The city’s local culture has drawn tourists for long and while heritage walks are already popular, for the past few years there has been a growing interest in a range of food tours. With the aim of giving tourists a taste of local flavours, one such walking tour takes them through the Lalbaug spice market, where they are able to witness the process of roasting and grinding of spices.
The walk is conducted by Magic Tours, which works around the theme of socially responsible tourism. Through mentorship and a sustainable livelihood programme, they employ students living in the area to help conduct the tours. As part of the three-hour tour, tourists are taken through the colourful spice market, the vegetable market, Chivda Galli and a fish market.
Deepa Krishnan, founder of Magic Tours, said their clientele comprises largely foreign tourists and NRIs and the spice market gives them a peek into the results of intermingling of cultures due to centuries of trade and the visible Portuguese influence. “I enjoy talking about Maharashtrian cuisine and its different regional variants. Most people, even Indians, don’t quite understand the cuisine of this state beyond a few standard dishes. So it’s always a pleasure to walk in this area and explain the influence of geography and weather on the food of the different regions of Maharashtra,” she said.
While the agency also offers other offbeat tours like the one that takes tourists to the Worli fishing village and a nature walk through Dadar Parsi Colony, Krishnan said she has witnessed a growing popularity of food tours. “For the past five years or so, we have seen the popularity of food tours increase significantly. Lots of travel shows and food shows on television are perhaps helping the cause. Food is such a great way of discovering a country. Unlike Crawford Market where you see a lot of foreign tourists, and where you find a lot of Western-style cuisine, Lalbaug is still a very local market which retains an authentic feel,” she said.
Krishnan pointed out that the walk is not just about food, but also includes the erstwhile textile mill district that Lalbaug is a part of. “The political history of Mumbai has shaped the textile mill district. Even today’s Bollywood cinema has roots in the working-class culture of the mill district,” she said. She added that depending on the number of tourists, food-related walks are conducted two-three times a month and each group comprises up to 10 people.
After the walk through the market, they are taken to the homes of local residents where they learn the use and significance of spices and also help in cooking some of the dishes on the menu. Arundhati Venkatraman, one such resident, prepares a few dishes for them while explaining the use of spices in the dish. “The menu usually comprises daal vada, bread pakoda, sambar, dosa, lemon rice and coconut rice. I cook in front of them while explaining the recipe and they ask questions. The three-four hour long session allows an interactive opportunity and they make some dosas on their own after which we serve them the food on banana leaves,” she said.
Incorporating social responsibility into their business model, the agency employs and trains students from slums and low-income neighbourhoods of the city. “The students run our tour operations. Our goal is to provide income and necessary computer/office administration skills to these students, so that they are not forced to drop out of college due to financial constraints. With the work experience and referrals that we provide, they easily get into high-paying careers at the end of the college degree,” she said.
Apart from the questions local vendors field from the curious tourists, Krishnan said there is a lot of sneezing that happens as well. “Here at Lalbaug you can see the spices still being pounded fresh into masalas, and no tour is complete without a sneeze,” she said.