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Rain time is food time
There are few cities on the subcontinent that are as fundamentally transformed in the monsoons as Mumbai. The traffic stalls, trains stop, ceilings leak, trees fall, and potholes abound in this season of deluges and downpours. This is a time of mixed emotions as the rain provides welcome respite from the heat of the summer but brings with it a variety of nerve testing inconveniences. What doesn’t seem to change much, however, is the Mumbaikars’ (we used to be called Bombay-ites) enthusiasm for outings and eating.
Despite the rain (or perhaps because of it) the city’s seafronts and beaches are never empty. And despite warnings about waterborne diseases the chaatwalas and sandwichwalas are hardly ever devoid of patrons, young couples are often seen sharing the joy of a warm, spicy cob of corn from the buttawala’s cart on the promenade, and for those who prefer being indoors restaurants promise prompt home delivery services during the heaviest rains. Mumbai is a city that loves to eat and won’t let a few wet months dampen its spirits.
Mumbai’s food traditions are defined, as the city itself, by its immigrant culture. The city, with its long association with Indian Ocean trade networks, has historically catered to the culinary needs of varieties of Indians and foreigners alike. Colonial accounts note how European-style ingredients like celery and lettuce were also brought into Mumbai’s markets from the cooler parts of the country. The interplay of the local, regional, national and often international is frequently seen in the city’s various cuisines (Chinese bhel, anyone?), some of which, like pav bhaji and vada pav have found fame outside Mumbai as well. But is it possible to trace a distinctive culinary culture associated with the mix of sensations and emotions that is the Mumbai monsoon? Are there specific things that people of Mumbai eat during this season?
One of the most common food association that comes to mind for monsoon Mumbai is the kanda (onion) bhaji or bhajia, western India’s contribution to the pakoda family. Most often available at tiny street side stalls tucked away near the city’s iconic sea fronts, these fritters are sometimes referred to as khekhda (crab) bhaji in Marathi because the onion and spiced batter mix takes on a multi-pronged shape that resembles a crab. In the monsoon, their crispness and taste are delightfully enhanced by the lacing of the salt sea spray merged with the whiff of ground garlic with a hint of coconut that rises from the accompanying dry chutney. As the soft drizzle threatens to turn into a forceful downpour, you struggle to balance the newsprint piled with the freshly fried bhajias and the plastic cup of steaming cutting chai; for a fleeting moment you become acutely aware of the comforting warmth that has seeped on to your hands along with the hot oil.
The monsoon is also the season associated with Mumbai’s eponymous fish, the Bombay Duck or bombil in Marathi. This tiny lizardfish is abundant in the Arabian Sea and is thus popular among the Konkanis, Maharashtrians, East Indians, and several Gujarati-speaking coastal communities, particularly the Parsis – all of which make up Mumbai’s diverse population. Two beliefs prevail about the possible origins of its English name: one, that the British were simply unable to pronounce its indigenous version correctly; or two, that the distinctive smell of the dried bombil was associated by the colonial masters with the Bombay Mail, the train on which it was frequently transported to Calcutta. So the fish is said to have derived its name from dak, the Hindustani word for mail or post, rather than having ornithological antecedents. When it is fresh its skin is a translucent grey with tinges of pink and the white flesh moist and almost slithery. Even at its freshest best, however, this fish is no beauty. But looks as we know are deceptive; the Bombay Duck can be an acquired taste but once you have acquired it there is no turning back!
During the dry months, rows of bombil hung on ropes, akin to traditional clothes lines tied to bamboos dug into the ground at each end, can be seen in Mumbai’s numerous fishing villages; their strong smell often precedes the sight by considerable distance. In the monsoon, when fresh fish is scare on account of the seas being too choppy for fishermen to take their boats out, these sun-dried bombil work as the nutritional substitute of their fresh counterparts. Dried bombil, lightly roasted or fried to a perfect crunch, makes a delicious complement for a comfortingly mushy dal rice meal on a rainy day; each bite of its salty crispness combined with a strong fishy scent bring back memories of the ocean. But a dry bombil preparation that can perhaps be considered most ‘native’ to monsoon Mumbai is a fiery chutney made by the East Indians, the original settlers of the city, with garlic, vinegar and ‘bottle masala’, the signature spice mix of their community.
For me, growing up in Mumbai, the monsoon was not as strongly associated with bhajias or bombils as with another, somewhat quaint ingredient: a humble edible weed known as luni in Gujarati. As a child, I often accompanied my grandmother in her daily visits to the market in south Mumbai’s Bhuleshwar area. Bhuleshwar is a neighbourhood that was inhabited by Gujarati Jain and Vaisnhav families from colonial times and to date remains one of the best places to source ingredients required for vegetarian Gujarati cooking. During the high monsoon season, when the narrow lanes of this market tend to get particularly slushy, my grandmother would be full of a childlike enthusiasm to brave the muck and grime just to buy this unusual plant called luni.
Luni is a trailing plant with fine succulent stems of a purplish hue. Its fleshy leaves are tiny and grow in clusters along the nodes of the stem. Luni leaves have a distinctive salty flavour with a hint of sourness, reminiscent of the sea. They are available only for a few weeks in the rains and during that time are incorporated by many vegetarian Gujaratis, into their regular dishes, particularly muthias, steamed chickpea and wheat dumplings that are normally made with fenugreek or horseradishes. While I loved how our routine dishes were transformed by this seasonal addition, I secretly suspected it to be some sort of a community eccentricity - after all, I had never known of the stuff outside of the vegetarian Gujarati culinary context. Only recently while trying to trace the antecedents of this mysterious plant, I discovered it is known as Common Purslane in other parts of the world and used in many Mediterranean dishes. It is also valued as something of a ‘gourmet’ weed, especially good in salads, among chefs in Europe. How this little weed with marine flavours found its way to the vegetarian Gujaratis’ monsoon cuisine or perhaps travelled to other parts of the world from there is a mystery I have yet to unravel.
Mumbai’s monsoon foods are as diverse as its diverse populations. But in a city that has always had access to varieties of ingredients and cuisines, does the change in seasons really matter? On a recent visit to Bhuleshwar market I struck up a conversation with an elderly Gujarati lady and asked her opinion on what people should eat during the monsoons. She piped up and said, “beta, just eat what you like best”. Ultimately that’s what Mumbaikars do during the rains – eat what they like best.