I have a complicated relationship with Bombay: A Review of Toronto’s Bombay Street Food.
I have a complicated relationship with Bombay. My first memory of the city is of a barber shop in Versova, teary-eyed, while my grandmother instructs the barber to cut off all my hair. My next few memories of Bombay are hazy. Drinking juice and eating chaat at Elco market while watching my mother bargain with the guy selling necklaces. Buying coconut water off the streets just so that I could watch the vendor hack the fruit up with his machete. Post-curfew dosa at Manju’s to soften the blow that would be my parents. All the omelette paus at Churchgate station, Tibb’s frankies at Breachcandy, and sev puri blur together much like the nights in the insomniac city itself.
I realize, as I edit this, that I refer to the metropolis as Bombay a lot. And the reason is two-fold. First, talking about the city, its food, and the nostalgia is entirely different than the geographic locale of Mumbai. In fact, the homepage of Bombay Street Food’s website conveys that right off the bat. No doubt, there’s a sense of holding onto the past with calling it such, an assertion by those born and bred in the city and their disdain for outsiders calling it by the name it was replaced by in 1995, and a sense of nostalgia of a city that encapsulates all they’ve ever known.
My parents were born, brought up and currently live in the city that is now called Mumbai. If I was to calculate, I’d say I’ve lived there for a grand total of four years, non-consecutively. Between the ages of 1–11, Bombay was the place of gifts, new crayons, and aloo parathas; bittersweet memories of my grandparents spoiling me and then saying goodbye when my short trip to Bombay ended. At twelve, Bombay was a bully to my Canadian sensibilities and my accented Hindi. I hated it because I could, but also because of hormones. From 14 onwards, Bombay was where I spent summers away from boarding school with my parents, ate alphonso mangoes, and got teased mercilessly because of the acne that followed suit. Memories of Bombay are replete with food and that’s why I’m writing this today.
Walking past the unopened Bombay Street Food in late April, I could almost taste the kheema pau. On the Friday night I visited, the food did not disappoint. Yes, the kheema pau was made with bread from Cobb’s and the dal chawal didn’t taste like my nani’s. But — I’ll check my Bombay-adjacent privilege at the get-go — it would be unfair to compare the two.
The restaurant shuts at 9 PM every night, including Fridays. Civilized timings coupled with the lack of a liquor license automatically distinguish this place from the eponymous city. The smell of cumin greets you as you walk in, but so does the distance of each table; the restaurant is almost bistro style prioritizing lunch service for the Bay St. crowd. Irani cafes, of which Bombay Street Food is modelled off, do the opposite packing in tables in each nook and cranny. The south wall and the corrugated metal walls have been deliberately aged, albeit artistically, to mimic the degradation of Irani cafes.
As the meal continues, I slowly alienate the non-Indian friends I came with by oversharing, pointing and smiling at the images of Muhammed Ali Road splayed on the walls, and starting each explanation of the items we are eating from genesis. This is exacerbated by the moment Seema, one of the co-owners of the place, comes and pours us some complimentary chai. She is lovely. Her accent suggests she’s a Bombay local, which she confirms by saying she’s from Bandra, a neighbour to my parent’s old apartment in Khar. Her accent transports me to Bombay, I get startled a little bit once I turn my head and see the Sleep Country Canada logo across the street.
Since moving to Toronto, I’ve visited Bombay frequently. During those visits, I’ve worked, solidifying my role as a local although my Canadian accent now attracts several questions. Trips have also included requisite girly nights with my mother, grandmother and my sister, selecting the most garish, adorned and heavy vintage lehengas from Sabyasachi. They have been nights punctuated by long taxi rides, forgetting which left to take to get back home. They have been formative, existential conversations had on Marine Drive with everyone from my father, friends, or the guy selling chana on the road.
The next time I Skype my parents, I tell them about Bombay Street Food on Bay street. My parents and I talk a lot, and often via WhatsApp or email, and so they respond to my enthusiastic descriptions of the new restaurant with recipes for me to try when I’m feeling nostalgic. The following day, while on a call with my mother, she asks when I’m moving back home to “live the good life.” I hem and haw, and change the subject maintaining my unhealthy, tempestuous relationship with baddest of all boys, Bombay.