While Mumbai as a city may be something of an acquired taste, the taste of its famous street food is certainly not up for debate: it’s delicious! However, there is a great deal of etiquette required to survive amidst the walas of India’s most populous city.
Street food of Mumbai is sold by vendors from portable stalls and it is one of the major characteristics of the city. Although street food is common all over India, in Mumbai is noted because people from all classes eat beside the road – 24/7/365 – and it is often considered that the taste of the street food is better than food from the city’s restaurants. Many Mumbaikars like a small snack on the road in the evening and cut across barriers of class, religion, gender, and ethnicity to be passionate about their street food. Street food in Mumbai is relatively inexpensive and vendors tend to be clustered around crowded areas such as colleges and railway stations.
But what kind of street food can we expect to find in Mumbai – and how exactly do we eat it?
Vada Pav is noted as the most popular street food in Mumbai, while other famous snacks include: Bhelpuri, Sevpuri, Dahipuri, Ragda-pattice, Pav Bhaji, Chinese bhel, idli and the Masala Dosa, all of which are vegetarian. In terms of non-vegetarian offerings, you can also find omelette-pav, kebabs, and fishy snacks being sold by Mumbai’s walas. The amount of variety of street food is attributed to the cosmopolitan culture of the city. Haggling is not an expected practice with street food (although you are welcome to try it if you like!), although Mumbaikars will have a tendency to just charge you the going rate regardless of your opinion of the price.
Even behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the tourists, there are people known as “dabbawalas” who deliver packed lunchboxes of some of Mumbai’s famous street food to the office workers and salarymen who are positioned around the city. Regardless of your employment or economic status in the city, you’d be a fool to turn down some classic fast food from the streets of Mumbai. In fact, some might say that you can’t be called a real Mumbaikar until you’ve mastered the art of eating a pav bhaji while cycling through chaotic traffic at the Colaba Causeway.
How can you eat street food in Mumbai? Well, there is a lot of effort made to be communal on the streets beside the road. This practice goes on well into the night, when Mumbaikars will chat about their day with each other and perhaps offer their opinions on the state of the nation – all with a good mouthful of meat and curry of course! Eating on the move is also possible if you are in a rush, but the street food culture of Mumbai has occurred through necessity (the need for cheap and convenient food) rather than through luxury (the need to eat something fast in between spending money), so you don’t find many Indians enjoying their vada pav or their pakoras as they rush from one side of town to the next – although this remains a skill worth having, as I mentioned above!
Portion sizes by western standards are usually really small, although compared to street food offerings in other parts of India, Mumbaikars are delighted with their portions and this is one of the things that keeps them going back for more. The usual portion of street food will consist of a bread roll, usually buttered, and spicy sauces or curry in which to utilise the bread. This savoury and sweet combination is an assault on the senses, especially in the hot and humid weather for which western India is known.
Although bread rolls are common on Mumbai’s roads, potato fritters/patties are just as popular, and in fact THE most popular street food in the city is the Vada Pav, which is simply a vegetable burger (a potato fritter in a bun) that is covered with spices and chutney of some kind. In Mumbai, street food is often served with a cornucopia of spices, but the chutney plays a major role, too, for this is the favourite condiment of many a Mumbaikar.
Kulfi (Indian ice cream) is among the desserts found on Mumbai streets, and these are sold predominantly in small shops known as kulfiwalas. Apart from snacks, Mumbai has several juice and milkshake bars on the roadside that offer a variety of drinks. Fresh Sugarcane Juice vendors are synonymous with Mumbai’s roads and these offer a cheap form of refreshment. Tea vendors cycle around the city, selling the beverage hot on the streets.