When you talk of sensory travel experiences, it doesn’t get more literal than the spice markets of India, and in this case – the bustling city of Mumbai. Mumbai’s spice markets are some of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been, and not just because of their heavenly aromas and completely over saturated colors.
But first, Mumbai. This is a city with so much to love and so much to see.
It’s home to extraordinary poverty and wealth, all in one, all mixed into centuries old architecture and the newest as well. It’s a foodie heaven, a beautiful place to sit by the pool and for many, a perfect place to arrive off an intl flight and get your bearings. I never feared for my safety and the people couldn’t have been more wonderful.
Just don’t be surprised if people watching the sunset along Marine Drive ask for your photo, for some, you may be the first foreigners they’ve seen. Now onto those spices…
I expected to love the freshly ground spices and their subsequent mixes, and I absolutely did, but it was the cultural understanding that made this an experience beyond. Unbeknownst to me, spice mixes are deeply personal and typically go back generations.
As you walk down a market street, the only question you can logically ask, is why are there so many spice stores next to each other in the same street, and how do they all survive?
The answer is that each spice store makes their blend a little more this way, or a little more that way, and for generations, a family will have one, and only that one will do. You just don’t go to the new store across the street, because it’s new.
Everywhere you look you’ll find the turmeric, chili powder, garam masala and drying chili’s, all with incredible concentration and fragrance, even in the air. And the quantities – my goodness, you’d think each stores supply could last generations, yet they’re constantly grinding out more.
I loved learning about how people’s families would support a spice store for centuries in some cases, with the tradition of both store and customer passed down through the family. That’s just something you don’t see often in the modern world, yet Mumbai is a sprawling and modern city in many ways.
Getting a guide who can take you away from the couple bog standard tourist spice markets is the key here. You want to go into real neighborhoods, where real people live, eat and work. When you do, the difference is instant, the colors are brighter and the prices are out of a travelers dream.
When it’s all over, if you’re not hungry, there’s something wrong with you and you should probably see a doctor.
Staying in hotels, that leaves you with limited options, but on this occasion I’d been lucky to befriend the kitchen team at the famed Oberoi restaurant, Ziya, who had helped show me around the city, and then helped Laura and I make a Hyderabad Biryani with our freshly ground spices.
Since there’s no ban on bringing food onto planes, we packaged up our fresh and aromatic biryani to enjoy during our layover, and I have to say – it was probably the funniest moment in my traveling life.
After a short, one hour domestic hop – we were in the lounge and as soon as I opened the box, the greatest culmination of flavors made their way to the far reaches. It’s worth noting that commercially packaged spices can be taken abroad in most cases, so take a bit of Mumbai back with you. It’s better than whatever is on your supermarket shelf…
I could see the disdain of some, others licking their lips, and the smile on our faces, as we enjoyed the freshest, greatest biryani I’ve ever experienced, after a day exploring where so much of its goodness originates.