Mumbai is a melting pot, and its hodgepodge of cultures, communities and culinary influences is best represented in the city’s vibrant street food.
Standing by the roadside on one of Mumbai’s chaotic streets, it’s easy to ignore the vehicles whizzing past you and crowds shuffling by when you’re watching a skilled cook assemble a delicious meal for you. The sheer number of spices and ingredients used in a simple snack is impressive, and the generously dose of butter and/or cheese used in most dishes makes everything extra delicious.
Mumbai has what I’d consider a ‘trinity of street snacks,’ the staples found on every corner. These are the vada pav – a potato-filled patty, deep fried and served in pao (bread) with chutney; chaat – a term used to describe a variety of street snacks that include potatoes, chutneys, spices and yogurt, among other ingredients; and pav bhaji – a spicy mashed vegetable curry served with pao fried in butter.
Beyond this, there are plenty of other cheap and delicious treats that also qualify as a typical Mumbai street dishes. Here are a few of the most popular:
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The Bombay Sandwich varies greatly depending on where you eat it, but it’s generally made up of a wide of array of vegetarian ingredients – such as mushrooms, pesto and even Szechuan sauce – stuffed between two slices of bread and then grilled. Stalls hawking this Mumbai classic have simple equipment – a sandwich press, open packets of sliced bread (Wibbs), bowls of butter and chutney, blocks of cheese, a few masalas and stacks of vegetables.
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Pani Puri – which can be found all over India called by different names, depending on region – consists of a round, hollow puri (fried crisp), filled with a mixture of chaat masala, onions, mashed potato, chickpeas and spicy green chutney, dunked in chilled pani – a mix of tangy tamarind water or water with mint, cane sugar and back salt – and a cold, spicy chili water.
Another form of chaat, dahi puri has the same stuffing as the pani puri but with the addition of dahi (yogurt), moong dal (green lentils), pomegranate, sev (deep-fried noodles made of chickpea or gram flour) and cilantro.
Khichia Papad Chaat
This Gujarati snack can best be described as a loaded papad (a thin, crisp, disc-shaped chip made from gram flour). It consists of a thick khichia papad (rice papad), roasted over coal and topped with a smorgasbord of ingredients – chutney, chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, fried dal, sev, cilantro and various spices. Some ‘pizza’ versions include tomato sauce and generous doses of grated cheese.
Minced meat kebabs can be found hanging from stalls like a curtain or sizzling on open flames, fat dripping into the fire. They are usually found in ‘sketchier,’ places but it is worth the trek through crowded lanes to find this perfectly grilled meat. “Sit on the worn out benches, no menu, no formalities, and no fuss. Straight away someone will come drop a plate with two kebabs and a paratha (doughy pita), green chutney and a bunch of mint twigs,” says food photographer Assad Dadan. “The kebabs are made from ‘Bade ka gosht’ (water buffalo meat). The parathas are half roasted on a tava (flat pan) and half deep fried, coming out crisp and bubbly on the outside and yet soft on the inside.”
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The versatile egg finds much favor in the city’s street food – there are onion-stuffed omelettes served with pav, boiled eggs eaten whole with a pinch of salt and pepper, and the delicious and wholesome bhurji: eggs fried with tomato, onions and your choice of seasoning (think cilantro or curry leaves), and finished off with a salt-turmeric-chili powder zing. It is best experienced at night, or early morning, and is the savior for hungry hordes outside railway stations and bus stops.
The dosa – a thin pancake made with fermented rice and lentil batter – is a demanding dish; it can get messy, noisy and requires your full concentration. There’s no elegant way to eat a dosa. It requires breaking off bits of crispy outer layer, shoveling in the mushy potato stuffing hidden beneath, and dunking it in fragrant sambhar (lentil-based stew) and chutney.
Much like the Bombay sandwich, the sheer variety of dosas found on the streets can get confusing. There are different stuffings – potatoes, paneer (cheese) spinach and beetroot, to name a few – and batters made of semolina, ragi or rice. Often the plain dosas are fried in butter and topped with a heap of grated cheese.