It’s 7am as we move through a door under a peeling sign painted: ‘B. Merwan & Co. High-class bakers and confectioners, provision stores’. At the counter, a throng of men jostle for attention from assistants deftly packing up cakes and buns in white paper. We squeeze by and grab the very last table, easing out a sigh of relief. We’ve come for mawa cakes and if you don’t turn up at this bakery in South Mumbai before 7.30am, you’re unlikely to get any at all.
Soft, buttery and scented with green cardamom, they take their name from the caramelised, sweet clumps that form when milk is long boiled in a flat, open pan. At just 10 rupees each, it’s hard not to eat at least half a dozen. As I bite into these little warm pillows, I see why there’s a queue by the door and why people travel across this megalopolis for mawa fresh from the oven.
With its bentwood chairs, mirrored walls and fans swirling on high ceilings, the style of B. Merwan, which is more than a century old, is typical of the old Irani cafes of Mumbai, created by Zoroastrians who fled persecution from Persia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Signature dishes include beri pulao, bun maska (buttery buns) and sweet chai laced with cardamom. Also known as Parsi cafes, they’re inspiration for the Dishoom chain across London, not just the menu but its style.
Before I left for Mumbai, I met up with Naved Nasir, executive chef of Dishoom, who gave me a little map of all his favourite Irani eateries, saying there was no other city in the world where he’d rather eat. “It’s like a mecca,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of all Indian cultures because a lot of people have migrated to Mumbai.”
At Britannia & Co — Naved’s favourite — I try beri pulao, a kind of chicken biryani with tart barberries, cashews and caramelised onions, and sali boti, a mutton curry sweetened with jaggery but made sour with vinegar, and topped with tiny fried potato straws. Boman Kohinoor, the restaurant’s 94-year-old owner, says that they’ve been lucky. “In 1950, I took count of the Parsi restaurants, there were 400 of them. Today, when I count there are hardly 40 left,” he says.
Real-estate prices in Mumbai are higher than in Manhattan or Tokyo and so the new generation of Parsis often prefer to cash in than work long days in family restaurants. But some treasures remain. Yazdani Bakery & Restaurant was also opened in the 1950s and is famous for brun maska, a bread roll with butter that Naved eulogised about: “It’s a slightly sweetened dough laid with a thick slab of butter that you dip into a cup of chai. This transforms it into a different dish entirely.”
Owner Parvez Irani explains that it’s important that his crispy rolls remain cheap. “When the price of flour went up, my father said, ‘This must go into people’s stomach, not our pocket. This is poor man’s food; they mustn’t feel the pinch’,” he says. ‘Our customers are the chosen ones. The world cannot go without bread.’”
My guide, Harshvardhan Tanwar (Harsh for short), shows me his Bombay. “Mumbai is a city, Bombay is an emotion,” he says. We visit the docks at dawn and watch women haggle for baskets of Bombay duck, which is, in fact, a lizardfish. We meet the city’s dabbawallas, a network of men who pick up Mumbaikar’s lunch boxes from home and deliver them to their offices. “They’re illiterate, how the hell they look at addresses, I don’t know,” says Harsh. “They have their codes and know exactly where each box needs to be. Only one in every six million tiffins goes to the wrong place. They’re logistical supermen.”
We eat kheema pav (minced lamb curry on a bread roll) at Olympia Coffee House, another old Parsi cafe and try what Harsh calls the Bombay slider, vada pav, a spiced potato patty stuffed into a bun at Ladu Samrat. “The Portuguese brought pav to India, and the dough was kneaded with the leg,” says Harsh. “India was the worst place for food until the mughals and the Portuguese came. They brought tomatoes, cashews, potatoes. Every time we have a heart attack in our country we blame the Portuguese. Five hundred years ago, we didn’t have any chillies growing here and now we just own it.”
As the textile industry of Bombay grew, migrant workers came to the city to work in the mills and brought their tastes with them, giving rise to an incredibly diverse street food culture. At dusk we head to Mohammed Ali Road and hop between stalls eating kebabs, flaky roti and chaat, but my favourite is the hand-churned ice cream at Taj, where sitafal, the creamy custard apple is sublime.
Peshawri, in the ITC Maratha, has changed nothing on the menu for 35 years. This is the frontier cuisine of the North West — historically, of pre-independence India which included parts of Afghanistan — cooked in a tandoor or clay oven. The signature dahl bukhara, a silky black lentil dish, is rendered unctuous by having been cooked for 24 hours. An enormous naan bread is brought to the table and chef Mayank Kulshreshtha tells me that I must stand it up to check the quality. He laughs, “It should be standing up straight to salute the person who’s going to eat it.”
My Mumbai journey ends at The Bombay Canteen, housed in a converted mill building, where young executive chef Thomas Zacharias, whose immersion in food began in his grandmother’s kitchen, brings his own version of bhel puri (spicy rice dish) and a pork vindaloo taco. “There’s a lot of local produce that’s used at home but never found in restaurants. We wanted to celebrate the things we grew up with. We change our menu seasonally, and as a concept in India, it’s pretty alien,” he says.
Mumbai is, as Naved Nasir says, truly a culinary mecca. And Bombay is, as Harsh told me, an emotion, one that’s truly embodied in its food.
Audrey’s guide in Mumbai was Harshvardhan Singh Tanwar of No Footprints, Mumbai
Read more of the India cover story in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)