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A culinary guide to Mumbai

India’s financial capital has earned a reputation as a culinary destination too, serving up everything from superlative street food to creative cocktails.

The Gateway of India, a Mumbai architectural icon.

Photograph by AWL Images
By Aatish Nath
Published 29 Jul 2022, 18:00 BST

Mumbai is forever expanding upwards and outwards. A frenetic commercial hub with a growing population, the city is always on the move — a quality that’s reflected in its cuisine.  Its renowned street food developed in response to the needs of the working class — commuters travelling long distances and looking for quick, nourishing bites. Snacks such as vada pav (a moist potato-patty sandwiched in a soft bun), pav bhaji (a buttered roll with spiced gravy) and kathi rolls (anything from tikka to minced soy, wrapped in a blistered flatbread and finished with mint chutney and spicy sauce) remain firm favourites.

Yet, food in Mumbai is about much more than simple sustenance on the go. It offers an entry into the city’s history, drawing from the communities that have migrated here over the centuries, including the Parsis, who brought dhansak and farcha (fried cutlets with egg) with them from Persia; and the Bohras, originally from Egypt and Yemen, who share meals of flaky mutton samosas and sweet malpua pancakes, all served in a thaal (a shared platter).

The restaurant scene is also shaped by global trends, which are given their own local spin. Previously, international chefs would travel here for pop-ups and events such as the annual World Gourmet Festival at the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai. Although the pandemic has curtailed this, many of Mumbai’s most popular restaurants are now weaving global ideas into their own cooking. Establishments such as Ekaa and Masque bring New Nordic techniques to Indian ingredients, while dishes at O Pedro, such as red snapper ceviche in solkadhi (a cooling coconut-based drink), combine Goan flavours with influences from Portugal, Peru and beyond.

In the home of Bollywood, actors have traditionally been the biggest stars in town, yet some of the city’s chefs have also become celebrities. Pooja Dhingra’s Le15 is a brand built as much on her strong Instagram following as her sweet patisserie, while chef Thomas Zacharias has made a name for himself by creating videos about the country’s bounty of indigenous ingredients. Indeed, restaurants like The Bombay Canteen — where Zacharias formerly worked in the kitchen — have inspired a renewed interest in Indian gastronomy more generally, whether it’s by reviving traditional dishes or simply celebrating the best local produce. Two of the best new restaurant openings doing the latter are Noon at Bandra Kurla Complex, and the aforementioned Ekaa in Kala Ghoda.

Mumbai’s past under British rule, meanwhile, is reflected in its private members’ clubs, such as the Breach Candy Club and Willingdon Sports Club, which continue to thrive in a city where wealth is stratified and membership is a mark of status. These venues have inspired beloved dishes such as chicken cheese toast (best tried at Right Place), and gin chicken, which is available at Ling’s Pavilion.

So, whether you prefer to pick up a quick bite to take away or settle in for a long lunch at the club, Mumbai is a place best explored by following your stomach.

Selection of dishes at Masque.

Photograph by Rohan Hande Photography

A day in Colaba and Kala Ghoda

Colaba, the city’s main tourist area, is full of old-world charm — and great places to eat. Start at Kuckeliku Breakfast House, which opened during the pandemic and has earned a reputation for its smart plates. Order the Kuckeliku Breakfast — a hearty, customisable combo that includes a choice of eggs, sausage, fruit and a pancake, waffle or French toast.

Afterwards, head towards Apollo Bunder, the old seaside promenade with views out over the ocean and ferry departures to Elephanta Island, where visitors can admire 8th-century rock carvings. Food and drink vendors can be found along the promenade day and night, so grab some chai, coffee or chaat (snacks) if you need a pick-me-up before making your way to the Gateway of India. This imposing stone structure was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 and remains one of the city’s architectural icons.

Have lunch at The Table, known for its casual setting and small plates for sharing. Settle in at the communal table downstairs and order the shaved snow pea salad and shrimp dumplings. A short walk north brings you to the narrow lanes of Kala Ghoda, where independent brands rub shoulders with hip coffee shops. At Nicobar you’ll find home accessories and flowing, tropical-inspired clothing, while FabIndia is the place for accent tableware and organic spices. Also in Kala Ghoda, pay a visit to the beautifully restored Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, with its jewel-box interiors featuring tiled floors and stained glass windows. 

Sip a glass of wine or sake at the Wine Bar, a relaxed spot hidden behind Kala Ghoda Cafe. When you’re ready for dinner, make your way over to the cafe for hearty dishes made with farm-fresh ingredients. The red Thai rawas (salmon) and salad nicoise are great options. 

Colaba Causeway Market.

Photograph by Alamy Stock Photo

A day in Bandra

With its colourful bungalows and narrow lanes, Bandra’s Portuguese history is writ large, but the smart coastal suburb is also somewhere that wholeheartedly embraces the new, particularly when it comes to restaurants. 

Join the regulars in the queue at either American Express Bakery or J Hearsch & Co for a takeaway breakfast of chicken and mutton puffs or cylindrical cream rolls. Stop off afterwards at Subko Specialty Coffee Roasters for one of its interesting rotating selection of pour-overs, a bottled horchata, or simply to soak in the vibe among the coffee shop’s well-heeled clientele. 

A quick auto-rickshaw ride away is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount. According to local lore, a fisherman dreamt he’d find a statue at sea, and when his vision came true he installed it in the church. It now serves as a shrine for devout Catholics, who seek blessings and make wishes.

A 10-minute walk north will deposit you at Kulture Shop, a fun space selling quirky gifts and prints created by local graphic designers. Continue on to Shop Lune for celestial-inspired jewellery and Trilogy Curated Bookshop for a wide selection of volumes. 

Once you’re ready to eat, make your way to Pali Bhavan for great Indian food in a maximalist setting replete with chandeliers, vintage photos and old art prints. Meat eaters shouldn’t miss the mutton biryani, butter chicken or galouti kebab, while vegetarians should go for the broccoli marinated with mustard seeds or the Chettinad mushroom masala.

If you can handle the heat, spend time seeking out some of the 30-plus Bollywood Art Project murals that populate the area. Each is a colourful homage to famous films, actors or scenes — the wall along Chapel Road, depicting movie heroines from the 1970s, is a real highlight.

End at Woodside Inn, a two-storey English pub-inspired venue serving local craft beers and cocktails. Try the bar bites — the truffle fries, potato skins and sourdough toasties are all strong choices — or a pizza.

Artist Ranjit Dahiya paints a mural of actor Dharmendra in Bandra.

Photograph by Getty Images

Three trendy hangouts


1. Americano
Made with in-house infusions, cordials and bitters, the cocktails at Americano are potent. Try the night owl for a mix of bourbon, whisky, coffee, orange and cinnamon bitters. The food, meanwhile, includes pasta and pizzas topped with everything from fontal cheese to nduja sausage. 

2. The Bombay Canteen
Since opening seven years ago, TBC, as it’s known to regulars, has been at the vanguard of the city’s restaurant scene. Chef Hussain Shahzad adds his own touch to traditional dishes; if his creamy, slow-cooked Bhopali chicken rezala is on the regularly changing menu, be sure to order it. 

3. Masque
Located on a street of offices and warehouses, Masque does things differently, serving unusual dishes such as oyster with strawberry vinegar, and khari biscuits with lime custard. The 10-course tasting menu is seasonal, centring around what’s available locally — including from the restaurant’s own farm. 

Three spots for vegetarians


1. Amar Juice Centre
The menu at this fast-food spot with pavement seating spans cuisine from the subcontinent and beyond, but the pav bhaji, a Mumbai staple, is undoubtedly the best choice. Beyond that, there’s Indian-style pizza, dosas and grilled sandwiches, and the cold coffee is also popular. There’s a smaller branch at Chowpatty, but the original outlet in Vile Parle is a neighbourhood hangout with a fun feel, making for a better dining experience. 3 Gulmohar Road, JVPD Scheme, Vile Parle West.

2. Lashkara by Punjab Sweet House
Punjabi food is often synonymous with butter chicken, but Lashkara, in Bandra’s Pali Hill, will challenge preconceptions about north Indian cuisine with its vegetarian menu. The mushroom and paneer tikka, dal makhani and paneer tikka masala are all not to be missed. And you can mop up any sauce with airy naans or flaky paratha, before ending with sweets such as jalebi and gulab jamun. The setting is simple and casual, with tables packed close together and sofa seating, so it’s the food that does the talking here. 

3. Shree Thaker Bhojanalay
Showcasing the versatility of vegetarian food, this restaurant offers a seminal thali experience. The dishes change daily, but a thali is a nutritionally balanced meal that includes different textures and tastes. Expect dishes such as sweet kadhi (pakoras in a yoghurt and gram flour gravy) and spongy steamed dhokla (cubes of fermented batter). Eat with your hands straight from the steel serving bowls known as katori, and make the most of the unlimited refills. 31 Dadiseth Agiary Lane, off, Kalbadevi Road.

Rasam, a soup packed with tamarind, tomatoes and red lentils.

Photograph by Stockfood

A spotlight on... regional restaurants

Mumbai is home to numerous regional enclaves, with communities from different parts of India observing cultural and culinary traditions that have been passed down through the generations. The Matunga area is home to a large number of south Indians — primarily Tamils — so you’ll find crisp dosas, sinus-clearing rasam (a tangy soup flavoured with tamarind) and exceptional chutneys at busy, shared-table establishments such as Cafe Madras and Sharda Bhavan. 

In Dadar, the subtle spicing of Maharashtrian food — the cuisine of the local Marathi people — can be found in the thalipeeth flatbread at Prakash Shakahari Upahaar Kendra and the misal pav (spicy curry with a bread roll) at Aaswad. Also big in this area is Konkani cuisine, which makes liberal use of fish and seafood. It’s best tried at Gomantak or Acharekar’s Malavan Katta. The thali at both offers a little of everything, but a bombil fry (coated, deep-fried duck) and tisrya masala (clams in coconut paste and spices) are both worth adding to any order.

Bohri Mohalla is the spiritual home of the Bohra Muslim community, and is great for meats and sweets. Haji Tikka Corner and Indian Hotel are two stalwarts. The former is great for tikkas, while at the latter try baida roti (square, filled parcels of meat and egg). Surti Bara Handi is worth a visit for its slow-cooked goat’s feet with crisp Mughlai roti. No matter where you eat, finish with hand-churned ice cream at Taj Ice Cream or malai khaja (cream-filled puff pastry) at Shabbir’s Tawakkal Sweets.  

Three Irani cafes to check out


1. B Merwan & Co
Originally established by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, Irani cafes have been part of Mumbai’s fabric since the 19th century, and B Merwan is among the best. Try the akuri (spiced scrambled eggs) and cardamom tea. Shop No 1, Station East 2, Alibhai, Premji Road, Grant Road.

2. Kyani & Co
One of the oldest Irani cafes in operation, Kyani & Co dates back to 1904. Order tea and khari biscuits or butter cookies from the bakery, or sit down for a chicken Irani kebab in the main restaurant. Jer Mahal, Estate, 657 Jagannath Shankar Seth, Road, Dhobi Talao, Marine Lines.

3. Cafe Irani Chaii
Although it opened in 2015, this place comes with traditional Irani cafe interiors, down to the tiled flooring and wood panelling. The menu encompasses favourites like eggs akuri and chicken dhansak. No 9 Rosary Chawl, Mangrees Premises, MMC Road, Mahim West.

Essentials


Getting there 
Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Air India all fly nonstop from Heathrow to Mumbai.

Where to stay 
The Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Colaba has doubles from 15,000 rupee (£150), B&B. 

How to do it
Audley Travel offers a 10-day Mumbai and Goa itinerary from £2,540 per person, including all flights, transfers and hotels, with three nights in Mumbai. 

More info 
incredibleindia.org

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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