Mumbai is intensely colourful and multi-layered. Very few cities have the depth and facets of a fascinating thousand-year history. Its busy streets, such as the Colaba Causeway, are a background palette of grey decaying buildings, slums, dirty streets and dusty storefronts accentuated by almost blindingly bright hues. Drab structures are contrasted by a rainbow of colours in the form of red and orange doors, yellow signages and people bustling in turquoise and pink saris. India’s rich tapestry of history reflects its role as a cultural, philosophical and religious epicentre. From politics to everyday life, religion plays a crucial role in the land that gave birth to major religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Mumbai is located strategically in the country’s midwest, embracing concurrent influences from the north and south.
OVERVIEW OF INDIAN CUISINE
Mumbai’s local fare is often referred to as western coastal Indian or Maharashtra cuisine, both of which are broad, encompassing terms. These are relevant, however, since the city lies at the western coast of India and is the capital of the Maharashtra state. But the reality is that with its migrant workers, expatriate residents and well-travelled locals, there are dishes that may be popular in Mumbai but with origins elsewhere in India.
Seafood, prepared in the western coastal style, is much loved by locals. King crabs, jumbo prawns, lobsters and local pomfret or king fish are extremely fresh and can be prepared simply, with butter and garlic or with pepper or chilli.
In general, Maharashtra cuisine, whether it comes from the east or west, is considered fairly healthy and refined. There is little deep frying but rather more steaming and pan-cooking. Spices are used with a more restrained hand.
One theme that unites most types of cuisines available in Mumbai is the strong vegetarian element. Whether it is the entire meal or just a few dishes, vegetables and all of its wonderful array of flavours and textures are found in every dining outlet.
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
The complex culinary traditions in this vast nation may appear at first to divide the country, but enjoying delicious food is what unites most Indians.
This rich history and the culinary traditions that have passed through the city left footprints behind. The prevailing Hindu influence is reflected in the many vegetarian restaurants and food outlets. Moghul cuisine is widely loved among Mumbaikars (residents of Mumbai) and a growing number of fine dining establishments specialise in Moghul dishes such as kebabs, biryani and slow-cooked rich curries. Many consider this to be one of the most refined Indian cuisines.
Mumbai’s culinary traditions extend further towards its numerous borders. From Goa, the pork vindaloo is popular, as is the spicy king fish curry. From the Konkan coastal cuisine, an abundance of seafood is available, including dishes such as pomfret fish in delicious orange curry. Eateries such as Trishna and Mahesh Lunch Home represent west Indian coastal fare and are renowned for their fresh seafood. From Gujarat, there is a range of sophisticated vegetarian meals with the best restaurants such as Thaker Bhojanalay guarding their recipes for over five decades.
The city’s restaurant scene has changed dramatically since the early 1990s and thus far, fast-food outlets and street stalls dominate the dining options.
While casual and street-side eateries number in the tens of thousands in Mumbai, mid-range and upscale restaurants are more limited. With India’s economic prosperity however, a new generation of restaurants and outlets catering to a growing number of white collar professionals has emerged – with a stylish setting, a solid wine list and innovative modern food that borrows elements from the local cuisine.
WINE AND BEVERAGE CULTURE
As one of the world’s largest tea producers and exporters, India has a mature tea culture that is ingrained in their dining and eating habits. The local chai (tea) looks nothing like the Chinese or British versions. Chai is dark tea with more frothing milk added than water and enjoyed with large doses of sugar. Coffee is widely enjoyed nationwide though probably not with as much gusto and appreciation as India’s southern states where it is commercially cultivated, thanks to the British East India Company.
Local alcoholic drinks such as arrack, made from distilled coconut palm sap, are popular especially among the men. A number of cheap local whiskeys flood the market as well as spirits brewed from homegrown products like flowers (mahua), rice and coconuts (feni). Wine has become more popular in major cities such as Mumbai since the start of the new millennium with consumption growing annually at double digits since 2004. For its growing number of wine lovers, Maharashtra offers both benefits and disadvantages.
Mumbaikars new to wine will appreciate the large number of wineries set up mostly over the past decade, many of these are located in Nashik Valley, very close to the city. The disadvantage for Mumbai wine lovers is that Maharashtra has one of the country’s highest wine taxes. Imported wines are imposed a 400% duty, including a 200% excise tax.
WINE AND INDIAN FOOD
The challenge of pairing wine with any regional Indian food goes well beyond just flavour compatibility issues. The context in which wine is being served and local dining habits pose additional difficulties. Unlike cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, efficient air-conditioning is often a luxury in Mumbai. In addition, many restaurants and even hotels have inadequate wine storage capability, thus, wines can be served at a ‘room temperature’ of 27 to 30 degrees. White wines over a year old can be golden brown in colour and cooked from poor handling and storage. With its expensive price tag, wine is still considered a privileged drink only for the affluent.
Mumbai shares a communal dining format with other major cities in Asia – a wide variety of very different dishes are all served at once. Condiments and relishes are equally diverse and can add an extra salty, spicy, sweet or refreshing element to the food. The flavours of most Indian meals are loud, very intense – if these are too muted, locals are not shy about adding pickles, fiery hot sliced chillies or other strongly flavoured condiments to each bite. Wine often serves as an accompaniment rather than a complementary beverage that enhances the food.
For wine lovers, this does not mean that wine does not pair at all with Indian food, but expectations must be kept in check. There are surprisingly wonderful combinations and a wide variety of wines to make wine lovers happy, as long as there is an understanding that one wine will not go well with the entire meal, just portions of it. The solution may be to have more than one wine, which is a luxury, but often the best approach with Asian food. Another option is to drink the wine selectively between bites, noting that with a typical Indian meal, each bite rather than each course can be a very different flavour experience. This suggests that for most Indian meals, the most refined and delicate wines are best saved for other occasions.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR INDIAN CUISINE:
New World Shiraz
New World Merlot
Old World Full-Bodied White
New World Sauvignon Blanc Semillon