I don’t even know where to begin when talking about food in India, so I guess I’ll start with the fact that I eat like nobody’s business. I know some people congratulate themselves on their abilities to eat enormous amounts of food, but this isn’t self-congratulatory. It’s just a fact–I eat like a monster. Luckily, I’m in the perfect city for that.
There are many unique aspects of the food and eating culture in Mumbai and in India. The dishes and flavors that you’ll find differ across different states, regions, and communities, and rarely have I eaten something that I haven’t liked. I quickly learned the joy of eating with my hands and mastered the art of right-hand-only eating. Generally speaking, Indians do not use toilet paper, and instead use just their left hands and a bit of water. For this reason, the left hand is considered unclean and most people touch food only with their right hands. I can now understand the idea that food is better enjoyed when eating with your hands- after shmushing (that’s a technical term) my rice together with my dal (lentils) and subjee (vegetables) into a nice sticky little ball, popping it in my mouth is surprisingly satisfying.
Before coming to Mumbai, I was absolutely awful at sharing food. Seriously, if someone tried to nab something off my plate, I would stab his hand with my fork. I was the world’s worst friend, sibling, and girlfriend with whom to share a meal. But here, sharing food is assumed. Everyone eats lunch together at my office and everyone shares everything. And not just ripping off a teeny bite, but really sharing. In my effort not to be a culturally inept jerk, I started sharing too, and I actually found it surprisingly easy. Now I LIKE to share my food. Hooray for learning pre-school lessons 20 years later!
I’ve made some efforts at cooking Indian food and have been nominally successful. I can make a pretty mean dal and have managed a few other dishes that are loaded with turmeric, cumin, mustard seeds, and other spices typically found in Indian food (although saying “typically found in Indian food” is nonsensical since dishes and flavors here vary a ton depending on region, community, and of course personal preferences). On my walk home from work, I can pick up fresh fruits and veggies from the market stalls and then grab some delicious fresh paneer from a milk stand for my dinner. This is the first place I’ve ever been where, if you don’t have the exact change you need, a vendor will say, “Ok ok, 10 rupees more next time.”
It’s generally accepted that a visitor should only eat Mumbai street food if he/she has a death wish. Or more specifically, a three-days-of-needing-to-be-
People love bringing snacks and treats to share with everyone at the office, and anything constitutes a good reason to bring goodies. Someone’s birthday? That person will bring sweets for the whole office. Someone’s nephew cleared his 10th standard exams? Sweets. Someone saw a sweet shop on the way to work that morning? Sweets for everyone, which is totally fine by me.
And last but absolutely not least, there’s the mango craze. When the awful summer heat arrives in Mumbai, mangoes are its saving grace. They’re sublime. At the very beginning of mango season, a friend and I took a trip to a coastal town called Ratnigiri, famous for its mangoes. This is where I learned the subtle art of mango eating- rip the skin off with your teeth and then munch straight into that baby. It ends with sticky hands and a face full of mango juice, but it’s so worth it. In fact, being here has reminded me that different fruits actually have different seasons. In America, I can get pretty much any fruit at any time- at an exorbitant price, of course. But fruit-eating here has actually been an exercise in patience. The guavas were delicious when I arrived, but it took another eight months for them to make their way back into my life. Eight long, painful, guava-less months. But I persevered.
Happy eating, India travelers!