An Expat Learns the Key to Authentic Indian Cooking
Saveur|April 2016

Cooking lessons at home in Mumbai.

David Shaftel

THERE is no sound I associate more with the three years I spent in India than the whistling of pressure cookers. For the first two years, though, this constant aural accompaniment to life in our leafy South Mumbai neighborhood was abstract, a reminder that mothers, aunties, cooks, and maids were hard at work in kitchens nearby. 

The home my wife and I shared was a studio apartment in an area full of charming, if crumbling, colonial and Art Deco apartment buildings,bordered on two sides by the sea. Our four-story U-shaped apartment block was a short walk from the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace hotel—two of the city’s most iconic landmarks—but far enough from the throngs of tourists and the freelance guides, souvenir sellers, and scamsters who flock to them. Life in our neighborhood was propelled by the informal economy of household foods. Vegetable sellers laid out their goods at dawn on tarps on the sidewalk, joined by hawkers of ingredients such as dried red chile peppers, fresh coconuts, and, when they were in season, the superlative Alphonso mangoes. Each morning an elderly man in a pristine white kurta pedaled through the neighborhood on an old bicycle with two enormous milk cans affixed to each side, and “fishwives” in brilliant-colored saris canvassed the neighborhood with plastic tubs full of fresh seafood balanced on their heads, often trailed by fat, feral cats. Even the newspaper dealer, in addition to selling publications in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, English, and Gujarati, offered several exciting varieties of banana. Taxis parked in the shade and drivers disappeared into their backseats for a solitary fried feast when snack vendors emerged in the afternoon.

My wife had taken a job on the launch of a travel magazine and I worked from home as a writer. We loved Indian food and considered ourselves well versed in it, having eaten it regularly in London and New York, our respective homes. Soon, though, we realized how little of the cuisine we’d truly been exposed to. While living in India, we made a point of seeing as much of the country as possible, and food proved the best introduction to the various regional cultures. It became clear that what we knew was mainly the Mughlai and Punjabi food that defines much of Indian cuisine abroad, but soon we came to prefer things like the spicy, meaty cuisine of Chettinad in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the mustard-centric Bengali take on Chinese food, and the sweet, bottomless Gujarati thalis that challenged our notions of how much we could eat in one sitting. We came to schedule flights so we could hit our favorite restaurants, including a roadside café near Goa’s airport and various kebab shops scattered around New Delhi. The best food, though—what we now miss most living in New York— is what we came to eat at home every day. 

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM SAVEURView All

Raising a Better Bird

Blue Apron founder Matt Wadiak has moved onto greener pastures, where happy chickens roam free.

2 mins read
Saveur
Fall 2020

One Good Bottle

Tamara Irish is a natural winemaker. Way natural.

2 mins read
Saveur
Fall 2020

My Not-So-Secret Garden

Good (vegetable-laden) fences make good neighbors in one tiny town.

4 mins read
Saveur
Fall 2020

Pralines: How They Cook 'Em in New Orleans

Pralines: How They Cook ’Em in New Orleans

4 mins read
Saveur
Winter 2019-20

My Father's French Onion Soup

Postwar Paris had a lifelong influence on James Edisto Mitchell—both as an artist and a cook BY Shane Mitchell

7 mins read
Saveur
Winter 2019-20

Our All-Time Best Recipes

If anyone should know if a recipe’s a keeper, it’s the person tasked with making sense of the original instructions—from the far reaches of Sri Lanka, say, or a famous chef who measures nothing. This might explain why many test kitchen staffers named favorites that their predecessors had tested and recommended. (Though a couple put forth recipes they developed themselves.) And while Saveur never shies away from the oddball authentic ingredient, the fare on the following pages is the stuff we cook at home, over and over again. Consider it global comfort food.

10+ mins read
Saveur
Winter 2019-20

Genever Is the Original Juniper Spirit

Don’t call it a comeback. Or gin

5 mins read
Saveur
Winter 2019-20

Gold Nothing

A sleepy city on the South China Sea ruled by the Portuguese until 1999, Macau has become a glitzy playground for China’s ultra wealthy. But in pockets between the casino resorts fueled by mainland money, traces of its culinary history remain.

10+ mins read
Saveur
Fall 2019

Mexico's Party Food

Fortified with hominy, chiles, and often myriad pig parts, pozole is a celebratory dish in Mexico and beyond.

4 mins read
Saveur
Fall 2019

The Middlemen

Tanzanian cocoa growers have long been at the mercy of itinerant buyers paying low prices despite the steep costs of growing. But a well-meaning company has created a supply chain that’s better for the farmers—and makes for better chocolate.

6 mins read
Saveur
Fall 2019
RELATED STORIES

The Cosmic Chaos of India

Just like the cosmos, when you see India for the first time everything seems chaotic and yet every Indian person finds his/ her own order in that hustle which all goes in tandem. Pavan Rajurkar a freelance illustrator based out of Mumbai, capture this Indianness perfectly in his artworks for many different brands and studios. Some of his recent illustrations have been displayed here.

2 mins read
Creative Gaga
Issue 49

Doctor of Happiness: An Art Essay

SUKRITI VADHERA KOHLI is the founder of Doctor of Happiness, helping young people with depression and other mental conditions through her art and online platform. Here she speaks with VANESSA PATEL about what inspired her to open up this forum, and what a difference art can make to our well-being.

9 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
March 2020

Dynamic Mumbai

Meet with clients amid the city’s kaleidoscopic sights and sounds.

3 mins read
Global Traveler
March 2020

Discover The Remnants Of Empires And The Seeds Of Independence In Mumbai

Discover the remnants of empires and the seeds of independence in India’s most populous city.

3 mins read
Business Traveler
December 2018/January 2019

Building A Sporting Nation

Marathons are changing the shape of the nation. We ask the brains behind the Delhi and Mumbai Half Marathons, how exactly.

2 mins read
FHM India
October 2018

The 12 Best Rooftop Bars Around The World

The world looks different when viewed from these stunning rooftop destinations.

7 mins read
Business Traveler
October 2015

राष्ट्रीय, अखंडता एवं एकरूपता देश की अंतर्निहित शक्ति

करीबन आठ सौ से हजार वर्षों की परतंत्रता के बाद अनेक जीवनियों का बलिदान देने और विभिन्न संघर्षों के बाद हमें स्वतंत्रता प्राप्त हुई है।

1 min read
Open Eye News
April 2022

THE BREAKFAST BUFFET WAS ASTOUNDING — YUZVENDRA CHAHAL

TRAVEL & LEISURE

1 min read
Cricket Today
May 2022

City turned Covid-care hub for thousands from outside

Mumbai: Faced with bed shortages, overwhelmed hospitals and financial constraints, thousands travelled from neighbouring districts and far-flung states to get treated in the city for Covid-19.

1 min read
The Times of India Mumbai
May 16, 2022

Fadnavis Says He Will Do To Sena What He Did To Babri

Mumbai: A day after chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s tirade against the Centre, former CM Devendra Fadnavis targeted the Shiv Sena and its leader.

2 mins read
The Times of India Mumbai
May 16, 2022