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If I had a penny for every time someone tweeted saying how horrible Mumbai’s food is, I would be rich enough to book a flight ticket every month to go and eat there. This statement may have come from my undying affection for the city, but it also comes from a deep understanding of its food. This essay is an attempt to deconstruct the noise around “food city”, and which city gets to own the title of “food capital of India”.
In May 2019, just two months before I bid farewell to Mumbai for good, I made a Twitter thread with all the restaurants, road-side stalls, little hole-in-the-wall eateries that I had discovered and loved over the past 15 years; most of which were thanks to my work as a food writer and culinary travel consultant. The thread went viral and — if I am allowed a bit of a humble brag — helped many newcomers as well as Mumbai old timers discover the food of the city. It included a list of places selling the best Maharashtrian snacks (misal pav, batata vada, usal, kothimbir vadi, thalipeeth, the works), the Kerala joints that are slightly off the radar, some really good seafood places, Gujarati joints, and a whole list of street-food stalls. Heck! Even a pretty darn good momo place. And yet, every few weeks I find myself trying to convince a random stranger on Twitter that the food in Mumbai is actually pretty good. More often than not, the people cribbing are from either Delhi or some part of North India. Well, who am I kidding; almost all of them are from Delhi.
Recently someone tweeted that Mumbai lacks places serving good Indian food. Sure, if the definition of what’s Indian food is limited to butter chicken, dal makhni and garlic naan, Mumbai definitely falls behind when compared to Delhi. As a response to the ‘Delhi food is better than Mumbai’ discourse, someone had rightly tweeted, “you’re looking for butter chicken in the wrong city”. But, I am not going to get into another never-ending fight of Delhi vs Mumbai or which city is a better food city. In fact, to quote Sharanya Deepak from her splendid essay in Vittles almost two years ago, “‘Food city’ seems cut from the same cloth as phrases like “must-have condiments'', one that isn’t entirely familiar to me, one that ranks establishments, dishes, cultures against one another as if in a competitive sport.” Sharanya’s piece puts the spotlight on Humayunpur, a little neighbourhood nestled in Safdarjung Enclave. Humayunpur is a Jat (upper caste North Indians) settlement and also home to many students and working professionals from the North Eastern states. I recently went to Humayunpur and was met with over a dozen restaurants, cafes and grocery stores serving and selling North Eastern food and ingredients, all run by the people from the region. For someone who is as interested in food as me, this little piece of Delhi is probably one of the best things about the city’s food. There’s food from not one but seven states of India along with Nepal and Tibet. And yet, Humayunpur rarely gets featured in the top-10 food lists when we talk about Delhi.
For me such lists also create a hierarchy. Who gets to go on top gets to stake a claim on city’s foodscape and vice versa. More often than not these lists include food from dominant communities; case in point, Delhi’s Chitranjan Park area known for its Bengali food gets more fame when compared to Humayunpur. Let’s put the same scenario in Mumbai, and you’d see the Gujarati restaurants in South Bombay getting more coverage than the small Marathi ones in the suburbs. It’s this hierarchy that dictates whose food is worthy to be put on a restaurant’s menu and whose isn’t. Despite a substantial population from Eastern UP and Bihar, Mumbai rarely has food from this region whether on the streets or at the restaurants.
Every city has a history of original settlers and immigrants, and a city’s foodscape is a confluence of all the people who bring in their cuisines, cooking styles and food cultures. That’s the reason you’d see “pav ke pahaad” (yes I am quoting someone from Twitter who complained about too many pavs in Mumbai) in Mumbai and “parathe aur bhature ke parvat” in Delhi. That’s how the food culture of these cities has been shaped - through original settlers who built the city from scratch and then through an influx of immigrants who came to build a new life and in that process made little pockets of home; Humayunpur, Pampoush Enclave (Kashmiri food), Saket and INA Market (Keralite restaurants), Lajpat Nagar (Afghani restaurants and bakeries), Chitranjan Park, Majnu Ka Tila (Tibetan settlement) in Delhi and Matunga (Udipi and Tamil restaurants), Sindhi Camp, Chembur (all sorts of Sindhi food and snacks), Sion Koliwada (Punjabi settlement), Kalbadevi (Gujarati and Maharashtrian), Bohri Mohalla (for Bohri Muslim food) in Mumbai.
A city’s food culture is also defined by the way that city functions and the need of its people. In Mumbai where people are constantly on the move, getting in and out of local trains, traveling long distance and almost always short of time, vada pav becomes that food which allows this moveability without making people break their speed. Delhi on the other hand has no such need which makes a leisurely paratha or chhole bhature possible. Mumbai marches on its breakfast; people who travel 2-3 hours to get to their work place need quick, cheap and nutritious food which creates a space for idli sellers on cycles and poha-upma vendors outside offices in the commercial areas of the city. The point I am trying to make is that a city doesn’t always need to serve indulgent food for the tourists, travelers and weekend explorers, it also needs to serve food that’s more practical, affordable and well…can be eaten every day. And the joy of exploring a city’s food is to find gems within these every day mundane places. This is what makes every city a food city. And as far as the title of “the food capital of India” is concerned, let’s just put it away…permanently.
For those looking to make home in a new city, while you look for the known and familiar, also look for the new and the unknown. Go deep into its old pockets to find the food of the original settlers; navigate through its nooks and corners where immigrants have recreated a piece of their homeland; eat at swanky restaurants and cafes, but also grab a bite at the stalls that feed the city with bare minimum. This is my advice as someone who has done it for a living for over a decade.
As I’ve mentioned above, do read this piece by Sharanya Deepak written for Vittles.
Recently I loved this piece by Maryam Jillani on breaking and bending the rules around hosting a dawat.
I have two book recommendations that introduce readers to Bombay - City Adrift by Naresh Fernandes and Bombay Balchao, a fictional account of the lives of the East Indian community in the city by Jane Borges.
This episode of Whetstone Radio’s Bad Table Manners touches upon the topic of immigrants and the creation of a imagined homeland through the lens of Tibetan food in India. While you’re at it, listen to the whole podcast.
Here’s a quick note of thanks to all the readers. Deep Fry is close to 200 subscribers, which is brilliant given how irregular I am with publishing. Keep reading!