Delhi vs Bombay debates have taken place since time immemorial; drunk people in heated conversations being the biggest purveyors of them. The food, of course, takes a special place in those debates. What’s better: momos or vada pao?As I navigated through the culinary landscape of Mumbai the first time I moved here some seven years ago, the sheer difference of the flavours intrigued me. You could write a mean but tragic book with the things people from Delhi say about Mumbai food, but in all honesty, most of them are yet to experience the full extent of Mumbai’s palate.
In all honesty, though, some of the criticism is valid. For example, take missal pav, which is just water and some kind of sev, with salt and about two types of spices and served with pav. A lot of the food in Mumbai does feel like not enough thought has gone into making it taste good - or even in assimilating the authentic flavours. Despite the variety of flavours and aromas that somehow didn’t make it to the plate, it was soon clear to me that I’d rather have my undercooked momos in Delhi.But then again, I was only tasting representative, celebrity Mumbai food in equivalently over-represented regions of the city (if you’re not from Mumbai, every place’s name you’ve heard of likely falls in this category), as well as ignoring the role of the history of the city compared to Delhi’s in contributing to its cuisine.
Many consider the vada pao to be the quintessential Mumbai street food item, though contrary to popular belief, vada pao and its various pav variants are recent additions to Mumbai. The traditional Mumbai street food – dosas, bun maskas, sandwiches and such - was, till fifty years ago, a lot more foreign than the guy who invented vada pav was comfortable with. Aside from being a local item we could all be proud to have originated in Mumbai, the Vada pav, in its essence, is a good representation of Mumbai food in general but if you really go out into the Northern regions of the city, you’ll discover so much more. Talking about quick-eating, Mumbai is also a ridiculously good city if you like tiny things to munch on, on the go.
Delhi, on the other hand, takes its culinary culture from everyone who resettled it in the wake of the partition, as about one-third of the inhabitants of the tiny walled city (that only extended till Lodhi Colony) had moved to Pakistan, and more than that moved in. From the Afghans and Punjabis who came from the northern Frontier to the Malayalis from Madras in the South and Bengalis from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), refugees poured into the various uninhabited parts of the city. With them, they got their various flavours and recipes, all of which have left their distinct marks on the overall city cuisine, the Punjabi mark of course being the most visible. The city’s openness to new cuisine doesn’t come from any inherent traits of cosmopolitanism in the city’s cultural fabric; it’s purely because of the fact that all cuisine in Delhi has been new cuisine (except maybe its traditional Mughlai), and some would even argue that the process of assimilation of tastes is still going on. That doesn’t mean that Mumbai falls short on that assimilation, though, it only means that Delhi would always have an edge over most other cities in accepting a wider variety of cuisine and perfecting it because of its culturally unique history, so it’s not really a fair comparison.
For those looking for a definitive answer to which city is better for foodies, there’s none here. Mumbai has an equally thriving food culture if one dares to venture out of the places news about food is usually manufactured in. A local bar in Mumbai, for example, is always a good place to grab a snack or two with a couple of beers, as they realised a long time ago that drunk people want their food to taste good more than sober ones. Delhi never developed a local, cheap-bar culture – unless by cheap bar you mean My Bar - again due to the different histories of the city, so that’s definitely something Delhi should look into.
Of course, Delhi would always have my vote because I grew up there and the sheer variety of locally available food, but as with every other city in the country, I found Mumbai to be equally gastronomically-engaging, once I really went out to new places looking for new things to eat. There are fundamental differences in how both the cities eat, and people on both sides will always keep this debate alive, though if there’s one thing they can agree on is that both the cities – like every other city in the country – are worth exploring for their unique eating options.
Vada pav still doesn’t convince me, though.
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