As much as I wanted to explore India in comfort, I did, honestly, plan on exploring more of the local food scene. I wanted to land in India and be ready to explore the Mumbai street food scene, and attempt to eat like a local. I did not want to eat all of our meals in the hotel, in a contained environment. I wanted to be the person who could claim to have explored the street food in India, or having ate with the locals, when traveling in India.
Once we arrived in Mumbai, though, I became a lot more skeptical of this notion.
Mumbai is like a smack upside the head, after a good shaking, while sleep deprived. I’ve seen movies and TV shows about India, but nothing prepared me for Mumbai. The traffic, the noise, the makeshift homes, the trash, the poverty. It was truly like nothing I’d seen before.
I know people eat street food in India. And I am a proponent of eating street food all over the world. But, there was something different about India. Even the people we met in India talked about how they get sick too. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to slow down our travel over our 10 days in India, by being laid up in the hotel sick. I had too much to see and do in a short amount of time.
I wanted to explore Mumbai street food, but I had no idea where to start. I felt uncomfortable walking down the street, with my head turning from side to side, trying to take it all in. I wondered what food was safe, and what should I avoid. Our Eat Like a Local: Mumbai Street Food Tour By Night put all of these concerns at rest. We walked with a guide who explained to us what to eat, what not to eat, and what to be wary of.
Exploring the Seafront in Bandra
We met our guide, Parvar, outside of the Taj Lands End Hotel in the Bandra neighborhood. Part of our attempt at exploring Mumbai on our own involved us getting to the area early to walk around. The taxi dropped us off in front of the hotel, and we walked the Bandra Bandstand, a strolling walkway along the Arabian Sea.
It was festival time, with both Christian and Hindus celebrating simultaneously. Hordes of people made their way to the sea for sunset activities. The hustle in front of the hotel and the sea, and the cars, buses, motorbikes, and rickshaws, made me want to run back into the comfort of the Taj Lands End lobby. We stood at the edge of the promenade, overlooking the sea and the rocks, just staring at the activity in front of us.
People selling food and goods, in front of signs warning “no selling.” People eating messy treats in front of signs that said “no eating.” People smoking in front of signs that said “no smoking.” It just seemed understood that in the chaos of Mumbai, rules were just not meant to be followed.
Once we met Parvar, though, he immediately explained everything – about Mumbai, India, the religions, the festivals, the neighborhood, and even Bollywood. I started to feel more comfortable. Although, I didn’t think to ask him about the warning signs and disregard of the “rules.”
Exploring Mumbai Street Food in Bandra
As we moved from the Mumbai history lesson into the heart of the matter, the eating, we hopped on an auto-rickshaw and made our way to Linking Road, still within the Bandra neighborhood.
Things were a little off during this Mumbai street food tour. It was the Ganesha festival in Mumbai, a major Hindu holiday. In fact, our first stop was at a Mumbai toast stand, which was closed. And, one of our last stops, for pani puri, was also closed for the holiday. But, Pavar didn’t let that slow us down, and he made adjustments and improvised along the way.
With each stop, Parvar made sure we were okay with spicy foods, and took our likes and dislikes into consideration. He pointed out additional places to eat, or fun pubs, so that if we returned to Bandra we would know where to go.
Most important, Parvar explained, in detail, how to tell whether a food stall was safe, or whether to avoid it. He pointed to street stalls that we passed and explained why we were not eating there. This, alone, was an invaluable lesson.
We started with a spicy deep fried prawn from a stand that was very popular. The prawn was lightly battered with a spicy breading. Pavar was quick to point out on the what was on the plate, and what we could eat.
The prawns and the sauce were okay to eat, the onions were fine (not a concern for me as I don’t eat onions), but don’t trust the lime. Good to know.
Our next stop was at a replacement Mumbai toast stand. Mumbai toast is, essentially two pieces of American-style white bread, with fillings. Paver explained that we should only eat Mumbai toast if it was cooked in front of us, pressed together in a two sided pan. Otherwise, it’s too risky to eat the cucumbers and other fruits.
Next was a Mysore style Masala dosa, prepared with red beets, making the preparation look more like a pizza than a dosa.
Along the way, Parvar told the history of Bandra, and why the neighborhood is so unique. He took us down dark alleyways that I never would have walked down on my own. He showed us the traditional heritage houses, bungalows, and Portuguese architecture.
After exploring the neighborhood’s alleys, we stopped at a little restaurant, which was a welcome stop to rest the feet. I tend to judge any food tour by whether it is well planned like this. Stops are necessary, both with a place to sit for a minute, as well as a break in the eating, like our neighborhood history lesson allowed.
At the restaurant, Parvar explained the history of Mumbai street food, and the influences from the North and South. Initially, southern Indian cuisine was introduced to Mumbai in the 1960s, but more recently, the dining scene has been focused on North Indian Punjabi dishes. Currently, most restaurants tend to offer a mix, or even a fusion, of the two regional cuisines. Even the Mysore masala dosa we ate on the street was a southern preparation of dosa, but prepared by someone from Northern India.
He explained the different dishes on the menu, and where they come from, and the differences among them. The menu included dishes that I was unfamiliar with before our trip to India, including Idli, Wada, and Uttapam. I had the chance to try these dishes at the JW Marriott Mumbai too.
At this stop, we ate two more masala dishes. It was how I really started to understand what masala really was. I always had a more restricted definition of masala, whereas masala really means a spice mix. In this case, we tried a pau masala and and a pau bhaji dosa. Pau Bhaji basically is a dish that is a mix of left overs, which are turned into a paste. The pau is a Portuguese inspired bread.
The other pau masala was a bit too oniony for my liking, and even for Eric. But, it looked pretty.
We tried so many dishes that I declined the last few of the evening. I agreed to a quick sweets stop, though. And, I am glad I did. We tried a treat called modak, which is only available during the Ganesha festival in September. Modak are made of flour, and steamed. They can be flavored with almond, strawberry, and chocolate.
A smiling shop owner served the modak. He was only too happy to let us try the treats for free, wanting to share his culture and the foods most people don’t associate with typical Indian cuisine.
The Mumbai street food tour taught me so much, in only a couple of hours. We explored a neighborhood I would have missed, learned about the history of Mumbai, tried new Indian foods I had never heard of, and became a lot more comfortable with Indian street food. And, we made a new friend in Parvar, who offered to take us out again on our next trip to Mumbai. It was a comfortable way to explore Mumbai street food, one that even a street food novice could manage.
The Mumbai Street Food Tour starts at $40 per person. Although the website says the tour includes three tastings, we tasted at least double that amount! I lost track.
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For more information about India, see our India Travel Guide, for information on accommodations, what to eat, and tours to book.