Urban beaches the world over have their own peculiar charms. There is foot volleyball in Brazil's Copacabana and surfing at Sydney's Bondi beach, but beaches in Indian cities have one big draw – food.
In my hometown of Chennai, fishermen set off in rudimentary catamarans from the Marina beach while early risers stroll on the sandy shores. But the place truly comes alive in the evenings as vendors cook up a storm.
In the food stalls, the jalapeño popperlike malaga bhaji sizzles in huge iron woks, hissing invitingly. This is a crowd pleaser. First, the seaside cooks slit the local green chili latitudinally to scoop out the insides. Then they stuff it with a trademark blend of spices, dip it in batter, and deep-fry it to a golden brown.
The deseeded chili dish – like a toothless tiger – should still be treated with respect because it is not entirely without bite. The accompanying dipping chutney, made mostly of grated coconut, blunts the edge – but only a little. Those who prefer something tamer pick from an array of vegetables on display – onions, eggplant, potatoes, or cauliflower. The cook fries the slices to tempuralike perfection.
The other beach favorite, the benign sundal comes packed with protein. This salad made from boiled legumes – garbanzos, black-eyed peas, green peas, or peanuts – is cooked to dryness with spices. On the beach, it is served in supple bowls made of dried lily leaves.
Slices of tomato and slender crescents of green mangoes, cut in wide, toothy grins decorate the mounds of sundal in wooden pushcarts. The aroma of the spices, wafting in the salty breeze, draws people back when they tire of walking along the lacy surf.
Only young lovers on a romantic rendezvous, who are engrossed in each other, remain oblivious to the food.
Up north in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), along the Juhu beach, the signature dish is the pao bhaji – cooked, mashed vegetables eaten with Portuguese breakfast rolls. Served with a spritz of lime, red onions, and fresh tomatoes, the bhaji revives even the most jaded of palates. In the distance, children and some adults ride camels that have been transplanted from the deserts of Rajasthan.
Beach fare in India is diverse and distinctive, although you will also find the usual bright-pink cotton candy, soda, and ice cream on sticks. The one common characteristic that all of these different beach foods share is that they don't taste as delicious inland.
Maybe the molecular gastronomists have it right: Perhaps the roar of the ocean in the distance and the salty air of the sea do add to the taste of the food on the beach.