How street food brings the Gully Boys & the worker bees of Mumbai together. Street food tales from the Khau Gullys of Mumbai.

The Marine Lines Khau Gulley, 15th May 2019

I had gone to south Mumbai yesterday. Specifically to the Khau Gully at Marine Lines. The one which is fairly close to the Churchgate Station and ends up on Fashion Street and then the CST on the other side. You can find it on Google maps.

Eat and drink to your heart's content at this food street

Khau gully, which literally translates into 'eat street', is a generic name for a street packed with street food vendors and small eateries. There is no one khau gully in Mumbai. There are in fact many Khau Gullies spread across the city, each with its set of loyalists.

The Khao Gully that I often frequent is the lane beside the (now closed) Strand Book Shop at Fort. I love the pav bhaaji at Ashok's stall there, the vada pav, puri bhaaji and the dosa on offer at other stalls. Stalls that have no names, but are hardly faceless. The stall owners and I greet each other with a smile every time I go there, even though we do not know each others names.

With Zhan Gao of CCTV at the end of an hour long live broadcast

The Strand Khau Gully is more of a lunch time focused one. However, we needed one which was busy in the evening too yesterday.

This is because I had been invited to help conduct a live broadcast on the China Central Television (CCTV) site along with their reporter, Zhan Gao, showing the street-food of Mumbai. An evening time slot was preferred as it would coincide with dinner time in China I was told. This is why we ended up going to the Marine Lines Khao Gully and not the Fort one, thereby allowing me to experience something new in my city.

The Marine Lines Khau Gully leads up to both the nodal railway terminus's of Mumbai and hence you have a steady stream of people coming here for a bite. The crowds made for good television and from a diner's perspective, the constant off-take means that the food is fresh and dependable.

From Mumbai to China. That's Zhan before we started

In Mumbai and in the rest of India for that matter, street food primarily exists to feed the worker-bees of the city. People who are out at work and on the road. Or even those working at offices or shops nearby. Street food is what has traditionally kept up all going till we reach home. In India, unlike in China and large parts of the far east, dinner time is still meant to be spent with one's family and at home. 

Unfortunately the new office complexes of Mumbai, the Saki Nakas and the BKCs and the Malads for example, do not have established khau gullys. Folks working here here have to depend on cafes and restaurants located in office buildings, or on deliveries from the sparse restaurants around for food

Neither option can compare with what the khao gullys, of what is now 'old' Mumbai, offer in terms of price, taste and even freshness in my opinion.

Forty years of experience flavoured the bhel, sev and dahi puri here

Take for example the vada pav, dosa, idli vada, bhel, sev and dahi puri, Manchurian (!) chicken, fried fish head, Malvani chicken curry, liver masala, dal rice, veg toast sandwich, misal pav, sugarcane juice, mango milkshake, tea, coffee, masala doodh, that are on offer at the Marine Lines khau gulley.

Surely a menu cannot get more joyous than this!

Zhan and I started the live broadcast with some lovely bhel, sev and dahi puri, chaats that are very Mumbai,  at a shop run by folks who have been here for 40 years, perfecting their art day after day.

Beautifully rendered masala dosas, made fresh by a couple of young hardworking Tamilians, followed next. The chutneys served with these were stellar too. Zhan's favourite that evening as I later learnt.

The streets of Mumbai have many Tamilian dosawalas even though
the restaurants are dominated by those from Udupi in Mangalore

Freshly made vada pav at a 20 year old stall, which filled you with fresh zeal, made by a gentleman had come to Mumbai from Raigar, were next and then some very refreshing cutting chai and masala doodh before we said 'pack up'.

I explained what we were eating, to Zhan in English, and he then did so to the audience in China in Mandarin. I was quite impressed by how he tried everything with no qualms. His enthusiasm and zen-like calm were infectious. He had earlier told me that he is a fellow Ling's Pavilion fan and that made me rather proud as that is my favourite restaurant in Mumbai. 

A toast with chai

What are the three things that make street food in India special, Zhan asked me during the live broadcast.

It is an energiser, I said. It fuels those who are in the middle of a hard day to soldier on again,  feeling rejuvenated this time.

It stands for empowerment too, I added. Street food is very, very affordable here. Everyone can enjoy it. Eating at the various stall at the khau gully yesterday were both blue and white collar workers, college kids with cricket kits on their shoulders and dreams which knew no limits, mothers and grandmoms out shopping with their wards. Everyone was enjoying what was on offer. 

And thirdly, it is a binder. Street food is the glue that holds the city together. In the Marine Lines khau gully last evening, there were no questions asked about the caste, creed, community, gender, age or religion of those preparing the food. Nor of those who had come here to eat. 

It is all about running a business at the end of the day in a city where commerce rules. That is the only religion that the world of street food follows.

Fresh vada pavs were served to us, while the curry for the evening's
  Malvani chicken curry got ready in a huge kadhai at the side at the same shop

You eat and move on when at a Khau Gully. Often oblivious to the stories all around you. Or even to the great skill on display, which is critical to produce such lovely food, order after order. Skills which we often take for granted I am afraid. Slaves as we are to the march of time.

It is all about mindful eating here. You do not talk while you eat. Or think about anything else when you eat. You do not Instagram either.

The plate in your hand demands all your attention. As do the flavours of the freshly made food, often served piping hot.

Snacking on idli vada while the dosa got ready

Before I end, I must tell you about the sense of deja vu that engulfed me when I got out of the car at the entrance to the Khao Gully at Marine Lines yesterday.

The area looked very familiar to me and that's when it all came back to me. I realised that the first time that I had come here was in late 1996 or early 1997. I was an MBA student in Kolkata then. I had come to Mumbai with some of my classmates to give placement brochures to companies here. I remembered coming to this lane to give the brochure to possibly what was a finance company in one of the buildings near by.

I returned to Kolkata after the trip. I got placed with a market research agency from campus and thus began my journey from Kolkata to Mumbai with my eventually settling down here.

Going live on CCTV. Here's the link

If you had told me 22 years back, on the day I had first come to the Marine Lines khau gully, that I would be back one day, talking directly to people of China, about the street food of Mumbai, a city I barely knew then, I would have seriously thought that the sun had got to you!

Well, that's life I guess. You can never predict the stories that are getting baked in Mumbai, especially in its khau gullys.

At the start of our CCTV broadcast
Do check this video that we shot at the end of the live broadcast and where Zhan tells us about his favourites from what we ate and about how believes that Ling's Pavilion is the best place to get close to authentic Chinese food in Mumbai. Something which I felt very happy to hear.

Please do read this interview which Kal of the blog Kulture Kween, has most kindly published on her blog about my journey as a food blogger. And do follow her excellent blog too.

My post on what to order at Ling's Pavilion.
My post on going to Dacre's Lane, Kolkata's most famous Khau Gully.