In India, nothing is straightforward. I am reminded of this as my husband and I sit on orange vinyl seats inside Sahakari Bhandar cafe in Mumbai's seaside Colaba neighbourhood eating pav bhaji, one of the city's most notable culinary exports. It is as delectable as it is salty, so our guide for this evening's street food tour, a lifelong Mumbai resident named Dilip Suryavanshi, is ordering water, but not without a convoluted disclaimer.
"There are some guides who want to save money," he says, smoothing his moustache. "So they encourage you to drink tap water. But I don't want to save money! I want to save your life! Money you can get anywhere, but not your life," he adds gravely.
My husband and I passed Sahakari almost daily six years ago when we lived in this neighbourhood, but were too scared to try it lest we get Delhi belly. Constantly filled with locals and ridiculously cheap, we'd relegated it to the not-worth-the-risk category. Tonight though, with Suryavanshi's obvious concern for our health, we feel OK about tucking into the pav bhaji, Sahakari's speciality.
Suryavanshi points out the cook at the front of the eatery, who is frying vegetables and spices on a large flat griddle, then mashing them together. The result is the reddish-brown mush we spoon on to toasted, heavily buttered white bread rolls. With a squeeze of lime juice, it is perfection.
After refreshing our breath with sugar-coated fennel seeds (the Indian Tic Tac), we take a battered black-and-yellow taxi down Marine Drive, abutting the Arabian Sea. We emerge at Sharma's on Charni Road, where staff in pale blue shirts waft around the simple stainless-steel kiosk.
Sharma's has occupied this hole-in-the-wall for 30 years and is famous for its pani puri, a delicious Indian chaat (savoury snack) comprised of fried pastry shells stuffed with chutney, potato, herbs and spices, that until now we've never dared order outside a restaurant. Assuring us this is one of the cleanest eateries in Mumbai, Suryavanshi orders pani puri, as well as bhel puri (puffed rice with vegetables and chutney) and dahi puri (like pani puri but with yoghurt). Each costs 40 rupees, about 80¢, a scandalously low price for something this tasty.
"These are housewives," says Suryavanshi, pointing out two sari-clad women in the crowd of businessmen. "They stay in the house all day, so in the evening they meet their husbands here for a pre-dinner snack."
The chaat precedes a masala dosa, procured at a nearby ancient-looking food cart. One man spreads a thin layer of fermented rice batter over a hot plate to make the dosa, while another mashes a mixture of potato, onion and spices. The whole lot is then wrapped up, sliced and handed to us on a metal plate. The crisp, slightly sour dosa combined with the spicy filling is a sensation and I find myself wishing, not for the first time this evening, that I'd known about this little gem six years ago.
Within minutes of taking our last bite, we jump on a packed local bus that we alight to visit Taj Ice Cream at Bhendi Bazaar. We sit inside the modest store and order two scoops, mango and coconut, of the hand-churned ice-cream, made without colours or preservatives. It has been made using the same recipe, by the same family, for more than 130 years, says Suryavanshi. It is one of the best ice-creams I have tasted – rich and creamy, but fresh and zesty – simple and delicious.
Getting a taxi home, however, is not simple. There are none free and the road is dotted with other taxi-seekers, including a woman trying to get a live goat home with her. No, nothing is straightforward in India. Then again, why on earth would you want it to be.
Singapore Airlines operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and Mumbai, via Singapore. See singaporeair.com
Abode has basic, simple and luxury rooms from INR 4500. See abodeboutiquehotels.com
Abode Boutique Hotel offers city tours covering street food, flower markets, the Elephanta Caves and more. See abodeboutiquehotels.com
Nina Karnikowski travelled at her own expense.