Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mumbai Street Food and Bye-Bye India - Mike Pardus

My flight got messed up, originally I was supposed to leave this morning from the farm at 6:30 am for a 9:45 am flight from Kochi to Mumbai, but Air India canceled the 6:45 flight – and the only alternative they could offer was for me to leave on their 3:45 am flight and then wait 20 hours for the 0:15 am flight from Mumbai- JFK on Wednesday. A 20 hour layover in Mumbai…cool! AI agreed to give me a hotel room for the layover…so, I arranged for a car and a guide from 12-8 pm, went to the hotel, got a few hours of sleep and then hit the streets.

My guide is Mrs. Doshi, an Indian woman who had lived in the US for many years, has a Master’s degree in Anthropology and a passion for food. After a short discussion about what I was looking for, we took off for downtown. First stop was Crawford Market – although she described it as “Like Costco” – and it is to some extent – the produce section was full and rich and colorful. A quick look around confirmed that there was nothing “new” and I was headed for the door when I did see something new. “What’s that?


“Shingoda” she replied…”try one, peel it first”…she had a few words with the vendor and I was popping one into my mouth. Shingoda is a sweet, crunchy, slightly starchy – like a water chestnut. “We use it for soups and curries” my guide explained. Searching on the ‘net later I see that some people are saying that they are the same thing, but they’re not – the closest I can find is “Water Caltrop”, which are unrelated to Chinese water chestnuts, but the pictures are all of dried ones with hard shells ( they're invasive to the hudson River so I see a lot of them here), not the fresh ones shown above. If anyone has any definitive information, pass it on.

After leaving Crawford Market I was determined to eat some of Mumbai’s famous crunchy street foods, but Mrs. Doshi doesn’t want me getting sick on her watch…”You’ve been in India 10 days, you don’t want to be sick going home, I’ll take you to a place that I know is clean and you can taste the same things while we sit down – you can taste and take notes and I’ll tell you about them.” Sounds good to me.

Mrs. Doshi instructs the driver to take us into the financial district – it’s only 2:00 pm, so most of India’s yuppie traders are still at work and “Vithal Family Restaurant” is empty. As we enter, Mrs. Doshi greets the waiters with familiarity, explaining who I am and why I was there, and they start bringing us small plates of crispy, crunchy things – miniature puri , bowls of fried chick-pea flour vermicelli, and puffed rice – accompanied by ramekins of sweet, sour, spicy, creamy, and herbal condiments. Ragda Pattie, Bhelpuris, Panipuris, dahibatatapuri, and the fried cheese on top of flat “failed” puri – paneertikka. Are all more or less variations on a theme. Basically, take something crunchy – like puris (fried flat bread which puffs in the center to make a hollow ball) – and fill it with a variety of tastes and textures to play with your palate. The typical condiments for these are all similar, or identical, as well – date/tamarind chutney, mint/cilantro chutney, sprouted mung beans, minced raw onion or shallot, red chili flakes or fresh green chilies, yogurt.

After lunch – with lots of photo and note taking – Mrs. Doshi shows me around the city on a whirl wind tour – or as fast as one can whirl in Mumbai traffic. The contrast between the regal colonial architecture and the abject poverty of cardboard shacks is not unexpected, but unsettling none the less. The Bay in “Bom Bay” is a beautiful crescent opening into the Arabian sea that the urban sprawl can’t seem to ruin.

By 7:00 pm I’ve been awake for 26 hours and still need to push another 12 hours before allowing myself sleep on the plane – my “anti jet lag” strategy is to stay awake until I’m 8-9 hours from New York, I’m scheduled to land at 7:00 am NY time, so I figure that if I wake up after 8 hours of sleep at 7:00 am local time I’ll be well on my way to normal in a day or two.

Mrs. Doshi recommends an upscale tandoori style restaurant near the airport and bids me a safe trip. Dinner of roasted fish and curried vegetables is fine and satisfying, the airport is crowded and hectic, but finally I board the plane, fold myself into my space, and relax while trying not to sleep.

My sleep strategy seems to have worked, I’m a little dis-oriented (no pun intended, but I’ll take ‘em where I find ‘em), but otherwise in good shape. Chuck Berry sound track playing in my head on the way home I feel guiltily American…I’m DYING for Cheese burger, French fries and a cold, hoppy beer (yeah, it's 7:00 AM and, yeah, I'm going to have a beer...)


Linda said...

Nothing like an anthropologist to show you good food and a good time....

Tags said...

So when is the Pardus Spice Compendium coming out?

Peter said...

Your whole trip diary was a great read! I love behl puri and the one you ate looks so differetn from the ones here in montreal. My wife and I are planning a culinary trip to India for next year, and I would love to get more details from you...either through your public writing or email.
Peter Horowitz
from the Ethicurean

Mike Pardus said...

Feel free to stay in touch through this site. I'd be glad to help if I can.

Quite a lot of Indian expats in Montreal,maybe I've got my puri mixed up = what do the ones you eat look like?

Bob del Grosso said...

You are the uberchef; nolo contendere.