OF COURSE, Westerners will probably be most familiar, and perhaps eager, to sample Indian food, which has made a steady influx into strip malls across the country. Restaurants like the popular fine-dining spot Khyber offer hot, steaming naans and rich masalas­ in a sophisticated atmosphere. Delicious food can be found at carts on the street as well. Bade Miya is a no-frills takeaway spot that sells chicken tikka masala and kebabs to a packed crowd until one a.m. "The food, fruits, and spices are wonderful," says Rai of Mumbai cuisine. She praises chai, a spiced tea, and talks fondly of strolling to a local street vendor such as Mani's Dosa for a fresh snack."The city has a way of enjoying the finer things and the simple things in life at once," she says.

Rai has lived in Mumbai for more than two decades. Though she began modeling in the ninth grade, she went to college planning to become an architect. When her career exploded, however, those plans derailed. In 1994, she was crowned Miss World; a successful entrée to Bollywood wasn't too far behind. Dismissed initially as mere eye candy, Rai made good on her talent in 1999's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and then in 2002's Devdas, which broke box office records and became the first Bollywood film to screen at Cannes. She is the undisputed Queen of Bollywood, and despite whatever success and attention she receives from the West, she plans to continue working in both countries, as well as in any other country that promises a quality script, a great cast, and a good director. Besides, to her there isn't much difference between the two industries. "Good films are good films regardless of being made in India or abroad," she says. "I believe a great story transcends cultural lines and language barriers."

Because of her success, she is increasingly absent from her beloved city. When she's away from Mumbai, she says, "I miss the happiness and excitement of our many street fairs and festivals. Every day you will find a wedding procession and some sort of festivity in the streets. We celebrate everything we can to show our appreciation and gratitude for life."

There is so much going on in the streets and, indeed, on every corner, that planning a trip to Mumbai can feel overwhelming. I asked Rai to describe what she would do in the city if she had only one day. "Take a long walk along Juhu Beach on the beautiful shores of the Arabian Sea," she begins. "Juhu is a popular area for filmmakers, and you might just catch a crew filming there. Take a relaxing horseback ride, join a group of strangers exercising along the shore, or just kick back under the palm trees." The Juhu beachfront is packed with five-star hotels - and plenty of people.

"You should visit the Gateway of India, which is perhaps the most striking monument in Mumbai," Rai continues. Built in the early twentieth century for the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, the grand turreted monument is a reminder of the country's colonial past. It's also the spot to take a ferry into Mumbai's harbor. "An hour away from the Gateway by boat is ­Elephanta Island, a group of beautiful caves, temples, shrines, and sculptures in honor of Hindu gods and goddesses," says Rai. "This is a very spiritual and unique place to spend the day." She suggests Marine Drive, also known as the Queen's Necklace, as a good place to hang out in the evening. She ends her one-day excursion like any young starlet might: "Shopping, dinner - and then party the rest of the night away."

AN EXCITING CLASH of traditional and modern, Mumbai shouldn't be so foreign to us. Yet many Americans still carry around deep misunderstandings about the country. "I don't believe the West has truly understood Asia, and I don't believe that India has truly understood the West," Rai says. "We are in the process of learning about one another, which is a wonderful adventure in itself."

This is something Rai is utterly passionate about. When I ask her what she wishes more people knew about India, she really opens up. "I wish they knew that India is not poor," she says. "It is not a land of wild animals. It is not a third world country. The size of our population is almost one billion and one hundred million people, leading Westerners to assume that we must be poor. But our education, intellect, and cultural heritage make India a very rich country indeed. India is a civilized country and the world's largest democracy, with forward thinkers and technologies that will see India becoming a superpower within the next 20 years. Almost half of our population is below the age of 30. We are truly a young, educated, and strong country."

With that kind of unabashed patriotism, you can see why she has become the poster girl for a new India. With her knockout looks and au courant fashion sense, Rai appeals to second-generation Indians who know the world extends far beyond their borders. But an articulate and spiritual woman who has yet to kiss a man on-screen, Rai has a reserved elegance that wins the approval of the older crowd. She appeals to all ages and, one suspects, all cultures - even American. It's no wonder the Indian parents at my friend's house couldn't stop talking about her. If one woman is going to be the face of a country, it certainly doesn't hurt if the woman is as stunning as Aishwarya Rai.