A Story of Seduction: the Flavors of Mumbai

Smoky cardamom and fiery chilies perfume the air, while brick red curries and fragrant Biryanis lure me in with their spicy warmth. A laboratory of desserts with wondrous incarnations of milk and sugar are dizzyingly enticing, and aromatic cups of chai ground me with a sense of place. This is India – and she’s still on my mind.

Throughout our journey, I found new and unexpected flavors in dishes that have secured a place in my memory. Dal Makhani, smoky black lentils that simmered for 24 hours until reaching a rich and velvety consistency. A triangular jewel of a dessert made from slivers of pumpkin dyed a psychedelic green and filled with dried fruit and nuts. Emerald Palak Paneer, a mild spinach curry balanced by cubes of light soft cheese and served with crispy papadum cones and golden garlic naans. Golden masala dosas folded over perked up potatoes and paired with black tea for breakfast, and Anarkali sweets molded from cashew nougat, spiked with saffron, and wrapped in edible silver in the late afternoon.

Others, like the Mawa Burfi took me back to the familiar: Dominican dulce de leche fudge enriched with shredded coconut or filled with jellied fruit. In its Indian doppelganger, it was rolled in chopped pistachios and shaped into bite-sized pieces. The vibrant chicken byriani was like a distant, ingredient-rich cousin of my beloved arroz con pollo. Gulab jamun dumplings made from deep fried curdled milk and drenched in rosewater syrup were reminiscent of the most ethereal Baba au Rhum.

And yet, there were so many more surprises that extended beyond flavor:

-It’s common for great restaurants to be located in big chain hotels. For example, the Kebab Korner in the Intercontinental Hotel in South Mumbai with exquisite Punjabi food and the massive Sunday brunch spread at the JW Marriott in the Bollywood hotspot Juhu Beach

-Mumbai is a haven for vegetarians and there are usually veg and non-veg options of the same dish in the menus. Quite often, the veg options are much fresher and delicious

-Grocery stores can be inclusive or exclusive of foreigners. In Juhu Beach we felt like the only Westerners there, which was probably true! Most of the customers were sari-clad women who would flock to the barrels of different varieties of dal (lentils) and rice lined up along the aisle and reach inside for samples, a cultural immersion in itself. If you want a first hand experience of grocery shopping in Mumbai this is where to go. However, if you want something a little more “westernized” head to more expat-friendly neighborhoods like Powai.

-Indian sweets or meethas are tooth-achingly sweet, but are amazing textural creations made out of simple ingredients like milk, sugar, and ghee. There were smooth halwas (puddings) made with pumpkin, carrots, almonds, and beans. Malpua were deep-fried rice flour pancakes, rich Shahi Tukda was Indian bread pudding, and Churma golden crumbles of wheat flour, semolina, sugar, and ghee.

-For the heat shy (like myself): It was a challenge when we first arrived to order food on the milder side of the heat scale. I think it had a lot to do with semantics. Upon ordering I would ask “Is it spicy?” and waiters would say “Yes.” From then on to get them to make it not spicy would inevitably end up exactly the opposite of what I wanted. When I started ordering “No spice” with my dishes I got much better results.

And, here are some of our favorite casual eateries around town:

Prithvi Cafe for chai tea and brownies under a shaded canopy of bamboo while arty types and students chat nearby

Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel for tea sandwiches and cups of delicate Darjeeling overlooking the Gateway of India

Moshe’s for quick and fresh bites of Mediterranean food. Order the hummus, the sandwiches, and smoothies are great too

Pumpkin pockets filled with dried fruits and sealed with a clove

Shiny copper pots filled with halva at Nawab

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