Fragrant City

The rich aromas of Mumbai’s kitchens hint at the diversity of the city’s populations

By Vikram Doctor

Published on July 15, 2014

Mumbai is a city of cramped apartment blocks and slums. Among its nearly 20 million people, space is so scarce and expensive that everyone lives hugger-mugger, inevitably sharing some of the sights, sounds, and, yes, smells of their lives. This isn't all bad, especially when it comes to the aromas that drift from the kitchens each day. You just need to stick your nose out to determine what neighbors are making. Pressure cookers, found in most Indian kitchens, are efficient aroma diffusers—when steam shoots out of the valve, everyone in the vicinity knows what's for lunch. These smells are as varied as Mumbai, which, as the country's financial capital, draws people from across India. Mustard seeds and green chiles frying in sesame oil are the perfume of the south Indians; cumin in hot ghee is the rich smell of the Gujarati population. A sulfurous aroma can only be the pure asafoetida that Sindhis use, while that distinctive waft of warm, woody herbaceousness is surely bottle masala, a mix of more than twenty spices concocted by East Indian Christians.

Large quantities of onions frying hint at a Muslim biryani. And that earthy, intense aroma is unmistakably the Bengali panch phoron, a whole spice mix dominated by fennel and fenugreek. Mostly these scents, like their owners, peacefully coexist, but there can be clashes. Due to the high number of Jains, members of a religion that prescribes strict vegetarianism, the city has many non-meat-eaters, and they can be forthright in their disdain of meat-cooking neighbors. "We can't stand the smell," is their refrain, and they have made apartment blocks, even some neighborhoods, almost meat free. This is also a coastal city, and a passion for seafood is ingrained. Still, when the fishing community, which resides in the heart of Mumbai, lays out shrimp and small fish to dry on the shore, it faces protests from the residents of much-prized sea-facing flats. The smell can, indeed, be overwhelming; the British, in their time, tried to stop it and failed. But chances are those rich homeowners will have to get used to this essential Mumbai sensory experience, just as everyone else who settles here learns to live with, and even value, the scents of the city.

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