Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chaat on a Mumbai Beach

Mumbai is India’s economic powerhouse and the cosmopolitan home of Bollywood, the world’s most prolific film industry. The city also epitomizes the subcontinent’s diversity: it has the worst slums in Asia as well as some of the world’s priciest apartments. Frenetically fast-paced, many of its 17 million inhabitants eat on the go – and traditional chaat is the snack of choice.

The head-spinning modern city of Mumbai was originally seven islands populated exclusively by fishermen. The islands belonged to several different dynasties over the centuries, but fell under European control when the Portuguese invaded in 1508, renaming the islands Bom Bahia (the Good Bay). Some 150 years later, the Portuguese handed the islands to the British, who headquartered the East India Company in “Bombay.”
They reclaimed vast swaths of land to join the islands together and began a rapid expansion of the port. By the time India gained independence in 1947, Bombay was by far its most prosperous city, boasting a fine collection of Raj-era architecture, including the triumphal arch of the Gateway of India, the Taj Hotel, the VT train station, and the Prince of Wales Museum.
The city’s reputation as a financial and trade center was augmented by the booming entertainment business, and Mumbai, as it was renamed in 1996, was soon displaying the brash confidence and wealth of the growing middle class. The constant stream of immigrants from other states and foreign lands added to the cosmopolitan atmosphere and to Mumbai’s cuisine – so it is fitting that the most popular dish here is not a single item but a collection of snacks that fall under the blanket term chaat. They are available at thousands of stands and roadside dhabas (very basic restaurants) throughout the urban sprawl, but the most concentrated and famous string of chaat stands line the back of Chowpatty Beach at the end of Marine Drive.
If there is one common ingredient, it is crispy fried dough known as puri, which is mixed with a variety of ingredients to produce the different types of chaat. It is usually served on a tin plate or in a banana-leaf bowl and, of course, eaten with the right hand. Mumbai’s favorite version is bhel puri, a mixture of puri, deepfried vermicelli, puffed rice, potato, hot pepper paste, chopped onions, cilantro, and tamarind sauce. A popular variation, pani puri, includes a lentil and potato stuffing with sweet chutney. Pav bhaji, found virtually everywhere, is a Portuguese-style bun filled with a spicy vegetable stew. Hot, spicy, and nourishing, this is food for fueling enterprise.

The puffed rice, noodles, and potatoes of bhel puri are tumbled with onions, cilantro, chili pepper, and tamarind sauce

Best Places to Eat Chaat

Chowpatty Beach Stands

The whole concept of Indian chaat is that it’s sold by outlets that are as transient as their customers. Consequently, it is hard to pin down a specific stand amid the throng of chaatwallahs who wheel their carts up and down the back of Chowpatty Beach, advertising their goods with piercing cries or clanging bells. What is indisputable is that locals in Mumbai will all tell you that this is the place to come.
So, let your senses lead you to the most appealing plate of bhel puri to suit your own palate. Rest assured that while the stand itself might be dented and grubby, the food will be freshly prepared and the high turnover ensures it remains so.Chowpatty beach, Mumbai; open all day until late evening
Also in Mumbai
Chaat is available at every turn in Mumbai, but here are two well-known spots. Near the GPO (the main post office), in bustling Crawford Market’s 3rd Lane, Eden’s Snacks (inexpensive) is one of central Mumbai’s most popular places for grabbing a quick plate of bhel puri or sev puri (with crispy papri wafers) while shopping. On Wodehouse Road in Colaba, where most foreigners stay, Sunshine Snack Corner (+91 22 2215 0646; inexpensive) is worth trying. If you would rather pass on such unadulterated street food, try Chaat Lo (inexpensive), behind Chowpatty Beach opposite Bhavan’s College, which makes many types of chaat as well as samosas and chola bhature, a Punjabi dish involving spicy chickpeas and fried puri bread.
Also in India
Different types of chaat are widespread throughout the country. In the capital, Delhi, Chaat Corner (inexpensive) on Arya Samaj Road offers a great range. In Chennai, in the south, you can find local versions of street foods at Chit Chat (inexpensive) on the city’s main thoroughfare, Anna Salai.
Around the World
Apart from well-known snacks like samosas and pakora, Mumbai-style chaat can be hard to come by outside India, as most restaurants serve more conventional meals. However, London has quite a few options, such as Santok Maa’s Bhel Poori House (+44 20 8665 0626; inexpensive) in Thornton Heath, which specializes in bhel puri, as the name suggests.
In Canada, Toronto’s Bombay Bhel (www. bombaybhelrestaurant.com; moderate) offers pani, bhel, sev, and chickpea-filled dahi puri among its appetizers.
Ganesh Chaturthi
Not actually a food festival in its own right, Mumbai’s renowned Ganesh Chaturthi is an excellent occasion to sample the delights of chaat at Chowpatty Beach. It is a birthday party for the beloved elephant-headed deity Ganesh, and one of the most important and popular Hindu festivals. It falls some time between late August and late September and lasts for up to ten days, culminating in thousands of images of the chubby god being immersed in the soupy waters of the Arabian Sea. Given that the monsoon is often still in full swing during the event, visitors are just as likely to get completely soaked as participants, even if they do not assist in the deity-dunking. Ganesh is said to be fond of sweet desserts, so the chaat-wallahs come out in full force, making sure there are plenty of sweet and savory snacks available for his birthday.

A huge statue of Ganesh is transported through the water off Chowpatty Beach during the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival
A Day in Mumbai
Mumbai’s most interesting sights are quite widespread, but with some stamina and the help of an occasional taxi you can cover a remarkable amount of ground in a day.
MORNING : The magnificent harborside Gateway of India, built for the visit of King George V in 1911, is the best place to start, though you’ll need to keep the hawkers at bay. Then head inland to spend a couple of hours in the Prince of Wales Museum (now officially known as Chhatrapati Shivaji), which houses some of India’s finest paintings and sculpture.
AFTERNOON : Take a taxi up to Malabar Hill and stroll along its leafy ridge, passing by the eerie Parsi Towers of Silence and visiting the serene Jain temple, whose stunning interior is encrusted with mirrors.
Farther down there is also the famous Hindu Walukeshwar temple.
EVENING : As dusk falls, wind your way down the hill to the top end of Chowpatty Beach for some great people-watching while munching a plate of tasty chaat by the Arabian Sea.
Getting to Mumbai
Mumbai lies on India’s west coast and is a domestic hub for rail and bus networks.
Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport lies 19 miles (30 km) north of Mumbai.
Where to stay in Mumbai
Sea Shore (inexpensive) is a good budget option in Colaba, with some sea-facing rooms, but only shared bathrooms. +91 22 2287 4237
City Palace (moderate) is a reliable and conveniently located hotel opposite VT station.
Taj Mahal Palace & Tower (expensive), colonial Bombay’s oldest hotel, has views of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India; it now has a plush modern annex. www.tajhotels.com

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