Food walks: Mumbai on my plate

My coffee comes with a tray that has four candies in pink wrappers. I am at Candies in Pali Hill, Bandra, Mumbai, the starting point for the food walk Kalyan Karmakar has promised to take me on. Called the Bandra Legends Walk, it covers restaurants and shops, which have been part of Bandra for long. “Allan Periera started Candies 25 years ago in his ancestral home,” says Karmakar, Mumbai-based blogger, who writes Finely Chopped.

The ground floor of Candies is noisy with youth engaged in animated conversations. A couple in the corner is using the space to iron out their differences. As we climb the stairs to the top floor, a signboard announces that we have entered the Quiet Zone. The landing looks into an open terrace. The walls are tastefully done with Allan’s mosaic portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Jesus Christ, Barack Obama and Mahatma Gandhi. On our way back to the entrance, we meet “Paris Hilton” as Karmakar puts it. “This is the real Candice,” he says, making the 30-something woman blush. “She is Allan’s daughter, the person whom the restaurant is named after. So it is technically like meeting Paris Hilton.” We have a good laugh and head out to the nearby Pali Market.

We stop at Mark’s, a grocery store in the Pali market, where the owner Nancy D’Souza offers us fresh mangoes and flaunts the tattoo of a cross on her hand, the one that drove her mom ‘nuts’. At Lalu’s Vegetables you find thyme and spring onions sharing shelf space with green chillies, curry patta and shallots. At our next stop at Meghna Agro, Karmakar lets out a secret. That the owner Jatin Bhalla’s father was a scriptwriter for erstwhile Bollywood movies. Jatin, one of the few Punjabis who sells meat in Bandra, smiles and lets it pass as he shows us cold cuts of different shapes and sizes. Karmakar urges the walkers to sample the Parsi sali par eendu—potato straws served with an egg cooked sunny side up—at Ashmick’s Snack Shack. By the end of Karmakar’s walk, we have made friends with some of Bandra’s legends, tasted some of the best food available in the suburb and savoured many a story about the city and its people.

Priced anywhere between Rs.1,000 and Rs.5,000, Mumbai’s food walks are an engaging way to know the city. These walks usually cover a specific area or neighbourhood and involve tasting and understanding the food and the stories behind it. “Food has more stories to tell than we can ever imagine. It is universal in its appeal and yet very specific to each culture, its history, climate, belief systems, agriculture and economy,” says Reshmy Kurian, founder of the web site Bombay Chowparty that conducts taste trails and cooking workshops.

A food walk is different from a heritage or sightseeing walk because you employ all your five senses to understand and experience the place and its people, says Roshni Bajaj, food writer and guide for the Mumbai Boss Taste Trails. “Food walks offer a chance for complete immersion in the culture and the ways of a population and area,” she says.

However, a food walk is not complete without a bit of history. While Karmakar’s walk delves into the personal histories of the restaurant owners and shops in Bandra, the Tamil Town walk conducted by Travel Logs traces the history of migration of the south Indians to Mumbai.

“So where did the idli come from?” Nitika Khanna of Travel Logs asks me during a Tamil Town walk. The waiter at the Idli House throws impatient glances at me as I try to scoop up

Khau Galli at Fort Photo: Vishnu V. Nair
Khau Galli at Fort
Photo: Vishnu V. Nair

a piece of my jackfruit idli without letting the melted butter on top trickle down. “Tamil Nadu?” I offer. “Indonesia,” says Khanna, almost startling me. “The earliest mention of the idli can be found in the Sangam literature. It is assumed to have been inspired by a snack called kedley found in Indonesia at the same time. It is also made by fermenting and steaming.” Its roots can also be traced back to Czechoslovakia, where this technique of cooking was widely used, says Dhiresh Sharma of Travel Logs. “There are many such things we do not care to think of while eating,” says Khanna. “Every bite of what we eat, carries with it baggage of rich history and culture. It is impossible to have an informed perspective of food without knowing the history behind it.”

The idli finally reached Mumbai through the Udupi Brahmins, says Khanna. Matunga is now the centre of the best Udupi restaurants in Mumbai, some of which have stayed true to their roots while some others have diversified to include pav bhaji dosas and Schezuwan uthapams in its menu. And, this we realized by walking through the small lanes lined by flower vendors, book sellers and dosa kadais for around three hours, stopping occasionally to get a taste of the street food on offer.

Besides Matunga, the preferred areas for food walks are Dadar, for Maratha cuisine, Fort for Parsi eateries and Colaba for Goan food. “The real joy during a walk is to see people happily try out what they would have otherwise never eaten,” says Bajaj. She recalls how some of her customers fell in love with Goan dishes like roasted beef tongue and shark ambotik when they tried it for the first time. “Another plus is when people who have been living in the neighbourhood for years say that they have never heard of the eateries or the dishes,” says Bajaj. “Little things like this make the walk enjoyable for us, too.”

Earlier, foreign tourists were the main consumers of food walks, which are usually conducted for groups of eight to 10 people. For them, it was about getting introduced to unusual and unfamiliar Indian flavours. Kurian laughs as she recalls the time when one of her American customers tried paan. “She was shocked because she thought she was eating perfume,” says Kurian. “Another thing which doesn’t fail to leave me in giggles is the battle these foreigners wage with street food. The struggle to learn to plop one whole pani puri into their mouths is my favourite.”

The trend of food walks seems to be fast catching up with the locals, too. Now more and more of them are coming forward to experience a piece of the pie. “All kinds of people come for my walks. From NRIs to those who are new to the city and locals, the group is almost always diverse

Street seller with jalebis at Fort Photo: Vishnu V. Nair
Street seller with jalebis at Fort
Photo: Vishnu V. Nair

. Last time, I had a person who was gifted the walk by his wife,” says Karmakar, who also conducts bespoke walks on request. “There are no criteria to be a part of food walks. A love for food, willingness to experiment, hunger for new experiences and an adventurous palate would help.” A food walk is also a great way to make new friends from diverse background, all united by a love for food.

A minimum of a month’s planning goes into charting out a walk, say organisers. “When people are giving you two to three hours of their time, it is a huge responsibility,” says Bajaj. As of now, there are at least seven tour organisers who offer food tours in the city. “Considering the pace at which the Mumbai food scene is expanding, I would not be surprised to find a dozen more food walks cropping up in the coming years,” she says. So, what are you waiting for? From the bheja, boti and khiri fry of Mohammed Ali Road to the thalipeeth, solkhade and aam panha of Dadar, the city of dreams is right here on your plate, waiting to be tasted.So get that “cutting” chai and walk into the heart of Mumbai to get your hands dirty and your bellies full.

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