Let’s get this straight from the outset; Indian cuisine is not my food of choice. I’d much rather take up some South-east Asian delights or Arab food any day. On my last school trip to Mumbai, there was absolutely no choice in what I could eat, and we were regularly plied with buffet-style Indian dishes of the two-star hotel variety, and that’s just when we weren’t in the middle of the jungle. I was beginning to reel at the sight of another paneer makhni and didn’t want anything to do with unidentified curries. It really did put me off altogether, and aside from a meal at the Dubai institution known as Ravi’sin Satwa, I haven’t eaten anything at all from the entire India-Pakistan region. Cue trip to Mumbai.
It started off easily, as I knew a little joint called Cafe Mondegar on the Colaba Causeway, about a kilometre away from my hotel. Frequented by upmarket locals and tourists alike, I counted on this place for masala and cheese omelettes and basic cups of cardamom tea with buttermilk. Satisfying and reasonably priced at 180 rupees a meal, but not impressive. It simply fuelled the machine that only eats twice a day when touristing about. On an even less adventurous scale, the local place I slipped into for dinner turned out to be an Iranian place, and I found myself having felafel for dinner and going to bed hungry. For all the sights and sounds I loved, I was failing miserably in the food department.
By my second night, I knew I had to take a different tack. When my intentions of finding a particular textile store and doing a workout both fell to pieces, I made the move to be more adventurous in my eating. Why didn’t you do that before, you say? Let me know how adventurous you are once you’ve been hooked up to an IV with salmonella poisoning in Bhaktapur, and get back to me. I wandered into a very local place I’d passed by many times while walking through Colaba.
A “pure-veg” restuarant, akin to a canteen by the mosques in Dubai, heralded a table for myself and gratefully, a fan above me. I was presented with a menu, in English, but shivers ran down my spine all the same. The list was huge: dosas, uttapams, pavs, kulfi, yada, yada, yada. You get the idea. I suddenly felt sorry for all my students who ever had to suffer me giving them a text that was too hard, with too much unfamiliar language. I was completely lost, and although I could read the menu, I didn’t know what I could eat. I suddenly wanted Nepali momos, just for the sake of something familiar.
One of the waiters came up to me, and I randomly pointed at something on the menu containing ‘masala’ and something unfamiliar, nodding questioningly. No, he pointed, finished half hour ago. Crap. I pointed at something else. This seemed ok. Looking at the prices, and them being half the price of anywhere else I’d eaten, I thought I’d point to something that looked like it was in the ‘related to bread’ section (one ignores wheat intolerance in desperation). A nod. Thank God. I hoped with all my might that I wasn’t getting some vegetarian equivalent of steak tartar or broiled brussel sprouts and waited for my order.
Turns out, I’d pretty much ordered two main meals: pricing fail. Incredibly, the ‘bread’ based dish was based on rice flour, and I devoured it, and it’s oniony goodness, to my heart’s content, supported by a good portion of the other thing I ordered. Small bowls of pickles, chutneys and other unidentified condiments surrounded me, and I didn’t really know how to approach them. What rocked my world was the wonder of spices, chilli and tomatoes. I could taste the coriander, hiding underneath the flavours of red onion and parsley. I love the way one can meld these flavours together into absolutely anything, and then pile it onto something carby. It was not michelin-star food, but it was wholesome, delicious and NOT paneer makhni (ironically, one of the few things on the menu I did recognise). Vegetarianism win.
I obviously couldn’t finish what I ordered, and as I looked around I’d clearly ordered for two, but also rather hefty portions for two. I didn’t feel so guilty about not finishing then, but I was well full. I busted out a request for a cup of tea, putting all my willpower into hoping that I wouldn’t get a teabag and hot water, and lo and behold, a sweet, milky cup of Indian tea appeared in front of me. Bliss. I sucked it down like I always do, and ordered another. I didn’t care how much it cost – I hadn’t had a fix of great tea to that point, and I wasn’t brave enough to take a cup from the guy walking the streets. A busboy came to collect my cup, and had already been by twice to collect my plates and first empty cup of tea. I considered ordering a third, thought better of it, knowing how much sugar they added, and settled up my US$2.60 bill with the determination to continue awesome food adventures the next morning. No more ponsy omelettes for me; this girl knows what she wants now.