From time to time, my mother will find the energy and inclination (she’s 86 years of age) to produce a batch of her own recipe “Bombay Mix”, or “Chevda”, to give it its Indian name, that melange of crunchy, fragrant ingredients that is enjoyed in the West as a drinks snack, wolfed down between sips or gulps to provide a pungent hit of spices and chilli, or in India as part of “Tiffin” – a light snack eaten around tea time or whenever.
This will entail the dusting off of a small propane gas-powered stove – recently replaced with one that actually works properly since for some time she had been using a troublesome and unreliable stove purchased from an Asian grocers that made the whole process a chore – and a propane gas tank.
This stage will usually be accompanied by doubts about whether or not the tank has enough gas left from the last time, so tests will then ensue after checking out YouTube videos on how to see if your propane gas tank still has gas in it – you pour a small amount of boiling water on it and feel for the area where it is coldest in order to ascertain the level of the propane gas, in case you’re wondering.
Of course, before any of the above there is a trip to an Asian grocers to buy the various component parts that make up the Bombay Mix – pulses of various types, spices, aromatic dried herbs, raisins, cashews, curry leaves and a few other items typically found in an Asian kitchen cupboard – these will usually be in large quantities because no matter how much you make there is almost always never enough, mainly because it gets consumed so quickly – certainly in our house.
As my mother has got older, her tolerance for heavy spicing has diminished but the urge for a chilli kick remains, so her version is not the ubiquitous “firecracker” type of Bombay Mix that can be found in 24 hour Asian grocery and general stores that cater to last-minute boozers in terms of heat, but still has just enough to avoid blandness.
I have shared my mothers’ “Bombay Mix” with friends, usually with universal approval and surprise since it’s not what most people expect when you mention Bombay Mix and the most common responses centre on the mysterious ingredients and clever ratios of sugar, salt and spiciness that correspond to “umami” that make it such an addictive snack.
It’s not the stuff that used to be kept near the bar of Soho pubs in the 80’s in black plastic bin liners, overflowing with a fearsome blend of ingredients guaranteed to whip up a thirst and into which customers would thrust a free hand to produce a golden, oily fistful ready to be tossed idly into their mouths whilst chatting up or being chatted up – no, my mothers’ Bombay Mix is an altogether more subtle, though not necessarily sophisticated, blend, more akin to basic village cooking.
The making is a long process broken down into stages and where everything is carried out at floor level, with my mother squatting on a low wooden stool covered in woven raffia that I had made by hand in a woodwork class decades earlier whilst at school, overlooking a wok type of pan filled with oil heated by the gas stove. Items are tossed, extruded or ladled into the oil until they are golden before transferring to, in this case, a large laundry basket lined with newspaper to soak up excess oil.
Frying doesn’t stop until all the various ingredients are prepared and the basket is filled to the brim and then everything is gently mixed together by hand to avoid reducing everything to crumbs.
The penultimate stage involves frying some herbs and spices in a little oil and dousing the ingredients before mixing one last time – it’s at this stage that any additional heat and seasoning can be added to adjust depending upon personal preference – my daughter likes it very spicy for example.
Finally the Bombay Mix is transferred to as many containers, of varying sizes, as are available, ready to be munched upon for the next few months – when my father was alive this could be throughout the year but more recently it seems the Autumn through Winter and into the New Year months seem most appropriate as the days draw in, with the pungent, crunchy, sweet, salty and spicy ingredients provoking thoughts of the afterglow of warm summer afternoons long past and still to come.