Visitors to Mumbai think it’s all about the spices, and when it comes to the city's delicious cuisine, they might be right. India's economic capital draws gastronomic influences from across India and across the globe: Mughlai kebabs, Goan vindaloos (spicy Portuguese-inspired curry), Mangalorean seafood, Parsi dhansak (hot and sour lentil and lamb stew), Gujarati and Keralan thalis (all-you-can-eat plate meals) and the Indianised version of Chinese food served on street carts all over the city.
However, in recent years, Mumbai has moved on from the familiar and evolved into a creative culinary hub, with chefs challenging the stereotypes around Indian food, whether blending ancient spice mixes with modern slow-cooking techniques, reinventing grandmother’s household recipes or cooking with flowers and exotic fruit. To experience this grand culinary experiment, just hit the streets. Abundant restaurants offer the rich flavours of South Asia, Europe and the Middle East to travellers on every budget, from the average aam admi (common man) to the city’s elite.
Where to Eat
Colaba is where you’ll find some of Mumbai’s best cheap eats and heritage cafes. Cafe Mondegar and Leopold have been frequented by tourists and office-goers for decades, while Piccadilly, on Colaba Causeway, is the place to go for Iranian-inspired Parsi delicacies. Set against a backdrop of heritage buildings in the south of the city, they serve Lebanese fare as well; the mutton kebabs with garlic sauce, hummus, picked vegetables and pitas always go down well.
Further north, areas like Fort, Churchgate and Nariman Point cater to trendier fine-dining establishments, and the budget continues to climb as you head north. Locals rate hotspots such as Pizza By the Bay and Salt Water Café for the sea breezes and eclectic spread of European and Continental dishes. For some fancy Oriental cuisine and ambiance, head to JIA-The Oriental Kitchen near the Gateway of India, All Stir Fry, behind the Regal Cinema at the Gordon House Hotel, or the effortlessly refined Thai Pavillion at the President Hotel in Cuffe Parade.
Around Mahalakshmi, Bandra and the Western Suburbs, you’ll find some of Mumbai's most exclusive and expensive restaurants. Along the way, endless street food treats await, tucked in every lane you cross- just keep a look out for the speeding dabba-wallahs, Mumbai’s miraculous food feeders, who delivery around 5000 lunch boxes to the city workers, with a level of accuracy that would challenge a super computer.
Eat the streets
Mumbai lives for its street food, turning the pavements of the city into a vast open-air buffet. Chaat (Indian-style salad) is one of the city's passions; don't miss Mumbai's famous bhelpuri, a tastebud twister of crisp fried dough mixed with puffed rice, lentils, lemon juice, onions, herbs, chilli and tamarind chutney and piled high on take-away plates, sold by beach-front stands at Girgaum Chowpatty Beach and the city's many busy khau gallis (food lanes). Mumbai is a city on the move, and hawkers are constantly on hand to supply portable feasts for pocket money prices. Hunt down street stalls serving one-plate rice meals, samosas, vada pav (deep-fried spiced-lentil-ball sandwiches) and other snack treats in the office workers’ district to the north of Kala Ghoda and along Mohammed Ali and Merchant Roads in Kalbadevi (also famous for meaty kebabs).
Following your nose (and the crowds) is a good rule of thumb; one sure-fire haunt is Bademiya – a street stall so outrageously popular that the owners have added restaurant-style seating to accommodate the hordes who gather here every afternoon by car, motorcycle and autorickshaw. Join the army of hungry office workers for spicy, fresh-grilled kebabs, mutton and chicken curries, and chicken tikka rolls, all of which are knee-bucklingly good. Tucked away behind Mumbai Central Station and difficult to find (as all great food stalls should be), Sardar's (166-A Tardeo Rd Junction, Tulsiwadi) is Mumbai's go-to spot for pav bhaji, a Maharastra speciality of mashed vegetable curry prepared on a massive iron tava (disc-shaped frying pan) and served in a butter-slathered soft bread roll. It's a popular cure-all after one too many Kingfishers on a big night out!
Mumbai's privileged location on the Arabian Sea has given the city an intimate relationship with seafood – indeed the seven islands that make up the city were once home to myriad fishing colonies, some of whom still land their catches at Sassoon Dock, founded by the Baghdadi Jewish trader David Sassoon in 1875. Mangolorean, Goan and Malvani seafood dishes dominate around the city, but you'll find seafood from all over India, from Gujarat to the Bay of Bengal. A good starting point is Mahesh Lunch Home, a Mangalorean mainstay; ladyfish and pomfret are particular specialities. The celebrated Trishna is a little pricier but it's worth it for the Hyderabadi fish tikka, jumbo prawns with green pepper sauce and outstanding crab dishes.
For Goan crab curries and tamarind prawns, Soul Fry serves up Portuguese-influenced coastal specialties in the northern suburbs. For something more homestyle and less greasy, Fresh Catch (Lt Kotnis Marg, Near Fire Brigade, Off L J Road, Mahim West) specialises in Karwari cooking, sourcing its ingredients from Karnataka, including excellent Konkan 'treasure' prawns and fried kanne (ladyfish).
Then there’s Sushi & More at Breach Candy, serving inexpensive and delectable yakitori, tempura, gyoza dumplings and salmon, cheese and tuna tartare rolls, and Oh! Calcutta in Tardeo, bringing the best of east-Indian seafood to the west coast. For Karavalli-style seafood thalis and curries with neer dosa (thin rice pancakes), cast your line at Fish Land, in the Diamond Mansion on GK Marg, near Worli Naka. Unassuming Mini Punjab is a big surprise in the Kailash Shopping Center near Bandra Linking Road; come for Koli-style prawns, tangri (chicken leg) kebabs, and fish-fry. For flavours from the south, enjoy Keralan treats served on a banana leaf at A Taste of Kerala in Fort, at a price that won't blow your budget.
Mumbai has no shortage of over-the-top dining splurges, and these celebration suppers may cost you a fraction of what they might back home. Your first stop should be Lower Parel, increasingly the epicentre of Mumbai’s fine dining scene. There’s KODE Freestyle Bar & Kitchen at Kamala Mills, with sleek design, punchy flavours, and Whiskey-pedia (a huge collection of imported whiskey brands); try the nitrogen-frozen roses and macaroons lighter than the air around you. Then there's The Frontier Post, promising a trip to pre-independence India, which stretched as far as Pakistan and the fringes of Afghanistan. You'll find more Northwest Frontier cooking at Khyber, famed for its marvellous meat-centric menu of gloriously tender kebabs, rich curries and tandoori favorites roasted in their legendary red masala sauce. For an even more exotic experience, try the sleek Burma-Burma, which marries the traditional Burmese cuisine with contemporary ambiance.
At Koh, celeb chef Ian Kittichai prepares his native Thai cuisine with local ingredients, creating a boundary-transcending menu of spicy curries and seafood. Over in Colaba, Indigo is a stylish fusion of East-meets-West, with European-Asian dishes beloved by Bollywood actors and other social butterflies. Double-star Michelin Chef Vineet Bhati, ranked as Britain's top Indian chef, mixes the masala at Ziya in the Oberoi hotel at Nariman Point, where exquisite interpretations of classic Indian dishes are served in an outrageously bling setting (think gold upholstery, gold plates, gold cutlery). To cleanse the palate, pop over to Veer Nariman Rd and order an elegant pot of Darjeeling tea at the Tea Centre.
Indians love their sweets and Mumbaikars are no exception. Sugar rushes are induced on every corner by vendors selling jalebi – ubiquitous bright orange pastries, made from swirls of deep-fried wheat flour batter soaked in sugar syrup – but there are a few sweet pitstops that should feature on every itinerary. At New Kulfi Centre near Chowpatty Beach, some of the country's best kulfi (Indian firm-textured ice cream) is dished out through a hole in the wall, with tasty flavours such as pistachio, mango and saffron. Badshah Snacks & Drinks' famous falooda (rose-flavoured milk with cream, nuts and vermicelli) is one of the city's sweetest treats.
Seeking more familiar treats? Kala Ghoda's La Folie is the place to come for Western-style desserts; owner Sanjana Patel honed his pastry and chocolate skills over a seven-year stay in France. For cupcakes that melt in the mouth, head to The Boston Cupcakery, in the Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri West. With branches in Bandra and Colaba, Theobroma serves what may be the most delectable brownies in the city. K Rustom’s Ice Cream, on Veer Nariman Rd in Churchgate is the place to come for iconic ice cream sandwiches, with flavours such as strawberry, mango and walnut served between two waffle slates.
For something less decadent, mangoes are king in Mumbai. A feeding-frenzy takes over the city every April with the arrival of the new season's Alphonsos – Mumbai's most coveted mango variety – at Crawford Market. Now, pass the naan and "Chalo pait pooja karein!" ("Let’s fill our empty stomachs!").