Needing, Desperately, Some Bombay Street Victuals?

Bruce's First Trip to the Sub-Continent

We see the starving amputee begging, the little bugger is no more than 5 years old, and he's got the runny nose, the scabby hands, and the filthy wardrobe. So, an eight course dinner later that night, well it does seem excessive.

Dinner time in India. Many of us dine well, while millions here make do with a handful of rice, if that. So runs the cliche about India, right? It is time to go in. To see first hand...India. Last stop for the world traveler.

India: it is widely believed, sucks. So. Lets check it out. If it sucks, why do nearly a billion folks -- four times our population in a country about half our size-- live here?

And... Indian street food: can we live on it?

Fly me to Bombay, now known as Mumbai.

The Amsterdam to Mumbai flight gets in after midnight, and the customs area is illuminated by naked light bulbs. Its a quiet dusty scene. Sleep deprived. The officials are men in frayed shirts, doubtless on the take.

One passenger had computers to sell to a firm in Calcutta, and he liberally bribed a lesser functionary to bypass the prying eyes of the customs boys. I saw him outside. You slide through? He said, Okay. Okay.

Under the occasional raw street light, hundreds of locals and dozens of decrepit cabs swarmed out front. Welcome to Mumbai and its serious hubbub. Scrawny dogs sniffed small piles of trash. Trucks without mufflers grinding slowly over potholes and dirt. Dim figures seen huddled in darkened shacks. Kerosene lamps, the air filled with dust and exhaust fumes and the scent of decay.

Mumbai. Sure some cows roam the streets here beside the Arabian Sea, and you read about packs of wild dogs savaging the poorer neighborhoods. The crows scream incessantly from the lush vegetation everywhere. People? Humanity abounds (with a population of 15 million, not surprising).

But, there are bonuses (a haircut and a shave cost about a dollar. Total dialogue: Barber: How? Me: Short.)

And street food is all over the place.

My hotel is air conditioned with a terrace, and although I am not in a Four Star deal, the staff treats me like a visiting maharaja, which is another attraction of India. But street food? We must investigate.

Street Food: Why One Travels

Obviously, one of the great joys of world travel is the discovery of the very foods the local folks eat everyday. Mexico's spicy tamales, Guatemala's bland chorizo, Singapore's street noodles and squid, Portuguese mysteries on the island of Macau, Thailand (street food paradise!) and its various Pad Thais, Norway's great breads and smoked fishes, patisseries in France, Morocco's kebabs and freshly squeezed O.J.....a haggis and whisky up in the Scottish highlands.

But India?

My West Hartford mentor (call him Mani) cautioned me early on about the spiciness and the, ah, freshness, of the street food. You are not accustomed to the spices there. You must avoid all street food if you don't want to get a very sick stomach.

Grim honesty from an Indian gentleman with homes in both southern India and West Hartford. But, youth will be served! Onto the streets of Mumbai.

Food everywhere you look, fish piled up in stalls, sacks of rice being pulled through the streets on old wooden pull-carts. Its in the windows of the shops. Over white hot coals, meats roasting these must be safe they are so overcooked! But, I pass them all by, for it is time to have lunch with Balan, a Mumbai resident, a man who evokes Gandhi in size and mien.

A word about meat

While lunching on sumptuous broiled fish, rice and salad in a Four Star restaurant I ask the low key man a question every street traveler to India must ask: So Balan my friend, how does my western stomach survive a month motoring throughout southern India?

Balan endorses Mani's recommendations this way: Ah, my friend. You must remember some things. India is historically not a meat-eating country. We are vegetarians. So we do not have much of a tradition with meat. So avoid meat here, unless you are in a Four Star hotel. Just avoid meat.

Also, remember, refrigeration is relatively new even to our cities, so you must be very aware of the freshness of what you eat. Your stomach is not used to the bacteria over here, so you must also be very certain that the food is very well cooked.

Then too, don't drink anything except bottled beverages. This means your water.
Soda? Be careful. Beer? Fresh coconut juice? Both. Very good. Okay. Eat fresh fruits, but only fruits with a rind, like coconut and banana. No grapes. No apples. Do you have Pepto? And are you taking malaria pills?


Of course. And I am packing (count em) four rolls of double-ply Charmin TP -- if you'll pardon a bad pun Proctor & Gamble's finest high-end paper -- because most of the bathrooms in India don't provide the paper of life, but rather a bucket and tap water. (You provide the left hand). Ergo: no toilet seat to put back down when you are finished. Rather... a hole in the ground, just to bring it all down home. Yes!

Oh, its different over here, and I have yet to venture out into the country itself.
In the local aquarium, a fresh water shark lazes behind the glass...a disquieting thought, fresh water sharks? Keep the swimming suit for the hotel pool and, perhaps, the Arabian Sea, which also has unfriendly predatory types in the briny.

Vultures Do Clean up

Oh, Mumbai. Gateway to India. The Towers of Silence...where they lay out the deceased on stone offerings to the... vultures. Oh, its different all right.

Now. Depart this big city. Off! Into the interior of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Karnataka, the southern states of India. Majestic. Beautiful. Exotic. South Sea-like! Sipping tea at the old Raj plantation high in the mountains. Ooty. Calicut, tiger haunts, Kovalum, canal boats on Vembanad Lake. Body surfing on the Indian Ocean, lazing on Goa's tranquil beaches and rocking in its night clubs. Mysore. Kodaikanal. Ah, India.

But. No Indian street foods did I consume! As we motored along the streets and rural roadways, away from the kitchens of the good hotels, my diet was simple: bottled water (wellam) only, and bananas. Every day.

The bananas are varied: sweet reds, local short white-yellows, it did not matter: the bananas always are sweet and always fresh and harvested while they are under ripe. And Pineapple. (Whole, not already cut up). Also sanctioned - Mango (manga) but no milk (pal) at all. Ever. In other words, eat and drink with extreme caution. And pack 500 MG of Cipro, should the stomach rumble and spill forth with violence, pain and spewage.

Bananas Are India's Recommended Street Food

Eat a ton of the good fresh stuff. I always felt strong. Never once did the vaunted Delhi Belly visit the entrails of yours truly. And, of course, you'll lose 10 or 15 pounds if, like me, you have them to spare. Get your inoculations, take your malaria pills with meals as directed.

Eat the local produce as Balan and Mani suggest.

That's the street food of choice for a time most excellent in this historic old third-world country, at least its the chow of sanity for non - locals. Wash your hands. Eat well and eat everything in the good hotels, but out on streets: please be wary.

India. I'd recommend it. I returned home with my bottle of Pepto un-opened. No runs, no whining or moaning or groaning, no Cipro, no emergency air lift medical evacuations to Saudi Arabia. No operations, palsy or leprous decay. Just good old fashioned sub - continental banana-fueled hanging out street time.