A Taste Of Two Cities: When Mumbai Street Food Goes To London

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TKC Restaurant Paan, Southall, London
Sandwichwala, Chembur, Mumbai
Sandwichwala, Chembur, Mumbai

Any old winding street in Mumbai is sprinkled with the odd roadside vendor, either roasting fresh corn on the cob, or whirling through his ingredients to compose a colourful symphony of batata, dahi and sev on crisp puris.

Street food however, is not a new phenomenon – ancient Rome was probably home to the beginnings of these makeshift kitchens. These basic models of trade have evolved into a more complex structure of a cultural market and local commercial exchange. Today, they have proliferated across the globe, bringing authentic local cuisine to the roads and creating a movement that promotes the distinct flavours of a particular community.

While the street food business may not be a formally recognized industry, according to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they are certainly crucial in the economic planning and development of a city. There are approximately 2.5 billion consumers of street food across the world; this fact reinforces its importance in the food industry. Studies reveal that in Africa and Asia, almost 15-50% of the average food budget is spent on street foods. However, this varies greatly from country to country and within economies. This is the street food tale of two cities.

Chanawala, Mumbai
Chanawala, Mumbai

Alleys of Mumbai
Around every corner of every street, it will not be surprising to find a group of street vendors. The streets in Mumbai are home to almost 70% of the 21 million inhabiting this large city – it is therefore inevitable that a lot happens within these spaces – from roadside vendors with their portable business to makeshift homes and open schools. The men and women who carry around their little kitchens either set-up in allotted market areas or literally anywhere, under the cool shade of a tree, by the entrance of a building colony or line up on the beach as the sun begins to set.

Kebabwala, High Street, Southall, London
Kebabwala, High Street, Southall, London

London’s Lanes
In London, the streets overflow with cultural diversity and an unusual blend of traditions and customs. Like a global village it unfurls its flavours – the streets soon create their own identity owing to a specific culture and cuisine. The vendors however, are limited to particular areas and do not sprout up just anywhere.

Let The Street Food War Begin
So when Bombay chaat goes to London, what are the cultural transformations that take place?

While there are no immediately visible differences, I am certain of erupting debates that will question the authenticity in flavour. Street food in Mumbai is an essential part of the local life, they do not appear for festivals or special occasions, they are present every day at specific times, rain or shine. Focusing on the migration of Bombay’s signature street food to London, takes us to well-know curry centrals like Bricklane and Southall. The streets are characterized by crowded signboards, the aroma of spices and markets that overflow onto the footpaths.

Jalebiwala, Southhall, London
Jalebiwala, Southhall, London

Every Mumbaikar will have their personal preference of a Pani Puri vendor, and definite reasons for these choices – the different water, the spicy fillings, the size of the puris or even the vendor are only a few factors. Also known as ‘Little India,’ Southall offers a variety of traditional street food, however it is only a cultural representation of a small part of a larger community. Contrary to Mumbai’s necessity for street vendors, Southall in Greater London creates a nostalgic atmosphere with its Jalebiwalla stirring and frying golden swirls for passersby to reminisce the old days.

Jalebiwala, Mumbai
Jalebiwala, Mumbai

For the nonnative, street food stalls are an interesting point of interaction with the natives. In Mumbai, street food is considered to be a cheaper option as compared to restaurants or fast-food places; it is arguably the most economical option and is particularly prompt for the fast-paced lives of the city that never sleeps. This form of trade also sustains the local businesses and generates income to support a fair standard of living while creating employment opportunities. London may not rely on income from street food vendors, but they are an essential part of this multicultural melting pot.

TKC Restaurant Paan, Southall, London
TKC Restaurant Paan, Southall, London

The Verdict
In the end, a Mumbaikar loves his roadside chaat, which is an indispensable part of everyday life – whether you find your predilection at Chowpatty or wait for Ramu who will be there at 6 o’clock every evening by the gate, with your customized plate of Sev Batata Dahi Puri, ready to devour. And if you are 4477 miles away, then the crunch of a fresh puri filled with hot potato bhaji, a drop of tamarind chutney and a splash of ice cold pani, will remind you of home.

All photos by Sukruti Staneley

Post By Sukruti Staneley, Guest Writer (2 Posts)

Photographer and writer by day, a child of Indie by night and a minimalist at heart. Born in India, schooled in the Middle-East, came home to Bombay to study, ran off to London for a year - always a nomad.

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Sukruti Staneley, Guest Writer

Sukruti Staneley, Guest Writer
Photographer and writer by day, a child of Indie by night and a minimalist at heart. Born in India, schooled in the Middle-East, came home to Bombay to study, ran off to London for a year - always a nomad.