My comfort food in college was milky cutting chai – spiced tea ‘cut’ into a small glass portion –accompanied with maska pav (a bread bun with lots of butter) sold on a Mumbai street corner.
Or, on a good day if the vendor had stocked up on eggs, I’d upgrade to an anda pav – a bun with an omelette inside — or I could walk across to another shack and have a chutney sandwich or a baida roti – -fried Indian flatbread filled with spicy mince and egg.
This was cheap street food that kept me going.
Now, I don’t have to stand on a grimy street to savour such dubious pleasures.
Mumbai’s street food is traveling inside to the tables of some of the trendiest new restaurants in India and abroad and getting the gourmet treatment.
In Delhi, Sodabottleopenerwala — an Irani cafe with decor and menu as quirky as its name – has made street food a signature offering. The menu is accented with Parsi treats like raspberry soda and Irani favourites like berry pilau. But it also includes maska pav, deep-fried onion fritters and a Mumbai-style chutney sandwich as well as vada pav – a bun with a big deep fried ball of mashed masala potato smashed inside it topped with a sautéed green chili and some spicy masala.
In London, Dishoom Covent Garden, which is modelled on the traditional cafes of Bombay, recently ranked top in a search for Britain’s best restaurant beating a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by Heston Blumenthal. It serves vada pav (described as Bombay’s version of London’s chip butty) with a sprinkle of red masala to taste and bhel – puffed rice tossed with pomegranate, tomato, onion, lime, tamarind and mint.
So how did old-school street food favorites become the latest in culinary cool?
I’d say it’s three fold.
First: The food is quick, tasty and fun.
Second: The food is quick, tasty and fun without the germs and dust associated with most street food.
Third: Nostalgia. The restaurants serving up this fare are retro in feel and this food fits.
From the chequered tablecloths right down to the knickknacks and aluminium serving plates, the restaurants, some designed to look like Mumbai’s Irani cafes, take diners back in time and local street food appeals to retro taste buds.
The latest eatery to bring street food in off the streets is the Bombay Canteen in Mumbai.
While I usually skip restaurant street food, because I honestly don’t see the point of spending that much money on something I can get cheaper outside, this place has won my heart and my stomach.
From the floor tiles and stained glass partitions between the booths to the copper serving dishes and the food – everything here will remind you of Irani cafes and old-style Parsi homes.
The menu is designed by Mumbai chef Floyd Cardoz, who left India when he was 27 years old. He set up the award-winning Tabla restaurant in New York in 1998 and ran it until 2011 serving what he referred to as New Indian cuisine. Now back in the city of dreams and giving local flavors a contemporary edge.
We picked the devilled eggs flavoured with a piquant Goan curry masala, fried lotus root slivers and what seemed to be mini cheese straws.
And we ordered the High Tea – a one and half litre copper urn of the house punch made with white rum, almond syrup and lots of sliced figs and kiwis.
It’s wickedly sweet but refreshing.
The love for pav continues here. The Choriz Bunny Pau was a take on the South African Bunny Chow — a scooped out bun filled with curry.
At the Bombay Canteen, a really monster-size pav is scooped out and filled with a broad bean, spinach and Goan chorizo sausage stew.
You break the pav into pieces and sprinkle it with toppings like onion, fenugreek, lime, chili that are served in a copper masala container.
It was a brilliant marriage of an international concept with local flavours.
The Mandeli Fry are battered local anchovies.
One of our favorites was the Pork Vindaloo Taco. The tacos were actually methi theplas (Gujarati flatbreads made with gram flour and wheat flour and fenugreek leaves) topped with shredded pork.
We also had the banana leaf wrapped roasted “catch of the day” that was Red Snapper in a spicy Keralan tomato gravy, which we ate with a creamy coconut rice steamed in a banana leaf.
What I loved about this place was the wonderfully diverse set of flavours and dishes that still managed to conjure memories of great meals eaten when young and ravenous at various homes, street corners and cafes across Bombay.
The meal for five at the Bombay Canteen cost 6,500 rupees, ($103) including the tanker of alcohol.
The Bombay Canteen, Unit No. 1, Process House, Kamala Mills, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel (West). Phone: 022-49666666.