Indian food has a reputation for being spicy hot. The kind of hot that burns from the moment the food touches your tongue. The kind of hot that lingers—for days. This reputation is not undeserved. Many expats struggle with the heat of Indian food. Inevitably, when I eat Indian, the waiter always asks, “It’s spicy. Is that OK?” My inevitable answer is, “[Sigh] Yes, It’s fine. I live here.”
The spiciness of Indian food makes many expats hesitant to explore Indian cuisine. For those brave enough to venture beyond their safety net of the latest American food chain import (Dunkin’ Donuts anyone?) and five-star hotels, there are the Finely Chopped food walks. One of India’s most respected food bloggers, Kalyan Karmakar creates these occasional food walks throughout the city. These walks offer visitors and residents a taste of the city’s cuisine offerings. A typical walk includes stops at three to five restaurants over a three-hour period. Popular destinations include Fort with its Parsi eateries, Borhi Mohalla with its unique Ramadam offerings, and Dadar with its Maharashtrian cuisine. By featuring Maharashtrian cuisine on his walks, Karmakar helps expose foodies to a profound truth: Mumbai has more to offer than just street food and chai stalls. The walk offered a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and explore the food heritage of the city we call home. From aamras to vada pao, and so many delectable treats in between, we sampled some of the best Maharashtrian foods in Mumbai.
Among Mumbaikers, Dadar is celebrated for its early morning flower market, but the area also features one of Mumbai’s most well-known landmarks: Sena Bhavan. This location is the home of the Shiv Sena political party and features a large poster of Bal Thackeray on its facade. Founded in 1966 by Thackeray, the party promotes Marathi and Hindu nationalist policies. Not surprisingly, our first stop on the walk, Aaswad featured a story about Bal Thackeray.
According to the owner, Thackeray helped lay the foundation for the restaurant. Whether you agree with his politics or not, you have to give credit that Thackeray was personally responsible for helping a local restauranteur preserve Maharashtrian cuisine. To paraphrase a popular expression, Thackeray put his political capital where his mouth was. Thackeray understood the critical role that food plays in cultural preservation. While Thackeray’s most visible legacy is the dual-language signage seen throughout Mumbai, food reinforces cultural boundaries and forwards political agendas in a far subtler way. Food is the foundation of culture. You can go your entire life without speaking or hearing a word, but it’s not possible to go your entire life without food. Without food, you can’t survive, and neither can your culture.
In India, food is a heavily politicized topic. One has only to remember the debates over the Food Security Bill passed last year, or the public outrage expressed over skyrocketing onion prices to understand why a politician would bother to make food a priority in his political agenda.
Now, even Mumbai’s famous street stalls are under attack. On 4 August, a regulation meant to help protect the Indian public from substandard food preparation might effectively close Mumbai’s street vendors. The FOOD SAFETY AND STANDARDS (LICENSING AND REGISTRATION OF FOOD BUSINESSES), REGULATIONS 2011 was promulgated to standardize the health and hygiene requirements for India’s food businesses. The implementation of the regulations has been postponed at least once since 2011, but there is another push to begin enforcement, and more importantly, begin collection of the Rs. 2000 fees associated with registration. Some have speculated that even Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas will fall under the regulation, a move that could significantly impact one of India’s most efficient systems.