Sunday 24th January 2016

By mira

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I walked past a nondescript open shop piled with jars and boxes of fried snacks amongst which that mouth-watering yellow of soft fresh dhoklas topped with black mustard seeds and a healthy sprinkling of coriander stood out from a glass window under the counter, not least because I felt famished.

“Are the dhoklas fresh?” I asked in Hindi. Made an hour ago, he told me, while attending to his customers at this busy evening time in Bandra’s Pali Naka. Like I needed convincing! He glanced at me again. “Two pieces please.” Amidst packing small parcels of snacks from ganthiya to samosa and bhajiya, he took a few pieces of dhokla and placed them on a small white paper plate. “Chutney?” he asked with such speed I didn’t have time to think. “Yes, a little” (chutney is the one thing that foreigners shouldn’t have in India, the one thing in which local water is used, but I’d been in India for a few weeks – oh well!) He poured over the imli and coriander chutneys even more quickly, wrapped it with newspaper, bound it with a thin string and placed it in a small plastic bag – all with such alacrity it was like watching a clip on fast forward. “10 rupees.”

Two years ago, when the healthy Indian food idea sprang to mind, I was sitting on a street very near here sipping (I’m ashamed to say) a Starbucks coffee and thinking about the bag of ‘healthy’ snacks I always brought on my trips to India when in actual fact Indian food is healthy. So being Indian, even I thought of the food here as unhealthy, a place where I couldn’t just pick up a non-fried snack on the road, where I would only be able to have a sandwich or pau bhaji or a pack of kurkure, where I would have to go into a coffee shop and pray they had skimmed milk, and in order to have the only things I thought were good and healthy and not fattening – dosa and tadka daal – I would have to go to a restaurant. I didn’t crave coconut water as I do now. And my whole idea of what I could and couldn’t eat was entirely wrong!

I’m not saying I’ve suddenly got it all right, but I now rely far less on snacking, often having a coconut water instead, I eat proper meals (more often), and once in a while I actually do have a cup of boiling chai from a chaiwala on the street rather than a skinny latte. Yes it contains sugar, but it’s a tiny cup, it’s a shot rather than a mug, it’s boiling hot, and it’s karak. I don’t have it all that often… but when in India… it must be done!

I hadn’t realised that you can find freshly made dhokla (and that it’s actually okay to eat them as long as they’re fresh) at these small shops on the streets of Mumbai, hidden unless you keep your eyes open, I wasn’t aware of the various dried fruits and nuts stores dotted around, and the whole range of Gujarati non-fried snacks from chakri to khakhra loudly labeled ‘diet’ and ‘oil-free’. I wouldn’t buy fruit from the vendors on the streets in the past, yet now I get oranges, pineapples and papayas almost daily.

I walked into the salon next door, opened up my little parcel like a child opening a bag of sweets and asked the lady to warm the dhokla – heating just means it’s safer to eat. “Can I have some chai please?” And while I had my head massage, I devoured both pieces with a cup of cardamom powered chai. Could a quick lunch be more pampering and could a head massage be more delicious!

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