Bombay: Mumbai Heat

Capsicum, cumin, coconut and currys: the aromas of the East waft to the West

Services | Gretchen Gatzke | February 2011

Warmth! That was our immediate reaction to the Bombay interior. A most welcome warmth after a walk through the windy cold of Vienna’s seventh district, and the piquant aromas of capsicum, cumin, cloves, coconut and of course, curry. Even the walls were a fiery red.

The decorations were simple, white tablecloths and silver platters, small elephant faces gazing at you from above on the wall. And the restaurant was petite and cozy, with only room enough for about 25 people, making this an intimate space to share Indian cuisine and almost impossible not to listen in on the table next to yours.

Indians take in three meals a day, but dinner is considered the main event and typically the entire family gathers for the occasion. Upon learning this, we were glad that we had come in the evening, and equally pleased that we had collected our own little culturally diverse family. (We calculated the full-person equivalents: eleven-sixths American, one-third Italian, one-third Swiss, one composite Austrian, one composite Frenchman and half a Spaniard).

The cuisine in India varies from region to region, 33 of them to be exact. This reflects the mixed demographics of the ethnically-diverse subcontinent, and also makes the food interesting, exemplifying a wide assortment of spices, herbs and vegetables, as well as cooking techniques. The food at the Bombay came from the Punjab region.

Punjabi food is cooked with liberal amounts of butter and cream, and concentrates on dishes containing whole wheat and rice flavored abundantly with spices, particularly onion, garlic and ginger. These foods are cooked to fit the Punjabi lifestyle in which most of the rural folk burn tons of calories working in the fields. Word of advice: don’t eat here too often, unless you need to put on some winter warmth.

The food coming from this area is also quite well known, specializing in dishes like tandoori, naan and paneer, to name a familiar few.

Among our group, we had an Indian culture expert who had traveled there many times and spent months immersing herself in the traditions and customs of Indian life. As we were looking over the menu, she paused with a semi-shocked look on her face.

"This is an Indian restaurant, right?" We all nodded in agreement; this was what we had been told. "Then why is there cow on the menu? This would never happen in India, it’s a holy animal!" She was right; we all knew that. She went on. "If you kill a cow in India," she said, "even if by accident, people will kill you in return! No questions asked."

So much for the Hindu religious tradition. But running an Indian restaurant in Vienna would necessitate some alteration of tradition, some accommodation. Here people like to eat cows; they taste good.

We had one final look over the menu, making our decisions and placing our orders. Three dishes we ordered to share: Alu Paratha, Paneer Pakora and Papad. I decided on the Murgh Madras, an extremely spicy chicken curry. The others chose Thali, Rogan Josh and chicken Tandoori. To drink: lots of beer and LOTS of water.

As we were waiting, I was captured by the smells wafting around us and the seductive deep red of the walls. I zoned out, not able to understand the mixture of French and Italian being spoken, and I started to think about what it’s actually like to have a meal in India.

Traditionally, Indian meals are eaten seated on the floor or on low cushions, something I’ve always imagined to be an exotic and very personal way to eat a meal. And also something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. But I wasn’t able to try it there… we sat at normal tables and chairs.

Another custom in India: food is most often eaten without spoon or fork. The fingers of the right hand are the Indian man’s cutlery. I’m not sure how much I would enjoy that endeavor, but luckily for me, it wasn’t a custom at the Bombay.

Soon enough our appetizers were placed in front of us. The Papad (only 60 cents!) was thin, crisp, and tortilla-like, served with three different chutneys. Again our expert had some input. "These are too basic," she said, "I think they’re store-bought." Of course the rest of us had nothing to compare to, and I myself found them quite tasty.

The Paneer Pakora was my personal favorite; a snack of soft cheese fried in batter with onion and chili. I could have easily eaten three plates. And at €4.90 a portion, they didn’t put a huge dent in our wallets.

Finally the Alu Paratha was an interesting flat-bread almost like a pancake stuffed with soft potatoes. Simple, but different; very filling and again, so cheap (€2.50)!

When our main courses arrived, the waiters had trouble finding room on the table. We rearranged beer bottles and stacked plates. The end result was a smorgasbord of colors, aromas and textures; a buffet calling to our taste buds like the sirens of antiquity.

I had a bite of everyone’s. The Tandoori chicken (€8.90) was good, although I must admit it was nothing special. Again a comment from our expert: "This is not Tandoori. It’s not red."

The Thali (Hindi for "plate") on the other hand was amazing. It was in and of itself a buffet, and €12.90 was not a bad deal for a giant platter with samplings of different regional dishes accompanied by Raita, a yogurt sauce, Naan and rice . The only downside to this dish: a full vegetarian plate wasn’t available. It was always at least half meat.

The Rogan Josh for €9.90, a dish of lamb cooked with a mixture of spices in intense heat and topped with yogurt, was not only tasty, it was huge; we had tons of leftovers for the next day.

I thought I was prepared for my dish, the Murgh Madras (€8.90). When I ordered it, the waitress warned me it would be spicy. But I like spicy… With the first bite my nose was already running, and I had to take a gulp of water for every two bites. If I had had a cold that night, that dish would most certainly have cleared it up.

At the end we washed down our meals with a cool, sweet mango Lassi. A drink I had discovered back in the States and order every time I see it on a menu.

It took some of the bite off my tongue.



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