In line with a Sunday roast or fish and chips on Friday, a Saturday night curry has become part of the rich tapestry of British cuisine. The ritual is carried out in a similar fashion across the UK. A group discussion is held, clustered around a cheaply printed menu, where an exotic range of poorly mispronounced food names are thrown into the mix. Before long, a leader of the hungry pack emerges to scribble down the order and satisfy demands for that ‘extra spicy Madras’ (enticingly marked on the menu with not one but two red chillies) along with an unreasonable number of poppadums. After a quick phone call to the ‘Hello Masala’ or ‘Little Taj’ comes an unbearable wait for a man clad in motorbike gear to knock on the door and deliver the bags of lukewarm food. With little regard for table etiquette, the plethora of delicacies are laid out for everyone to share. Bellies full and feeling mildly tipsy from several pints of Kingfisher beer, it takes a while for the realisation to dawn that you’ve massively over-ordered and will be living off cold chana dal and soggy naan bread for the rest of the week.
It certainly came as a surprise when I was forced to step away from the safety net of the West London Indian menu and feed myself in the throbbing city of Mumbai. Long gone were those anglicised chicken korma and onion bhajis; I was left stabbing in the dark in an unknown world of fiery cuisine. Multiple stomach upsets and many mouth-wateringly good meals later, my appreciation of Indian food has been turned on its head. My biggest revelation has been the discovery of so many appetising dishes available on the street. Here are just a handful of my favourites:
Possibly considered Mumbai’s number one street food, Vada Pav consists of a deeply fried ball of hot potato stuffed in a bread roll. In essence, a hash brown sandwich with a spicy twist. The bread itself is mostly unexciting although its origins are of more interest. The word ‘pav’ (pronounced ‘pau’) is both connected to the leaven bread’s Portuguese origin as well as the Hindi word for ‘foot’ in reference to how it is kneaded. Whilst the crispiness of the potato is important, the distinguishing factor of a great Vada Pav is the chutney which varies from stall to stall. At Rs.10 a piece (the equivalent of 12p), they are a perfect, if very unhealthy, energy boost when experiencing that late afternoon lull.
These infamous rice cakes are technically from the south but have no trouble making it up the west coast to Mumbai. Whilst these may be available as a starter at some more authentic UK establishments, they are unequivocally a breakfast dish and the prospect of consuming them later in the day would fill most Mumbaikars with horror. The idli themselves, made from a fermented rice batter, can be rather sticky and have what some might describe as an acquired taste. The difference is made by the sambar, a lentil based vegetable stew in which the idli float and soak up the flavour. Given their dense composition, idli make the ultimate hangover cure, available for just Rs. 25 (30p) per plate of 4.
A personal favourite and another Maharashtrian breakfast staple. Never before had I come across poha, or flattened rice, which is fried up in an irresistible mix of onions, chilli, coriander and peanuts and served with a squeeze of lemon. I was so taken away with poha that I have spent many hours in the depths of a Southall grocer trying to source it in an attempt to recreate the delights at home. It is surprisingly easy to cook, but is usually only available in sit-down cafes for about Rs.50 (65p) per plate.
A tantalising yet risky affair, pani puri are delicious but can easily turn the contents of your bowels to liquid. Choosing you’re the correct vendor can be likened to playing Russian roulette with your gastric health. The process of eating the crispy puffs filled with a choice of spicy or sweet water can be more enjoyable than the flavour itself. The ‘puri’ is opened up by the hands of the vendor, filled with a warm chickpea mix and then dipped in the water so you can force it into your mouth as fast as possible before the liquid runs out. It’s a no biting and no stopping affair, the next one is prepared and lined up at the exact moment the previous has been swallowed. Six is usually deemed an appropriate amount before you need to stop and catch your breath whilst a seventh dry puri (served without the liquid) is given to you to consume at your leisure as a form of palette cleanser. This onslaught of flavour, frequently paired with strains of amoebic dysentery, is available for a very modest Rs.25 (30p).
After the delights of Mumbai, it has been a real struggle to re-adapt to the offerings of a British curry house. My family and friends have even gone so far as to call me an Indian food snob, but I believe we are missing out on the depth and breadth of Indian cuisine. However, with the continual invention of new food start-ups across London and many other cities in the UK, I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I find something to imitate authentic Indian cooking. Before then, I’ll decline the offer of a takeaway.