Mumbai Dining, In and Out

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Admittedly, I haven’t been the healthiest of eaters since arriving in Bombay almost a month ago. I’ve eaten well, of course, but I’ve also drawn a complete blank about what I used to eat back home. You see eggplants, tomatoes, and spinach at the market, but your context changes. At the moment, eggplant parmigiana seems impossible to make – where do I get mozzarella? where do I get good e.v.o.o.? Basil?

It’s all available here. In fact, I know it is because I had pureed white bean soup with porcini mushrooms and a slice of snapper on a bed of polenta with tomato coulis at Indigo last week. It is one of the most expensive – and trendy – restaurants in Mumbai, but we still only spent about 20 bucks per person, including drinks.

I’m also feeling lost because my kitchen tools haven’t arrived yet. I’m missing a good sharp knife, a blender, my stand mixer, TONGS. What did I ever do without tongs? It’s useless to buy those things here because I really don’t want to duplicate. So, for the moment, cooking is difficult.

Of course, what do I care? One of the pleasures of living in India is having a maid. Ours cooks for us every night (if we want her to), and she does it well. My problem is figuring out what her repertoire is. At first, she made only very mild, very bland dishes, such as roast chicken and vegetables. Then, we told her that we also like Bhartiya khana – Indian food – so she has stuck to that. Frankly, it’s quite amazing that I come home to a freshly prepared Indian meal every night. There’s always daal, rice (yellow or white, but always perfectly cooked), and typically a vegetarian dish or two. I’m especially fond of the peas and paneer. But I’m ready for some variety – and am longing for the dog-eared cookbooks that I used to consult each night.

I’ve always thought that variety was the spice of life….here, it’s more like spice IS the variety.

We’ve gone out to eat a number of times since arriving, mostly because it’s so cheap, but also because it gives us a chance to try some new things. Ironically, some of the best places we have gone serve Indian food. However, we’re making plans to tackle Royal China, known for its crispy duck; Wasabi, expensive sushi bistro owned by none other than Iron Chef Morimoto; Goa Portuguesa, Indian with a Goan/Portuguese bent; and Smokin’ Joes, the delivery pizza place around the corner whose slogan is “yummy yum yum.” Who can resist that kind of advertising?

One of the first restaurants we were introduced to in Mumbai was Swati Snacks, and we’ve been back at least twice. Seriously, if you mention the name to someone, he or she will lift his/her head to the sky – as if praying – and whisper with a grin “Swati Snacks!” It’s that good. Mumbai is known for its snacks, especially the street snack bhel puri, and Swati’s version is pretty good. (By the way, I haven’t mustered up the courage to have bhel puri on the street yet, but I will.) I’m most fond of another “puri” dish from Swati called dahi sev puri, which is a bed of little rice (?) cakes topped with yogurt, onions, tamarind sauce, and “sev,” or little crumbled bits of vermicelli. Dahi Sev Puri tastes likes Mexican food, which is probably why I like it. Oh…and a little fact that I learned from my Hindi teachers and from other sources…the “ind” or “indo” in “tamarind(o)” comes from India, as the fruit/spice has been a part of this culture forever. Arabic traders apparently called it “Tamr al-Hindi” – “tamr” from Hindustan.

Gosh…I could go on and on about Swati Snacks, but I’m sure I’ll be back. After that, I’ll tell you about the corn pancakes wrapped in banana leafs and the paneer lifafa, the cheese envelope in a phyllo-like wrapping. Delish.

Another Indian place we’ve checked out is Chetana, a Gujarati thali place in Kala Ghoda. They have a buffet there, which is what all the western kids were getting when we were there. But the Indian couple sitting next to us had the thali, one of those great little variety plates of food served in stainless steel bowls on a stainless steel platter. We figured it’s always better to take our cue from the locals.

The great thing about Chetana – and I’m not sure if this is true of all thali places, as I’ve yet to go to any others at this point – is that the food is served to you in a quasi churrascaria style, meaning that the waiter will continue to serve you as long as you say yes (or “ji”). However, Chetana differed from a churrascaria in that it served only veggie thalis. We were asked only if we wanted spicy or non-spicy. We asked for spicy, but I suspect they may have given us the non-spicy just in case.

I didn’t bother to ask what all the foods were that I had on my plate. I most enjoyed this small concoction of cauliflower and tomatoes, a white, coriander-laden soup, and the dessert, khir (Indian rice pudding), only this was made with more of a rice-a-roni type grain. Pretty awesome. Accompanying dessert was a disk of some sort of bread soaked in honey. I wish I would have had more room for it at the end. It was outrageously sticky and good. I’ll go back.