Growing up in Bombay, Asad Sheikh would buy plates of bhel puri or a paneer pakora from street corner vendors all over town. Once he immigrated to the United States, he found those tastes of home much harder to find. “Americans knows butter chicken and chicken tikka masala,” Sheikh says before trailing off. In the restaurateur’s mind, many Americans are missing out on some of the finest food India had to offer — Bombay street food.
“It’s about the heat, the flavor, the spices, the small plates,” he says dreamily. “It’s something I was never able to find in D.C.”
Last November, Sheikh took matters into his own hands, opening the aptly named Bombay Street Food in Columbia Heights. After opening a string of successful Indian restaurants in Northern Virginia (Curry Mantra, London Curry House, 1947), he chose to base his first D.C. project on the flavors that dominate his childhood memories.
Now called Mumbai, Sheikh’s hometown is known for tantalizing sounds and scents: the spicy-sweet, nose-stinging tang of tamarind chutney; the sour chill of dahi (yogurt); the sizzling sound of fried pakoras; and the gentle crack of crispy puris being filled with lentils and chutney water. That’s Sheikh’s Bombay. The coastal city’s name was officially changed in 1995 to shed vestiges of British colonialism and embrace the Indian goddess, Mumbadevi. It’s a major hub in India for finance, entertainment, and, of course, street food.
The scenery that welcomes customers at Bombay Street Food may look like it’s over the top. It’s not. It’s the very essence of Bombay life — large, fun, and loud. Murals depict snippets of the city’s life, including Bollywood scenes and the Gateway of India, a monumental arch and tourist attraction.
The blown up photos include one of Anthony Bourdain digging into vada pav — a humble sandwich stuffed with a spiced potato patty that has turned out to be the restaurant’s best seller. There’s also a pav bhaji, which stuffs a roll with a thick, tomato-based curry made with vegetables and potatoes.
“It’s simple food,” Sheikh says, “but most Indian restaurants [in D.C.] don’t go in this direction.”
The menu holds a detailed explanation of the restaurant’s background and purpose, followed by a long list of appetizers that encompass the street foods of Bombay. There are also “American-Indian” staples.
“The first thing Americans know about Indian restaurants is butter chicken,” Sheikh says. “If you don’t have it on the menu, it’s difficult to get people to even come in.”
Sheikh is OK with the fact that some people will only order butter chicken, because he hopes it can serve as a gateway to the vibrant cuisine elsewhere on the menu.
Here’s a look inside the dishes at Bombay Street Food:
Sheikh is proud of his restaurant’s humble lentils. This dish simmers overnight on very low heat in the “dum” style of cooking — which means slow and patient — to infuse the right amount of flavor into the lentils. This version is exceptionally rich thanks to the amount of ghee, or clarified butter. Like the butter chicken, this basic dish is intended to bring people back and get them to explore other parts of the menu.
This battered and fried cheese is one of Mumbai’s most popular snacks after school or during tea time. Paneer is a fresh, firm cheese made from milk that is curdled with acid — usually lemon juice — and then strained. The cheese takes on the flavor of the citrus with a chewy chewy texture reminiscent of grilled halloumi. It’s layered with the restaurant’s signature green chutney (cilantro, green chile, garlic, ginger, and a dash of yogurt), then coated in besan, a chickpea flour batter studded with caraway seeds. If it’s any other batter, it’s not a true pakora.
Bombay Street Food divides the pakoras so diners can see the chutney and paneer nestled between thin, crisp folds of batter. The result is a snack that looks like an elegant tea sandwich. Every pakora dish is served with a steaming cup of cutting chai (half a cup of tea), a comforting drink popular during Mumbai’s monsoon season.
Bombay Street food makes its own dahi, or yogurt. Dahi can be sweet, but for the purposes of chaat — or savory street food snacks — a sour version balances out spicy and sweet chutneys.
The base of dahi puri is derived from another tremendously popular snack, bhel puri, a crunchy blend of puffed rice and thinly fried dough discs — known as “bhel mix” — that’s blended with green chutney, tamarind chutney, black pepper, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and onion. Tomatoes are often included, too.
To make dahi puri, the tomatoes are removed, the base goes into individual puris, hollow fried breads. Dahi is added on top, followed by a hearty sprinkling of a chaat masala (spice mix). Bombay Street Food sources its masalas directly from a spice plant in the Indian state of Gujarat to the north of Mumbai.
“We have to sometimes teach people how to eat it,” Sheikh says, “but it sells very well.”
Each puri should be eaten in one big bite for an optimal explosion of flavor.
Newbies to Bombay-style cuisine may be surprised to see a few Chinese fusion items on the menu at Sheikh’s restaurant in Columbia Heights, but Indo-Chinese dishes have become a staple. A beloved example in this category is gobi Manchurian, a fried cauliflower dish that can be eaten as a snack but is also a main component on dinner menus.
“It’s Chinese food infused with Indian seasoning,” Sheikh explains. “It shows how Indian spices can make a difference. It’s a marriage of China and India.”