Eat the streets: discovering Mumbai’s best street food

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Mumbai is a dizzying, dazzling metropolis, a city that never tires and never sleeps. If you’ve ever wondered what keeps this Indian megacity going, you’ll find the answer in its buzzing streets, filled with a thousand hawkers dishing out cheap eats. Locals always find time to pause at rickety carts in narrow by-lanes for a street-food treat or a glass of ‘cutting chai’ (the city’s famous half-measure of tea) helping a million-strong workforce get on with their day.Street food vendors selling snacks in Mumbai © Arun Sambhu Mishra / ShutterstockRoadside snack vendors doing brisk business in Mumbai © Arun Sambhu Mishra / Shutterstock

Born out of necessity, the city’s legendary street food has its origins in its now vanished mills and factories, where multitudes of workers needed quick, inexpensive meals on the go. The streets of Mumbai still burst into life each morning like a rhythmical orchestra as a legion of mobile chefs engage in a daily ritual of chopping, spicing, grilling and frying that goes on late into the night.

As you roam the streets, seek out delicacies such as poori bhaji, a flaky deep fried breakfast pastry served with spicy potato curry, or dabeli, mashed potato with a mouth-watering topping of grapes, spiced peanuts, onions and garlic chutney, sandwiched in a grilled bun. Here are our top picks of the tantalizing street-food on offer in Mumbai.

Chaat ingredients at a street-side stall © IndiaPictures / Getty ImagesChaat ingredients at a street-side stall © IndiaPictures / Getty Images

Chaat your mouth

Chaat – a word derived from the Hindi term chaatna meaning ‘to lick’ – is Mumbai’s most famous street-food goody. Every nook and corner of the city has its own chaat vendors, serving up spicy, crispy and tangy eats to eager crowds of locals. Favourite chaat ingredients include sev(crunchy fried noodles), pulses, potato patties, onions, coriander and chillies, seasoned with the spice mix known as chaat masala. To indulge in the best Mumbai chaats, head to the crowded khau gallis (food lanes) around Churchgate Station, Ghatkopar station or Bandra’s Carter Road. Also seek out the bhelpuri – Mumbai-style chaat with crispy bhelnoodles, puffed rice and tamarind chutney – served at Girgaum Chowpatty and Juhu Beach.

Vada pav – Mumbai's answer to the veggie burger © Espies / ShutterstockVada pav – Mumbai’s answer to the veggie burger © Espies / Shutterstock

The snack that defines Mumbai

Like an Indian version of a veggie burger, vada pav or vada pao is Mumbai’s most beloved native dish. A deep-fried potato dumpling stuffed into a bun with a generous portion of spicy green chillies and garlic chutney, vada pav is what urban legends are made of. The story goes that in the early 1970s, a street-food vendor at Dadar station concocted the snack in a moment of inspiration and it was seized on by a local political movement as a symbol of Marathi pride, ensuring enduring popularity.

Politics aside, you can still taste the original vada pav, served by the same family for forty years at the iconic Vaidyas’ stall, situated on platform 1 of Dadar station. Other top spots for the snack include Ashok Vada Pav, on Kashinath Dhuru Marg in Dadar, and Aaram Vada Pav right opposite CST station.

Presentation is everything at a stall selling chana jor garam © Vistas from Soni Rakesh / Getty ImagesPresentation is everything at a stall selling chana jor garam © Vistas from Soni Rakesh / Getty Images

Some like it hot

Made from fried pulses, onions, chutney and spicy masalas, chana jor garam is a spicy-tart snack that translates from colloquial Hindi as ‘super hot chickpeas’. Always refreshing, this portable palate teaser comes in numerous variations and is freshly-prepared for each serving, making it one of the safest street foods to eat. To best experience this tangy treat, head to one of the city’s water-facing promenades. You’ll find school students and college crowds queuing for their share at many Mumbai hotspots, including Marine Drive, the Gateway of India and Shivaji Park.

Pav bhaji was invented as soul food for Mumbai's cotton traders © Mel Melcon / Getty ImagesPav bhaji was invented as soul food for Mumbai’s cotton traders © Mel Melcon / Getty Images

The American connection

Perhaps the most popular street snack in the city, pav bhaji arrived in Mumbai thanks to America. Food historians trace its history back to the 1840s, when Mumbai merchants trading in cotton made fortunes due to the global shortage caused by the American Civil War. These mercantile Mumbaikers started work early and finished late, so local hawkers created a fastfood snack of curried vegetables and mashed potatoes, mopped up with a buttery bread roll, for traders to munch when they knocked off at midnight.

Today, the dish can be found throughout the day, at dozens of stalls and moving kiosks across the city. For a satiating portion, visit Sardar Refreshments, opposite the Tardeo Bus Station or Cannon Pav Bhaji opposite the CST subway. Alternatively, for pav bhaji on the go, choose from the many Zunka Bhakar Kendras stands dispersed around Nariman Point.

Assorted pakoda for sale at a street food stall © Nullplus / Getty ImagesAssorted pakoda for sale at a street food stall © Nullplus / Getty Images

Anytime is bhajee time

Bhajis and pakodas are Mumbai’s favourite fritters – delicious packages of onion, potato, spinach, aubergine, green chillies and other fillings, deep-fried in gram-flour batter. Particularly popular in the rainy season, these quick snacks are served fresh from the pan with green chutney, tomato sauce or piping hot tea. Pick your favourite filling from the many variants on offer at Soam, near Girgaum Chowpatty, or the khau gallifood alley at Nariman Point.

For an adventurous twist, seek out the innovative ‘ice cream bhaji’ at Monika Ice Cream at Mahavir Nagar in the western suburb of Kandivali, or Chinese-style pakodas served with a soy sauce dip at Parleshwar Vada Pav Samrat on Nehru Rd in Vile Parle.

Falooda: the perfect meal-finisher for anyone with a sweet tooth © Fotosanjay / Getty ImagesFalooda: the perfect meal-finisher for anyone with a sweet tooth © Fotosanjay / Getty Images

Cleanse your palette with a sweet treat

Once you have tried all the above, conclude your Mumbai street food trail with a plate of watermelon, pineapple, oranges and Mahabaleshwarstrawberries at an outdoor kiosk, surrounded by vendors clinking cold drink bottles. If you’re in the mood for something sweeter, order a falooda, a tall glass of vermicelli noodles, dried fruits and nuts, doused with rose syrup and topped with sabza (sweet basil seeds), at the Haji Ali Juice Centre at Breach Candy or Swati Snacks at Tardeo.

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