What to eat in Mumbai

Mumbai food tourRoadside taste experiences

Mumbai, district of Colaba, near the famous Gateway of India. The Indian Mihir Govilkar asks a motley group of tourists to forget the warnings in the travel books for a few hours.

"On my culinary tours, the guests ask me again and again: Is it really safe to eat at street stalls in India? But you can do that without any problems where we are going today. Street food may be bad here and there: Because sometimes dust, dirt and germs settle on the food in the middle of the street. Non-residents can hardly find the clean stalls alone. And some stalls may cook hygienically, but serve boring food. "

That shouldn't happen to us with Govilkar, because he has a reputation to lose: As a pioneer, he offered the first culinary forays through the former Bombay three years ago. In the meantime, Govilkar has competitors, but he ranks first on the relevant hit list of the travel portal Tripadvisor. Its prices can only be afforded by business people and foreign tourists - they are unaffordable for the average Indian consumer: 3,000 rupees, more than 40 euros, are paid by the participants of his three-hour food tours, including the various delicacies. Today two Europeans, a white family from South Africa, two Indian exiles and three locals came. Brona, a software engineer from Ireland, took courage after Govilkar's inaugural speech:

"That's why we now have him with us as a guide: So that we don't poison ourselves. The rule of thumb is the same all over the world: Where many locals eat, the offer is probably easy to digest. I know a little about Indian food. But I have no idea what to expect here. It'll be interesting, I think. "

Paan as an introduction to Indian food

Then we plunge into the after-work frenzy in the Kala Ghoda district. After a few steps, we already reach our first destination: glasses and bowls are stacked behind an open garage door, and inside a refrigerator, bottles and bowls can be seen through a glass door - apparently ingredients. In front of it, on a wooden chest, there are trays with rolled green leaves from which a white filling oozes: paan, a traditional Indian mouth freshener. The paan seller is an older man with a three-day beard, in jeans and a polka dot shirt.

"This is Mr. Mohamed Adjim. He has been working here since this paan shop opened in 1972. He is now the oldest of three employees."

"Back then it was not as crowded on the street as it is today. Most of the buildings have remained, but some have been demolished and rebuilt. We sell our paan here to people from all walks of life. There are big differences in the fillings: some cost a lot more than others. That is why poor people buy their paan with cheap fillings. Only the wealthy and the rich customers order the more expensive ingredients. "

The rolled, palm-sized leaves come from betel, a climbing plant. The fillings are first smeared on the leaves, then Mr. Adjim rolls them up and fixes the bundles with toothpicks. They are about the size of a sweet chestnut and shine because they have been doused with water.

The paans look really refreshing, but the combination of greenery and water of dubious origin is considered by India tourists to be the ultimate vacation killer. A momentary customer comes by and breaks the ice: He buys a package and boldly puts it in his mouth. Next, two locals from our group will grab it. One thinks:

"Paan may taste the same to strangers at first, but everyone here in Mumbai has their favorite shop. In the long run, you develop preferences for certain, subtle differences. And at home around the corner, at your favorite stand, it always tastes best. Street food is the lifeline of Mumbai. In the evenings you can find millions of vendors. Street food is number one. "

For me, the paan tastes like adventure at this stand: In the mouth it unfolds an exotic taste in a flash, sweet and spicy at the same time. As a European you can only taste aniseed, but there are also sweet, sour and spicy ingredients that you don't taste at the same time, but rather one after the other. The recipe is of course a secret, as Mr Adjim points out, but the paan only contains plants and spices, no meat. Actually, the paan bundle should first be stuffed into the cheek and then carefully chewed so that the filling slowly dissolves in the mouth. But we foreigners are too curious and instead bite straight away:

- "I don't know what's inside, but I've never tasted anything like it."

- "Do you mind not knowing what you are eating?"

- "Not at the moment. Tomorrow we will see."

Our guide Govilkar knows what foreigners think of Indian kitchen hygiene: he worked in hotels and restaurants in the US, France and Italy for years before returning to Mumbai. And a little skepticism is quite justified, he now admits, pointing to a cloudy bucket of water next to a chicken stand where we won't be eating:

"During the monsoons it rains a lot. That is why houseflies and mosquitoes are everywhere, carrying germs. They collect where water stands still. At home we filter our water, but some street vendors like to do without it. A few years ago I told him I met an American friend from New York with similar problems: There the hot dogs are now called dirty water dogs because the water in which the sausages swim is never changed at many stalls. People like to eat hot dogs - but it is also a little risky to do that. "

While more and more Indian restaurants can be found in the west, western food is increasingly being offered in Mumbai. Our walk already leads past several pizzerias. Govilkar knows his way around: In Italy he got a certificate as a pizza maker. However, the sophistication of Italian cuisine is still almost as unknown to the citizens of Mumbai as the paan is to the Europeans:

"No Indian can tell the difference between a good and a bad pizza here. Pizza has become a very popular dish, but most prefer Indian toppings. Many Italians think it is scandalous or even insulting to put chicken on a pizza. But here you just add Chicken Tikka or Tanduri Chicken. I do that too. I like the original Italian pizza, but also the Indian version. "

Tanduri chicken prepared differently

Govilkar promptly leads us to a stand called "Food Inn" that sells tanduri chicken. We foreigners look disappointed. Paan was really something new, but the chicken served looks like the Indian at home around the corner: red-brown, dressed with lemon and onion slices. Next to the stand is a tandoor - a charcoal-heated oven.

"Tandoor ovens are shaped like a bell. Inside, it should be exactly 480 degrees so that the chicken cooks in just ten to twelve minutes and remains juicy. The marinade has to thicken for twelve to 24 hours beforehand. Many foreigners believe that Indian food always tastes hot and you can burn your mouth on it. But that's not true at all: Indian food is spicy, but by no means always hot. Rather, it has a finely balanced seasoning profile. Now try the chicken in many ways: at first only on its own, then with chutney, then additionally with lemon juice and at the end with mint leaves. "

In combination with the chutneys and the mint leaves, the apparently familiar tanduri chicken tastes completely new. After the first bite, the Indian couple in exile also look very satisfied. The two flew from Dubai to their old home in Mumbai for a few days.

- "There are a lot of Indians in Dubai - is there Indian food of comparable quality?"

- "Not exactly, but at least there are now quite good restaurants in all directions: from North, South, West and East India. Most Europeans assume that there is only one Indian cuisine - but in reality there are at least 25 I am originally from the northwest, from Rajasthan: The food there is very different from the food here in Mumbai - perhaps like German cuisine from Irish, for example. "

The man works as a banker in Dubai, he says. He manages investments in Africa and prefers not to mention his name. His wife is a business advisor and originally comes from Uttar Pradesh, the north-east of India. I prefer not to ask where and how they met: Even with Indian yuppies, arranged weddings continue to play a major role, but most of them don't want to tell it into a reporter's microphone because they are embarrassed. The Irish Brona has completely different worries: The software engineer traveled to Mumbai to exchange experiences and had dinner with Indian colleagues yesterday:

"We were together in a restaurant and at the end small bowls of hot water were handed out. I didn't know whether I should drink the water and rather waited to see what the others would do. Then I saw that we were in the bowls Should wash my hands. I almost embarrassed myself. "

A milkshake by the roadside

Govilkar leads the group on to a juice stand. The seller has a huge, eye-catching glass eye. Mountains of pineapples and pomegranates pile up behind his mixer, next to them boxes full of mangoes.

"Now it's mango time. And that's why we have a mango milkshake here. This variety is called Alfonso and was brought to India by the Portuguese. Since then, it has grown so well that it is now one of the best in the world."

What could well be there: The shake tastes excellent. But the exotic, exciting taste note is missing. And now: is Govilkar heading for a disdainful hamburger joint next? We walk towards a makeshift counter made of plywood: on it are sliced ​​white bread halves, tomato and cucumber slices and - yes, what actually?

If you take a closer look, the dumplings don't look like meatballs. "Vada Paav" is written on the sign hanging from the corrugated iron roof of the booth. In the regional language Marathi, this is the word for potato pancakes, Govilkar translates - and asks you to just take a bite. The tourist family of four from South Africa, who have so far been silent, seem to like the Vada Paav. The father, Johann von Veeren, looks enthusiastically at the Klops:

"It tastes very hot at first. But because the spices are so finely tuned to each other, this heat doesn't overwhelm you. The balance of the spices is impressive - it tastes unearthly. Now the heat is already disappearing from my mouth. It stays with other Indian dishes sometimes preserved for a long time and then at some point appears so dominant that it is no longer fun. But this potato dumpling is prepared exactly to the point. "

Wow, the man at the booth smiles when Govilkar translates this praise for him. Adjey Manu Horsatum is his name. His family has been offering their Vada Paav here for almost half a century.

"My late father used to work here in the telegraph office. This is the building behind us. But he didn't earn enough money there. That's why he also opened this Vada-Paav stand here and invented a new, very special mix of spices for the sauce. Today only my brother and I know the recipe, nobody else. We call our product the "City Vada Paav". It's really popular: We sell up to 2,000 servings a day. However, a few years ago it was even 4,000 servings But there were also many more office workers working here. In the meantime, the branches of many large companies have moved out to the suburbs of Mumbai. "

Vada Paav with a secret recipe

In addition to the high rental prices, there is also a political reason for the massive move out of the city center: Right here at the Flora Fountain, brutal street fights rage every few years, especially between Hindus and Muslims. Then entire districts are cordoned off for days. Mumbai is the epicenter of the Shiv Sena, a notorious radical right-wing Hindu party that downright hunts down people of other faiths and those who have moved in. These fanatics even want to dictate what you can eat: Recently, there has been a threat of up to five years in prison for selling and possessing beef in the state of Maharashtra and its capital, Mumbai. A controversial topic about the sacred cow, which Govilkar takes a careful look around at first.

“I never ate beef in India. In the US, I tried it for the first time and didn't like it at all. Then I learned that beef is prepared in two ways: In the cheap version, the meat is chemically treated immediately after slaughter and soon served. I had tried this and it tasted like rubber. Better to let beef dry naturally until it is ripe. I ate some of it months later - a Chateaubriand steak - and it tasted great. When you try something new So the first attempt may fail. But you can try again. "

The man from the Vada Paav stand doesn't speak English, but he picked up the keyword "Shiv Sena". Now he curses at the Hindu fanatics, because they have even declared the Vada Paav a patriotic achievement: That is why there are now party-owned "Shiv Vada Paav" booths everywhere in Mumbai. They steal many customers from the long-established providers because they can offer the Klopse cheaper: Because they neither have to pay taxes nor stand fees, because nobody dares to ask them about it. In Mumbai even the police cuddle up in front of the Shiv Sena, whose late founder Bal Thackeray saw his role model in Adolf Hitler. Anyone who protests against it quickly gets into trouble. That is why most people prefer to remain silent.

Our guide Govilkar also prefers to leave the Vada-Paav seller standing there and waves the group on to distract from the sensitive topic. Of the stories in the newspapers that portray the metropolis of 19 million and Berlin in the 1920s, nothing can be noticed here and now: passers-by hurry across the street and look very busy. The two young local men from our group act the same, although we are actually following a relaxed pleasure tour. They are yuppies, they say, young urban professionals, and therefore always on the move quickly in life.

- "I am a sound engineer and work in music productions. And then I play as a drummer in several bands. I tour all over India with my bands. And I produce music for Bollywood films."

- "I work as a personal account manager in an Indian bank. We have customers with a certain market value and my job is to look after their financial transactions. These customers must always be satisfied, otherwise I can wrap up. But my job is good: I am still new and learn a lot. "

Now, for a change, Govilkar tempts you with seats in a real street restaurant: It's called "Jimmy Boy" and serves Iranian dishes. The owners are Parsees, descendants of Persian emigrants, as manager Schesad Teherani reports.

"When our people wanted to immigrate to India, the Indian king did not let us into his country at first. Our leader asked for a well-filled bowl of milk and a spoonful of sugar. He poured the sugar into the milk, stirred it, and handed over the bowl to the king and said to him, We will spread kindness and sweetness in your land, and never let anything overflow. The king let us in. "

"Here we try barberry berries with rice. The berries are the red pieces between the grains of rice. They taste extremely sour on their own. But if you add rice, mix both and season, the berries blend in perfectly. You drink soda with it with ginger, raspberry, ice cream flavor, cloves or cumin. What can I offer you? "

Cumin-flavored lemonade

Okay, cumin lemonade certainly doesn't taste good with every evening watching TV at home in Cologne, but here in Mumbai it goes well with the taste challenges. After the Persian berry rice, everyone seems to be full at first. For the family man from South Africa, the tour was worth it. Johann von Veeren:

"Here, the food is prepared very precisely everywhere. Here in South Africa there is perhaps only one Indian restaurant in the neighborhood, and that serves a huge selection of curries from all over India. But in Mumbai every chef specializes in a few, very specific dishes. And he then prepares them in a very individual way. Here every cook seems to be a specialist in himself. "

A few hundred meters further on, our dessert beckons: ice cream, but of course not an ordinary one.

"This family has been selling their ice cream since 1953. They don't take milk from cows, they take buffalo milk because their milk is fatter. The buffalo milk is not whipped, it is simply mixed with fruit and frozen. The ice cream is served in blocks: between waffles like a sandwich. "

And it tastes much creamier than the ice cream at home. In addition, there is a very natural fruit taste, with us again mango, as with the shakes. Govilkars tour ends on Mumbai's waterfront, Marine Drive. Here children beg for money, and in front of a restaurant they also beg for leftover pizza. You can only dream of a culinary tour of your own city.