Before coming to Mumbai, I had done quite a bit of research on where to find some of the best local treats. As this trip is all about food, there was no way that I am going to miss out on any of the flavors that have made this city famous culinary. As we are currently in the mango season, the markets here are flooded with the crop that enjoys a celebrity-like status, the Alphonso mango, referred to in the local Marathi language as Hapoos. Incredibly sweet and virtually fiber less, it’s no surprise that this mango has the entire city salivating for a taste, and in times of high demand, it sells for up to 1000 rupees (around 20 US dollars) a dozen. As a result, mango-laden treats appear all over the city in restaurants and street-side stalls in everything from thick and dense kulfi (a non-churned Indian ice ream) to spicy and salty achar (pickle). Yet perhaps the dishes in which the alphonso really shines through, are those where it is found in its natural form, cut into thick and juicy chunks. Indeed, this is how they serve the mango at the Haji Ali Juice Centre, a decades-old juice stall perched up on the shoreline near the entrance to an ancient mosque. Originally simple stalls selling freshly squeezed juice to quench parched souls on a hot summer day, these juice centers have evolved over time into large snack counters selling a variety of bites to feed the city’s constant on-the-go population. The Haji Ali Juice Centre’s development follows the same exact story, and today it is a major institution with a large and loyal fan base, including my father who told me stories of going here during his youth to grab a juice and hangout with a friends after dinner.
As it is a popular hangout spot, the counter at the Haji Ali Juice Centre was crowded, and it reminded me of the busting tapas bars in Spain’s Basque Country. Just as a Spaniard (or Basque) would do in San Sebastian, my father squeezed his way through the crowd up to the bar and ordered just exactly what we had ventured here for, the mango and cream bowl.
I will admit, this bowl was a bit on the pricey side, but it was worth every paise. A bowl of a perfectly chilled, loose custard greeted us. It was stained yellow with the delicate flavor of mango and sweetened ever so lightly. Floating above this heavenly goodness was probably the best part of all, the golden chunks of Alphonso mango; fleshy, sweet and ever so fresh. They were even clever enough to use mangoes that had just the slightest tang to them, and this worked just so beautifully with the custard. This dessert was so playful and teasingly simple. I wondered, “how come I have never thought to make something like this before”? Perhaps the answer is that I can’t get mangoes like these back home in America, but you can bet that I am still going to attempt to make this treat at home to share with my friends and family.
After consuming the masterpiece, my father and I took a stroll along the seaside promenade on which the juice centre sits. As you look out into the bay, you see this magnificent floating structure in the water that serves as the namesake for both the juice centre and the surrounding neighborhood, the Haji Ali Dargah. Clad in antiquity, this mosque and tomb was constructed in the 15th century in memory of a wealthy merchant. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and today it serves as an important religious center for the city’s Muslim population. As we watched the sun set behind the eggshell-white building, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mumbai must have looked like 500 years ago when it was nothing more than sleepy fishing-village with this tremendous mosque set in the harbour. It’s crazy when you see how large Mumbai has become since then. Today its a one of the largest metropolises in the world swarming with an ever-growing population.
We walked home that evening through Breach Candy, an upmarket neighborhood in southern Mumbai, which home to some of the city’s richest residents. Seeing all the new construction sprouting up in this area, I could tell that the amount of wealth here is one that could easily compete with other big financial centers like New York and London. Believe or not, those people who have money in Mumbai are rolling in the dough, and I was taken aback when I saw the glittering skyscraper home of Mukesh Ambani, a billionaire and probably one of the most powerful businessmen in India. Right in front of this glittering new building though was a dusky and rather old-looking arch. Like the Haji Ali Dargah, it made me wonder more about the story of this city. It is no lie when I say that the rich and diverse history of India can be found in every town, but I feel that in the big cities it is quickly forgotten, and people here seem solely immersed in the future. Perhaps if we take one step back, the beauty behind the age-old walls of those crumbling buildings will reveal an engaging past and a heritage to be proud of.
- For those of you who happen to travel to Mumbai in the future and would like to sample the delight that is mangoes and cream, the contact information for the Haji Ali Juice Centre is as follows: Haji Ali Juice Centre, Lala Lajpat Rai Road, Haji Ali Circle; +91 (0)22 2351 0957;