By Nadia Vitari
I moved to Mumbai around 16 months ago and it wasn’t the first time in India for me. I had traveled extensively some years ago, backpacking my way down south and then up, around and about, only not making it to the very north. I stayed away from touristic hotels and restaurants, traveling only by bus or second class train and experiencing the country through its variety of food was definitely one of my missions!
I have always been intrigued by street food stalls and outlets that are flocked by locals of the place. I’d be warned by friends to stay away from certain foods or casual preparations on the streets but my curiosity usually took over my wise side and I gave in to temptations very often. After all, I believed whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and my experiments with Indian food was going to be one of those things, as I was about to discover. Also, I was sure that some anti-bodies would be of great help too!
After becoming a resident of Mumbai, I struggled with differentiating between countless of recipes and food names that sounded similar, often a mixture of Marathi, English, Hindi; the fact that they were often heavily misspelled didn’t help, although it added a touch of humor to my eating-out experience.
I am very fond of ‘korma’ but it is next to impossible to find an authentic preparation here, at least in the outlets that suit my budget. In my quest to find the perfect korma, I have tasted so many variations of it that I wonder why all of those recipes are labeled under the same name at all!
Further, it’s always quite hard for me to decide what to order as, besides the language barrier, staff at restaurants (the local ones, not the glamourous types) are almost never able to tell me the difference between Handi, Agari, Dungri, Afghani, Rashida, Mughlai,, Lazeez, Lasooni, Kohlapuri, Angara, Hyderabadi gravies… (imagine I learnt all those names!).
They all often taste the same except the spice levels are in different proportions. And trying to detect what veggies will I find in them is a good memory exercise too! Even on Holachef, sometimes when I open the description of a dish, it states ‘gravy with flavors of traditional Indian spices’ and I am left wondering what that will be like!
So now I always ask for ‘sada’ despite the staff insisting that I order ‘fry’. I have come to realize that if I don’t want my food floating in oil, it’s best to stick to ‘sada’. And despite my sweet tooth, I have to stay away from Indian desserts – they are a little too sweet for my taste! Usually, I opt for my beloved kulfi or lassi. They are lip smacking and fill in the void left by the absence of yogurt with fruit chunks, well almost! That’s something I miss about Europe and USA – fresh, fruity yogurt!
Another crucial point (and always challenging!) while interacting with restaurant staff is trying to figure out how much paneer or chicken I will find in a dish! Or, as I usually opt for take-out, having to explain to a puzzled waiter that no, I don’t need rice or chapatti or vegetables as I have them at home; but I just need a main course!
One more challenge that I face while ordering food in Mumbai restaurants is that there is rarely a description of the items on the menu, much less a photo. Since Mumbai is greatly flocked by tourists and business travelers from all over the world, this might be a challenge for all of them. However, I am not sure if, like me, they visit the joints that are popular with common Mumbaikars. Perhaps the fine-dine places in Mumbai are better off in that sense.
Of all my explorations with food in India, I have started to realize just how extensive the Indian cuisine is. It surprises me that food change completely from one region to another. I must say that I have fallen in love with South Indian preparations with coconut and mango (too bad they are not so easy to find in Mumbai), kanda bhaji and palak pakoras, creamy kofta curries and pani puri, of course! I just love to indulge in pani puri at sun-down on Juhu beach – you can find the best stalls serving it there and it makes for a great setting to enjoy them too – am talking about the sunset reflection on the sea waves.
Oh how much I love this city, its vibrant reality and enthusiastic character; teaching me something new every day, for the good and bad, both – to my tummy and head!
About Nadia Vitari
Passionate traveler and backpacker, Nadia comes from the Lake of Como area in Italy (yes, where George Clooney lives!). She moved to Mumbai to work for an NGO. Being Italian and having lived, worked and studied in different countries, she is passionate about food and other cultures, especially anything Japanese! She also loves reading, football and rock music.