Of Spice and Men is a ten part series where the brave writers of the Bombay Report track down the absolutely spiciest foods all over the city based on audience polls, personal experience and asking my mother, and feed them to the brave interns of the Bombay Report. We called it Of Spice and Men because the title ‘Self Important Writer Tortures People For Profit’ didn’t resonate with our target demographic, depressed alcoholics who like Smokin’ Joe’s. So without further adieu, here’s our second entry; Ambika’s Chinese Bhel.
To most people, Chinese Bhel is just little more than a bunch of chopped up vegetables and noodles doused in food colour and hot sauce. Sure that’s exactly what it is, but to me, personally, it’s so much more. It’s one of the great street foods to come out of Bombay, it epitomises growing up in Mumbai in the 2000s and all the laughter and tears that went along with it. It’s every bit as big a part of Bombay life as the trains, the rains and the malfunctioning drains, it just doesn’t brag about it to the world as much. It’s like vada pav without the ego issues, a humble roadside snack for all occasions that doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, male or female or one of the other 52 genders my HR team told me to include for the sake of appeasing our politically correct overlords.
If you managed to land a job at Lower Parel, because you’ve got a degree of actual value to society, you might have heard of Ambika Lunch Home, a little eatery next to the Star building. If you couldn’t land a job at Lower Parel because you took up a liberal arts degree you thought you’d enjoy but ended up wasting three years of your life on a combination of Old Monk, Call of Duty and wearing hunting jackets to college, you might not have heard of it, and that’s a shame, because it’s just brilliant. And one of the many reasons it stands out is its Chinese Bhel.
Don’t get me wrong, all Chinese Bhel is insanely spicy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean (and I hate myself for saying this) that all Chinese Bhel is inherently good. But this isn’t just an article about spicy food; this is an article about good spicy food. And that’s exactly what Ambika’s is. It’s more than just good, it takes an item that’s most commonly associated with a cheap, not particularly safe street food and turns it into something beautiful, a spicy salad from hell that makes for a satisfying meal, not just the light snack you used to have after a depressing day of JEE tuitions or getting pwned by your baby sister at Counter Strike.
For starters, it doesn’t look anything like Chinese Bhel. It’s way more akin to a plate schezwan noodles, it’s a gentle orange as opposed to a sickening red so you know for a fact that Ambika doesn’t paint their food like I presume most Chinese Bhel vendors do, not that I have a problem with that as long as it tastes good. It also happens to be spicy as hell to a degree that makes it next to impossible to finish, but still a delight to eat. Is it the spiciest Chinese Bhel out there? Possibly, is it the best Chinese Bhel out there? I honestly can’t say. Did I love it? Absolutely.