Bombay (or ‘Mumbai’, according to new Hindi rules of pronunciation) is definitely a strange city. Thirteen million people live in India’s business capital (the less desirable title of political capital goes to New Delhi) and in no other city are differences in income, class and housing so evident.
This is the only place in India where East and West draw near to one another (and sometimes blend). This is clear from the architectural differences which contrast with other Indian cities: the street layout is a checkerboard grid, there are Victorian and Art Deco buildings and the skyline along Chowpatty Beach at night strongly resembles an American metropolis.
Bombay is the undisputed center of Indian showbiz, the home of the famous Masala Movies, Indian films in which gods, beautiful girls and unlikely heroes merge with no apparent logical plot, bursting into a song or a dance when you least expect it. The number of films produced here is really impressive, earning Bombay the well-deserved nickname of ‘Bollywood’. Nearly all the TV studios are here too, including Indian MTV: there are concerts, fashion shows and hundreds of parties, restricted of course to a small wealthy elite. The city really seems to run on parallel tracks: hotels, restaurants and shops are either within the financial reach of the general public, or accessible only to well-off Indians or westerners. The concentration of wealthy people here (including rich westerners who come to Bombay on business) compared to the rest of the country has caused the development of many medium-high quality restaurants, and consequently the choice of places to eat well is among the best – if not the best – in the whole Indian subcontinent.
It is useful to remember that the best Indian restaurants are, as a rule, usually located inside grand hotels, which may seem strange to tourists who are not familiar with the country and are trying to decide where to eat.
Let’s begin with the excellent ‘foreign’ restaurants, of which there are a great many in Bombay: the Thai Pavillion specializes in Thai cuisine, while the Trattoria is a ‘typical’ Italian restaurant serving pizza, pasta and other delicacies (the ingredients are imported directly from Italy and are in fact of good quality); both of these are to be found inside the Hotel President, a real institution as far as Bombay’s hotel-restaurants go.
Another restaurant specializing in oriental cuisine (especially Thai and Korean, but also Japanese) is the Pearl of Orient, which is inside the Ambassador Hotel.
Still in the field of non-Indian cuisine, one of the trendiest restaurants in all Bombay is the Olive Bar and Kitchen, where chef Dev Malik serves specialties from the Mediterranean area, following his long period of work experience in Europe: from oysters gratin to bruschetta, from seafood risotto to Catalan stews, from Greek specialties to huge salads with hundreds of ingredients… The restaurant is very attractive with a comfortable verandah, all bamboo and low tables; if you are in Bombay and you want to see something completely unexpected, go and check it out.
Indigo, another restaurant which is currently very fashionable, is the ideal link between foreign and Indian cuisine. Chef Rahul Akerkar’s cooking could be defined as ‘fusion’ (although he doesn’t like the term much) because it is an expert blend of European culinary techniques and Indian spices, and vice versa: lobster with typically Indian dressings, mushroom flans, quails in cinnamon sauce. The restaurant is comfortable and attractive: the pastel colors, armchairs and soft music create a welcoming atmosphere. The well-stocked bar has many Scotch and Irish whiskies, and you can also enjoy an espresso coffee here, which is rare in India. On the second floor is the lounge area where you can relax and perhaps smoke a cigar.
Moving on to specifically Indian cuisine, we recommend the Tanjore which is inside the famous Taj Mahal Hotel: cuisine from all over India, with typical music and dancing shows.
India is a huge country and it is therefore meaningless to talk of just one type of Indian cuisine; interest in regional cuisine is now rapidly increasing. Until a short while ago, restaurants which exclusively served the dishes of a certain region were not of a high standard, and catered for immigrant workers from that area who were living in Bombay.
Now, though, good quality restaurants are emerging which use traditional recipes and ingredients; we focused on the cuisine of the Malabar Coast, which runs more or less from Bombay to Mangalore. We unreservedly recommend the attractive Apoorva restaurant, in Art Nouveau style and arranged on two floors, and the Konkan Café, inside the new Hotel President. We were lucky enough to have a long chat with the chef Ananda Solomon, and found his thinking extraordinarily close to the Slow Food philosophy. Firstly, he has decided to focus on the cuisine of his own home region (after his travels around the world and many culinary adventures), using recipes inherited from his mother and grandmother; he pays a great deal of attention to the preparation of dishes, organizing the kitchen to accommodate pans and burners typical of the region, and places enormous importance on the role of the ingredients, which he chooses personally – they are guaranteed to be in season.
The dishes served in these two restaurants are similar, but the prices are very different. Fish and seafood is important so the menu will always include grilled shrimp with garlic and chives, the famous fish curry with rice, and kadi (a sort of milk shake made from coconut milk, tamarind, salt and pepper). Instead of the traditional nan (very soft loaves of bread often served with melted butter), appam are served: these are a type of pancake made from fermented rice and cooked on metal plates placed directly on the flame. There are many dishes worth tasting, and we will leave to you the pleasure of discovering them. Just one last piece of advice: try both restaurants, compare the differences in flavors and aromas in the same dishes, and decide which you prefer. We won’t influence you.
The Thai Pavillion
Cuffe Parade, Mumbai 5
Pearl of Orient
The Ambasador Hotel
Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate Extn, Mumbai 20
Hotel Taj Mahal
Apollo Bunder, Mumbai 39
Olive Bar & Kitchen
Pali Hill Tourist Hotel
14 Union Park, Khar (W), Mumbai
4 Mandlik Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 001
Noble Chambers, SA Brelvi Marg
Presso Horniman Circle, Fort, Mumbai 1
For a useful guide to Mumbai restaurants, click here
Nicola Ferrero is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office
Photo: Bombay skyline
Translated by Ailsa Wood