Mumbai cuisine has been shaped by centuries of seasoning at the hands of Koli fishermen, Hindu dynasties, Muslim sultans and Portuguese and British colonists. All have converged on this flourishing trading port through the years, importing their own culinary know-how. As India's most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai casts the culinary net worldwide, with abundant restaurants offering the flavours of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia to the city's expats and backpackers, and to Mumbai's rich and famous elite.
Colaba is where you'll find the majority of cheap eats, usually aimed at the foreign backpacking crowd, while Fort and Churchgate cater to trendier and more upscale fine-dining establishments, a trend that continues as you head north. Posh Mahalaxmi and the western suburbs are where you’ll find Mumbai’s most international and expensive restaurants. Along the way, endless streetfood treats await, tucked in every nook and cranny around the city – just keep a look out for speeding dabba-wallahs, Mumbai's miraculous network of some 5000 lunch delivery boys, who deliver untold thousands of meals to hungry city workers every day, with a level of accuracy that would challenge a supercomputer.
Eat the streets
Mumbai lives for streetfood, 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 beachfront stands at Girgaum Chowpatty Beach. 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 sandwich) and other snack treats in the office workers’ district to the north of Kala Ghoda , and along Mohammed Ali and Merchant Roads in Kalbadevi (famous for meaty kebabs).
Following your nose (and the crowds) is a good rule of thumb, but 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. Let hungry office workers be your guide to spicy, fresh-grilled kebabs, mutton and chicken curries, and chicken tikka rolls, all of which are knee-buckling, finger-lickin' good. Sardar's (166-A Tardeo Rd Junction, Tulsiwadi), tucked away behind Mumbai Central Station and difficult to find (as all great food stalls should be), 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), eaten with 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).
Mumbai has no shortage of over-the-top dining splurges; even better, these celebration suppers will only cost you a fraction of what they might back home. Your first stop should be Khyber, famed for its marvellous meat-centric menu of gloriously tender kebabs, rich curries and loads of tandoori favorites roasted in their legendary red masala sauce. At Koh, celeb chef Ian Kittichai prepares his native Thai cuisine with local ingredients, resulting in 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 (The Oberoi, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Rd, Nariman Point), where exquisite upscale interpretations of classic Indian dishes are served in an almost impossibly 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 Mumbaikers are no exception. Sugar rushes are induced on every corner by vendors selling jalebi – those ubiquitous bright orange pastries, made from battered and deep-fried wheat flour 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. 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.