India: First Impressions, plus 5 Unmissable Foodie Experiences in Mumbai

My dear blog, how I’ve missed you! I didn’t plan on taking this long a break, but as most of you will know, I was in India over December, visiting Mumbai, Chennai and Kerala, and when I got back to work most of our team was on leave so I was really busy, with my weekends and evenings being spent applying for MBA scholarships. The deadline was a few days ago, so now I’m free to spend time on Jozilicious again.

I am SO excited about 2014. I have tons of travel plans- none confirmed yet though so I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m really hoping to have lots to share this year. It’s also going to be a difficult year. We start French lessons this month (pre requisite to MBA), and I’m also doing CFA Level 3 in June. In addition, I’m going to have to get used to being broke. The exchange rate is weakening by the day and this MBA is going to cost a fortune.

Anyway, that’s a short update from me- I hope all of you are ready for a rocking year!

Today’s post is about Mumbai. We spent 3 nights there and stayed at the Oberoi at Nariman Point. It was honestly one of my best hotel experiences ever. In fact, most 5 star hotels in India are far superior to the ones in SA, or most places for that matter. The level of service is on another level, and because there is more than enough space in India, the lobbies are opulent and huge, and the rooms are modern and spotless. The only gripe I have is that we travelled at peak season so overall probably ended up paying close to double what it would have cost us if we had travelled offpeak.

The Mumbai skyline

The Mumbai skyline

 

Dhoby Ghaut, a man made laundry factory

Dhoby Ghaut, a man made laundry factory

Unfortunately due to my leave issues this was the only time I could travel, so I had to make peace with it. If you travel offpeak India is a SUPER cheap holiday and you really get bang for your (South African) buck. You can get a 7 night holiday (5 star) for around R15-R20k per person, if you manage to swipe one of those Emirates or SAA deals to fly to Mumbai for R6k.

The thing about India is that it’s a difficult holiday. You can’t just hop on a subway and navigate yourself. But that’s also what makes it so different. It’s unpredictable, crazy, chaotic. It will wow you and break your heart at the same time. For me, that’s my favourite thing about travelling. Exposing yourself to new places and new cultures is not always comfortable (ie we spent almost half a day in traffic in Mumbai), but it opens your eyes to the world and sometimes makes you appreciate what you have.

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My mom enjoying coconut water in Chennai

A spectacular temple in Chennai

A spectacular temple in Chennai

In India, it’s almost essential to book through an agent so that you have a driver at your disposable and you have someone to call if something goes wrong. I usually never use agents because I feel they add a markup onto the hotel prices, but in India it’s different. Agents have special arrangements with hotels and can often get a far cheaper rate than you would have been able to get yourself. I used AIZ travels and can highly recommend them. We had drivers in all the cities we went to who were punctual and reliable. They also arranged tours for us, and I checked all their prices vs what I was quoted from the hotels- in all cases they were cheaper. Contact them on aiztravelstours@gmail.com

One of many crazy streets in Chennai

One of many crazy streets in Chennai

Anyway, in Mumbai we did a bit of sightseeing, but the highlight for me (same applies to the rest of India), was the food. I feasted on crispy, garlicky naan, spicy chicken curries, tangy paneer, buttery sweetmeats and masala tea everyday. Hence, I’m on diet now. The food is SO cheap. On average, we paid around R200 for 4 people for the most delicious food. I did get sick of indian food towards the end, at which time we ate at Pizza Hut (also very yummy!)

When I’m travelling, I try to research all the restaurants we go to in advance so that every meal is memorable. While we didn’t have any bad experiences in Mumbai, there are 5 foodie experiences that I think are really worth doing.

Here they are:

1. Go on a food tour

I discovered food tours when I was in New York in 2012 and have tried to do one at every new city I visit. I just love them. They’re usually run by locals, so you can find all the hidden amazing places that you would never know about otherwise. I recently contributed to a Jozi travel guide, so I probably shouldn’t say this, but most restaurant recommendations in guide books are rubbish. Rather work off blog recommendations or word of mouth from locals. We did one in Paris, and I googled relentlessly before we went to India to look for one in Mumbai. I came across Food Tours of Mumbai and then reminded myself that we shouldn’t really be eating street food in India. You can’t even brush your teeth with tap water there so I was a bit worried. The owner and guide, Mihir, reassured me that we’d be eating at reputable eateries, so off we went to meet him one evening in Colaba, a really buzzing part of the city. We tried everything from the best tandoori chicken in Mumbai (at Food Inn), to Veg Korma and Kerala Fish Curry at Fountain Plaza to specialty ice cream from K. Rustom and finally, paan, an after meal Indian specialty. What I loved about Food Tours of Mumbai is that we also got a full page of restaurant recommendations- such a pity that the tour was on our last day in Mumbai. The tour wasn’t just food, Mihir also gave us some historical background to our surroundings which was really interesting. You can contact Mihir on info@foodtoursofmumbai.com.

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The world famous Leopold Cafe. You'll read about this spot in Shantaram, and you may also remember it as the place terrorists started their attack from a few years ago

The world famous Leopold Cafe. You’ll read about this spot in Shantaram, and you may also remember it as the place terrorists started their attack from a few years ago

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This ice cream was so delicious. It’s sandwiched in a wafer and churned, not whipped, so it’s firmer, smoother and creamier. I went for dark chocolate (the one in the middle)

2. Have a classy dinner at San Qi at the Four Seasons

So I’ve mentioned that there are some amazing hotels in India. The Four Seasons is one of those. Their signature restaurant, San Qi, is an indian/ chinese/ japanese/ thai fusion. I loved that there are dedicated chefs for each of the different types of cuisines, with the glass setting and open kitchen being quite dramatic and eye catching. Again, the service couldn’t have been better. We flew into Mumbai on this day and ended up missing lunch, so we were starving by the time we got to the restaurant, hence, Rishav ordered this lamb dish, that was brought whole and sliced at our table- really cool.  I also loved their dessert offering: the San Qi Dessert Variation (for 2) – Chocolate Fondant, Lemongrass Crème Brûlée, Pandan Crêpe, Mango Sorbet, Gulab Jamun + Kulfi with Falooda. I can never decide what dessert to order so it was great to try a bit of everything! Apart from the food being amaze, the set up of the restaurant was really unique and we had a very memorable evening there.

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3. Enjoy a classic indian breakfast at The Oberoi

In India, in addition to the normal English breakfast, you’ll also get a range of indian breakfast items. My favourite thing to have was Masala Dosa. It’s like the most delicious thing ever. Admittedly, it’s a little heavy for breakfast but I didn’t care too much. It’s like a huge pancake made with rice flour, so it has a bit of a grainy texture. Inside, you’ll find spicy potatoes cooked with turmeric and bay leaves. It is served with sambar, coconut or mint chutney and some dry spices. Most other hotels have a buffet breakfast and let me tell you, messy curries/ chutneys and buffets do not go well together. Gravy ends up dripping everywhere and it looks really unappetizing. The Oberoi has a continental buffet, with a hot breakfast available off an a la carte menu. The menu also offers some breakfast items that are harder to find in India, like salmon/ Eggs Benedict, and the restaurant is beautifully set up.

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Vetro, Italian restaurant at The Oberoi, Mumbai

4. Feast on kebabs and grills at Sheesha in Bandra

On our last day in Mumbai, I had planned for us to spend the afternoon in Bandra, a really trendy area with lots of cool restaurants and shops. We spent the morning shopping at Palladium mall which is like the Hyde Park of Mumbai. We didn’t find too much until we went to a store called Pantaloons, where we spent close to 2 hours. I bought harem pants, a few tops and eyeliner :) So we spent close to an hour in a taxi getting to Bandra, and told the taxi driver we wanted to go to Sheesha for lunch. He didn’t know where it was but we figured we’d find it once we got to the area. Well. No one had heard of it, so we decided to just get off at the main intersection and find it on foot. Big mistake.  This was probably the busiest street we’d seen in Mumbai, with around 8 lanes filled with people, cars and rickshaws. My mother wasn’t keen on walking, so we jumped into an auto- rickshaw. There were 3 of us in the backseat, and Rishav tried to get into the front. The driver told him he wasn’t allowed to, so started driving off, leaving Rishav waiting on the road. I made him stop as soon as he could, and told my mom and mom in law to carry on to the restaurant. There I was, all alone, searching for Rishav among the craziness. I crossed the road, and all I could see was people everywhere- no sign of him. Eventually, he found me, and we walked to the restaurant, where our very worried mothers were standing outside waiting.

It all turned out fine, and we enjoyed a sizzling meal at Sheesha. There was hubbly/ hooka (sp?), a view, couches and lots of yummy tandoori food. Needless to say, we left straight after and didn’t do much exploring!

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5. Have a traditional North Indian meal at Delhi Darbar in Colaba

Delhi Darbar is somewhat of an institution. Once you eat there, you’ll struggle to go to restaurants like the Raj or Ghazal. I actually don’t know how I’m going to enjoy SA-style indian food anymore :(  I’ve got a soft spot for butter chicken, and I must have had it about 7-8 times in India. DD’s version was my favourite- they just got the flavour combination perfect. We also had the most divine tandoori prawns, coated in a coriander and chilli paste, prawn curry, and of course, lots of garlic naan, + some biryani. The restaurant’s location makes it a great place to start exploring Mumbai’s street markets.

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In my next post about India, I’ll share our experience in Kerala. While most people do the golden triangle (Delhi/ Agra/ Jaipur), South India is absolutely magnificent in its own right, and will worth a visit.

Until then, happy weekend!

x H