You don’t come to Bombay for salami. So, we didn’t eat it (even though they had it every morning at our hotel breakfast). What we ate was lots of glorious vegetarian food. In India, the culinary question people ask is: veg or non-veg? By that simple phrasing, veg becomes the normative standard, and, one is not assumed to be a carnivore. It is east to eat very well indeed without the slightest bit of meat passing your lips. I do think it is perhaps the best place in the world to be vegan.
If I am anything, I am a contextual eater. My diet, like my ethics and aesthetics, is determined by where I am and who I am with. This is not to say I do not have universal rules, but that I am a soft structuralist – I bend and flex depending on custom and ritual. And so, as they say, when in Bombay, go veg all the way. That does not mean there is only one diet here, but twenty million ways to eat. Many of them are vegetarian, so why not embrace it?
Bombay is a global city and a national hub. You get people from everywhere in India, which means you get great food from all over the subcontinent. This is to say nothing of cosmopolitans from other places as well. What is exceptional is street food; partly because people live such fast paced lives that they need to grab and go. It means there is always something good to eat within touching distance, and, sometimes even a little closer. However, we did not only eat street food, nor curry for that matter. We had good sandwiches, nice cakes, solid Western breakfasts, salad bowls, drinking snacks. This was with friends and when it was just the two of us, in cheap locals and metropolitan hotels, for lunch and dinner, and all the times before and after.
What I like about Bombay is hard to say exactly. I first came here in 2011, and, was exhausted after two days. I was travelling cheap and the hotel I had found was being renovated so they were drilling into the walls throughout the night. I caught a train all the way to Delhi, defeated by it with my brother-in-law, but not quite bowed. I returned in 2016, and, stayed for two months. That was a better trip, and, when I ventured out of town to a small hill station nearby I came back renewed for the monsoon. And yet, the second time here I was also trying to fight the city, criss-crossing town on a daily basis, going out in downpours when I should have stayed home, eating risky food and getting sick by being stupid.
This trip is short, for a week and because of work, but now it feels like I can get along with Bombay. I am fighting it less than I was. I am learning how to be here, how to be part of the city in a way I had not before. What has helped is where we are staying – Khar, which is a hip, welcoming and green district with a number of great, local things. The importance of neighbourhood charm matters here because Bombay is a city cut up by traffic. Avoiding traffic cannot be emphasised enough, at least for me. Sitting still, horns honking, lurching to and fro can take it out of you, especially if you are not used to it. If you keep it local, you will be better for it, even if you are travelling by car with AC. Some restaurants have AC, but all you really need is a fan or some shade, lest you melt into a puddle if you are outside for too long, at least for most of the year. January is supposed to be better, and, you might even need a light sweater.
As for what to eat, I like all the puri snacks – pani to sev to bell (they could be thought of as individual tapas for those who have not visited); I like vada pav, a kind of fried potato dumpling inside a white bread bun with chutney or pickle or sauce; I had some excellent okra that reminded me of small village meal on a trek I did ten years back in the Himalayas; plus dosa, idli, vadai, which are South Indian treats and remind me of the places my mother’s family comes from way down the coast. All of them were on the table this time around plus a great many other things besides. In terms of memorable moments from this trip, I had a wonderful thali lunch the first day I was here at Madras Diaries then there was very good mini vada pav at Pali Bhavan then there was a wonderful meal with friends upstairs downtown at Crystal Ice Cream (which does not serve any ice cream at all) then a cosmopolitan experience at Olive Bar and bits and pieces in between from all around. It was, in this way, somewhat hard to leave because there is a certain rhythm here that engages all your senses. There is a lot to see and do and eat along with simply being when we are in this city. I will have to come back for it.
And though my trip was mainly vegetarian, I did have one moment of glorious meat-eating sublimity. It was at a street side stall where two young guys grilling chicken over charcoal. They then wrapped these succulent pieces of thigh in a handkerchief thin roti before squeezing in lime, a coriander sauce, and pink onions. I ate it right then and there while it was steaming hot and fresh enough for the many, many gods. No finer moment was had, and, it was worth traveling all this distance for. To revel in chicken in a week of being vegetarian – I was the sweeter for it even if it was a little bit of mischief that made you think twice about it.
Where to eat: MadrasDiaries lunch thali; Pali Bhavan appetisers; Crystal Ice Cream for North Indian; The Village Shop for cake and tea; Olive Bar for cocktails; KitchenGarden for salad; any guy on the street for all the snacks, please.