fresh Indian cheese) and jars with lids for storing ghee. Many cookware items here that were once made of brass and copper are now cast in aluminum or stainless steel, but in other respects, the old ways persist in the market: a knife seller sharpens customers' old blades by hand, and a man is making tweezers by melting down scraps of tin over a furnace.

Hungry by late morning, we make our way to Khao Galli (Snack Alley) just as its stalls are coming to life. You used to be able to stand in the street and watch the maker of jalebis (sugar syrup-soaked fritters) leaning over his woklike karahi, pouring spirals of chickpea batter onto the surface of the bubbling oil with a meditative focus as the market swirled around him. Now his business has moved indoors, but he works the same way: pouring, flipping, and scooping up the fritters before drizzling them in saffron-scented syrup. It strikes me that these repeated actions—the skilled flick of the wrist, the removing of the jalebis at the perfect moment—performed and perfected over generations, represent an inherited and unsung art.

Nearby, in Bhaji Galli (Vegetable Alley), the afternoon sun is turning everything silver. I breathe in a cocktail of limes, green chiles, fresh coriander, curry leaves, and green mangoes. We pass vendors sitting at tables, doing the heavy work of cutting up vegetables for pickling. Boxes are piled high with pumpkins, bitter gourds, eggplants small and large, rat-tailed radishes—all of it arousing in me a mad lust for cooking.

One could spend an entire day in Bhuleshwar alone, a life even, but we've edited our itinerary in order to cover more ground. Near the covered market building of Null Bazaar, we catch the nutty aroma of haleem, a cracked wheat-and-lentil stew (see ** Lamb and Lentil Stew**), and it draws us on until we reach a vendor standing before an enormous kettle. We order our haleem and top our bowls with garnishes set out on a tray: cilantro, fried onions, garam masala. This is the sort of street food you must pause to eat, spoonful by nourishing spoonful.

We continue on our way to Diamond Samosa Shop (155 Saifee Jubilee Street), which sells exceptional samosa pattis, the wheat-flour skins used to make Mumbai-style samosas, shatteringly crisp triangles of fried dough filled with ground meat, vegetables, or scrambled eggs (see ** Samosas**). The pattis are made right in front us by flour-dusted lads, who roll out large disks of dough, baking them on iron griddles, separating the layers, then stacking them in neat bricks. I will bring the pattis back to the States with me, because I never succeed in rolling the dough out so perfectly thin when I try to make them from scratch. As we walk on, arms laden with goods, the colors of dusk are gathering in the sky, and I think of the beautiful samosas I'll make. —Niloufer Ichaporia King, author of  _My Bombay Kitchen (University of California Press, 2007)_

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