By Hannah Sotnick | Mumbai, India
This week Culinarian travels to Bombay, where the temptation of forbidden street food is warded off with authentic Indian specialties of the Elco food market. We might be missing the Big Apple’s familiar roti and tandori chicken, but nothing beats this summer’s Indian indulgence.
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As May progressed, my building excitement to spend the summer in Bombay was intermittently punctuated by moments of frustration. There were vaccines to endure and prescriptions to collect, accompanied by unnecessary warnings from doctors about the aggression of monkeys. I’d spent hours watching a muted Bollywood movie while standing in line at the Indian visa office after tediously accumulating the required paperwork. But, the most heart wrenching of the frustrations was the cacophony of voices warning, “Don’t eat the street food!”
The admonition mocked my palette even further once I arrived in this epicenter of strong flavors. While the tender roti and flavorful veg thali of local restaurants maintain the authenticity and satisfaction that I imagine street food to have, the forbidden fried snacks and fresh juices of the corner stalls continue to tempt. Therefore, Elco Pani Puri Center is the perfect place to enjoy the virtues of chaat, a family of savory snacks and meals usually eaten as street food, united by the common ingredients of fried dough, chutneys, chili, certain fillings like chickpeas, potatoes, and onions, and dahi (Indian yogurt).
Elco is located in Bandra, a hip, young neighborhood with diverse restaurant offerings, both cheap and upscale, that range from typical Indian fare to international options. A few of my Indian coworkers are puzzled by my choice to dine at Elco instead of the swankier options of the neighborhood, but the trendy fusion restaurants in the area cannot match the distinct character and taste of chaat. Elco provides a way to experience these refreshing and deeply satisfying flavors with an assurance of freshness, quality, and taste: my enjoyment unmarred by the anxieties of my stomach. Many Mumbaikars frequent Elco, a longtime institution known for its pani puri, and I have eagerly followed suit. It is only two weeks into my stay and I have already taken the half-hour auto-rickshaw ride to Elco three times.
On my way inside for my second visit, I pass those enjoying pani puri at Elco’s outdoor market, popping into their mouths the bite-sized, crispy, hollow puris filled to order with a mixture of flavored water, chutney, chili, and vegetables. I will dare to brave the risky pani puri another time, so I head upstairs to the slightly more commercialized restaurant. I order a classic chaat dish, dahi raj kachori. A spherical, fried kachori (a pocket of firm, crisp dough) holds the vegetables and chutneys at the heart of the dish. It is promising at first glance, with the appearance of a bursting parcel. A generous amount of dahi tops and pools around the kachori, which I can tell at first glance will be immensely helpful in cutting the spice of the vibrantly colored chili powder that has been sprinkled with a generous hand.
Once I break enthusiastically past the kachori, I am delighted to find a warm mixture of chickpeas, onions, potatoes, and chutneys. The savory vegetables retain the degree of Indian spice I’ve become accustomed to, occasionally overwhelming but worth the challenge. The soft potatoes blend well with the slight crunch of the onions and firm meatiness of the chickpeas, and the bottom of the kachori retains its crispness even beneath such an abundance of fillings, with no hint of sogginess. While most Indian food tends to give me a feeling of heaviness, chaat’s mixture of heavier ingredients with sweeter chutneys and refreshing dahi feels slightly lighter and significantly more well rounded as a dish.
My friends order two different dishes that are similarly delicious. Bhel puri, another classic variety of chaat, has many similar ingredients as dahi raj kachori, yet leaves off the dahi and allocates more focus to the mixture of textures. The paneer chili dosa is heartier and more biting in spice; it does not have the same element of sweetness as the two chaat dishes. A large South Indian bread mostly made into wraps, this dosa is folded with chili pepper and paneer, the staple cheese on every Indian menu. The dish is filling and brimming with flavor while the dosa remains light and crisp.
We counter the strength of the chili with two typical Indian drinks: mango lassis and a lime soda. While I’ve enjoyed mango lassis in many Indian restaurants in New York, this thick mango drink is exponentially more flavorful in Bombay due to the mind-blowingly luscious Indian mangoes that instantly put all American ones to shame. The lime soda, sparkling water with lime, is a bit more unusual; the mild sweetness of sugar and the slight bitterness of salt and pepper used to season create an interesting and unexpected flavor.
For dessert we first order gulab jamun: two warm, tender pieces of dough made of milk solids that are soaked and served in extremely sweet syrup. Gulab jamun is even more sickeningly sweet than typical sugary Indian dessert, and more than one delicious bite leaves me feeling overwhelmed with richness. Malai kulfi, our second and my favorite dessert, is milder in sweetness. We share a small glass bowl filled with nine diamond-shaped morsels of kulfi, a delicious combination of ice cream and caramel.
Like each time I’ve eaten at Elco, I leave with a deep sense of satisfaction that helps ward off the next day’s street food temptations. And to top it all off, the three of us combined pay less than eight dollars…chaat ching! •