“The stacks of pav have been sprinkled with chutney… the assistant reaches out with one hand, in one continuous arc of his arm opening the pav, scooping up two vadas, one in each nest of pav, and delivering it to the hungry customer.” Suketu Mehta’s visual description of Borkar’s Vada Pav stall in his 2004 book, “Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found.”
That the desi burger, in other words, the vada pav has achieved the status of a synonym of Mumbai, is no great revelation. In fact, Mehta himself states in a matter-of-fact tone that “Bombay” is a city of “vada pav eaters!” Such an understanding, while partially true, however, does gross injustice to the culinary fabric of the city which boasts of not just the vada pav but several other popular delights as well. Speaking strictly from the point of view of a culinary enthusiast, Mumbai’s culinary-scape belongs to its consumers of streetfood. India is a land where most cities boast of a rich streetfood culture. With Mumbai, however, it acquires a whole new meaning because of its chain of khau gullies. The word khau in Marathi means “to eat” and gully, a narrow alley.
So a khau gully is but an alley lined with food vendors where people come to eat. Such narrow lanes, dedicated to serve food, are not typical to Mumbai alone. If Delhi has its paranthe wali gully in Chandni Chowk, among a list of several others ranging from Kamla Nagar and Karol Bagh to Paharganj, Kolkata has its Decker’s Lane, College Street and Lindsay Street, to name but only a few. But what separates these from the khau gullies is not just the name but also the type of food served and clientele.
Unlike other cities where different varieties of street-food are available at varied locations, here in Mumbai, the khau gully operates as an umbrella which has almost every dish under its shade; from the quintessential vada pav to the dosa and even desserts. One need not visit several locations to satiate cravings for an assortment of street-food; rather, just head to any khau gully, dotted through the city, to have a taste of an eclectic range of cuisines, street-food style of course.
Writing in the context of public dining in Mumbai during colonial times, Conlon in his essay, “Food and Public Dining in Indian Tradition,” mentions the emerging trend of khanavals. Somewhere around 1830 onwards, when urbanization led to the import of “rural labour” (Conlon: 1995) there was a pressing need to address the issue of food. The workers were men from neighbouring villages and cities, living in chawls, (one-room tenements with common bathrooms) daily wagers who were on the look-out for dining options that were easy on the pockets. And thus came the khanavals, a form of inexpensive public dining, born out of a need to survive than a penchant for recreation. Today, the khanavals’ popularity are on a steady decline with barely a few of them, in and around Mumbai serving coastal food at a reasonable cost; but, in a way, it clearly paved the way for public dining for the common man in the city of Mumbai. It would not be entirely daring to assume that perhaps, somewhere in the course of Mumbai’s culinary history, the khanavals may have mutated or re-emerged in the avatar of khau gullies!
Mumbai bustles with the aroma of khau gullies; from Churchgate and Girgaum to Mohammad Ali Road, Khar and Ghatkopar, the city reverberates with the energy of these hawkers who usually are located near railway stations, colleges and office complexes; a wise strategy considering the number of consumers that throng such places, pressed against time, yet eager to satiate their appetites. While most gullies offer vegetarian food with the exception of egg based dishes, certain khau gullies serve mouth watering meat kebabs, koftas (meat balls) and shawarmas (Lebanese roll). From a snack to a full blown meal, there is something for everyone; buttery pav bhaji, pani puris, dabelis to dosas, noodles, sandwiches, momos, juices, milk shakes and the famous kulfi falooda. The dishes are prepared fresh and in a jiffy, thereby, epitomizing the term “fast-food.” Eat as much as the heart decides without burning a hole in the pocket! However, beyond the motley of dishes and the monetary value, what emerges as a striking feature is the crowd.
A college student, an auto-rickshaw driver, a corporate executive, a teacher/professor, a bank clerk, (in random order) any rank, any profession, any caste, any religion, any gender, all stand together to have a meal of their choice. It’s a site that embodies the cultural heterogeneity of the country and the city in particular. Just as there is no singular idea of Indian food, street food or otherwise; there is no singular impression of this vast land. Multiple threads of cuisines, languages, customs and religions make up the warp and weft of the diverse tapestry of this phenomenal land; and the khau gullies of Mumbai, are a humble yet significant symbol of the cultural enigma called India.
And before sentimentality takes precedence over gustatory relish- Here’s a recipe that is easy to make and satisfies the soul;
The very popular Mumbai Bhel Puri.
1.Take two cups of puffed rice which also goes by the name of murmura, in a large bowl.
2. Add four to six (even more if you like) puris/papdis (a type of wafers), a handful of roasted peanuts, and half a cup of sev which look like thin, tiny, noodle-like strips, made of gram flour.
3. Add a handful of diced boiled potatoes, some tomatoes, finely chopped onions and green chilies (optional).
4. To this, add half a tea-spoon of red chilli powder and chaat powder (a spice mix), a pinch of dry mango powder (or amchoor), a dash of green coriander chutney and tamarind chutney, some salt and a squeeze of half a lemon.
5.Mix well, garnish it with fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped and some more sev.
The beauty of this recipe is that the measurements are flexible and many more ingredients can be added, based on your choice and taste-buds. Go ahead, make this tangy, spicy Bhel Puri which brings together so many interesting ingredients to transform into something which has a bit of everything; sweet and sour with a tinge of tanginess, so quintessentially Mumbai!
Written byAnasuya Shreedhar
Anasuya Shreedhar is a PhD scholar from India, working in the discipline of Women and Gender Studies. Her research looks at the relationship of food and gender in the urban Indian space through the lens of Feminist Food Studies. She had been a copy writer for a number of television channels in India before returning to academics.