A La Cart

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It was a cold, snowy winter morning in New York, a city where cold means temperatures well below freezing. All I could think about (short of creative expletives directed at the six inches of snow I was walking through) was vada pav and a good, hot cutting chai. This is the charm of street food in India, after all. We have lipsmacking fare available at every corner – hot, fresh and made to order. Despite questionable – nay, nonexistent – standards of hygiene, few of us can resist a just-off-the-kadhai samosa, with its thick, crisp, salty crust, its sweet, sour and spicy chutneys, and its savoury blend of peas and potatoes inside. And all for under Rs.10!

Few countries can offer such a variety of street foods. From Delhi’s chaats, to Mumbai’s pav bhaji, to Goa’s seafood and Kolkata’s jhal muri, every city, town and village has its own specialty, a unique dish that just doesn’t taste the same anywhere else. For your average Indian, no day is complete without at least one morsel of street food.
More than just cheap, quick and tasty, food carts around India are also innovative, constantly giving birth to the new staple dishes. These innovations have given birth to some of our bestloved dishes. Chinese bhel, chop suey dosa, samosa sandwich and Chinese vada pav are all inventions of street vendors looking to please a crowd. In fact, it is quite likely that your neighbourhood tapri will offer you lemon tea without milk or sugar, green tea, masala tea, mint tea, milktea along with the humble cutting poured out into the special cutting glass out of a battered aluminium kettle.
But it’s about more than just variety. It’s also about technique. From full meals, to simple snacks, to fast refreshers, street vendors have it all at a go. Without managers, street food vendors can make substitutions in their food at will, can hand over two extra bhajiyas in lieu of two bucks change, or give an extra helping of onions, pickle or other condiments to the customer. Decisions are fast and revolve around keeping customers happy. One wonders what difference there is between the skills learned by these cooks-cum-entrepreneurs on the streets and those learned by their compatriots at B-schools. Do B-schools teach their students to deal with haftas for the local goons? Acclaimed photographer Sephi Bergson puts it best in her book, Street Food of India, “From the teeming lanes of Old Delhi, to the hot, dusty streets in the remote countryside, it is painfully hard to resist the smells and sights and tastes of this roadside food, prepared in front of customers’ eyes with the freshest ingredients and good helping of panache and showmanship.”
A lot of ink has been spilled on street food and its cooks. Special cook books have been devoted to the subject, and every home cook has tried to replicate the tastes in a clean home kitchen. Much to the despair of those who sample the food, even the most able cook will fail to produce anything that measures up. Maybe the distinctive flavour of street food comes from the sheer effort these roadside cooks put in to feed an army each day. Maybe it comes from the necessity to beat out local competition. Maybe it’s the ingenuity required to stay clear of the local ‘dons’ and hawaldars. Or maybe it’s the sultry weather. Whatever it is, the variety of Indian street food, and the strength of its vendors, means that even in sweltering heat, an untimely downpour or an unexpected dust storm, our insatiable stomachs will be satisfied.
There is so much passion for roadside food in India, that families and friends make special plans to go out and eat at the favourite cart. “Nothing can beat the sizzling sounds of that fried tikki or bhature with the irresistible fragrance of stunningly garnished chholas and pickles spiced up with green chillies and onions,” says blogger Nitin Pahuja of Delhi’s street food. It’s sabotage for any diet, but foodies will bend over backwards for these spicy treats.
“There was a time when we used to drive all the way from Mumbai to Khopoli for just that one vada pav from a special vendor out there. At that time, there were not as many road side eateries as we have now,” reminisces food-lover Ruchir Sheth. Back then, he and his friends would obtain permission from their parents to borrow cars for long car-rides, tamper with speedometers to keep the kilometers from adding up and speed off to sample just a single juicy bite of spicy potato coated in chickpea batter, garlicky chutney and humble pav. He regrets that his admittedly spoiled children will never experience that particular high.
“If you take the foods of the world on one side and the foods of India on another, our pile would easily tilt the scales,” said Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma in their chronicle of a tour through the highway dhabas scattered across India. Sampling some 2,000 dishes from more than 600 dhabas Singh and Sharma offer a unique perspective on their native cuisine.
Ubiquitous dhabas are open invitations for weary travellers to enjoy a piping hot curry, crisp rotis, brittle papads and raw onions, all washed down with a lassi. Dining in the open air by the road alongside customers sitting on charpoys and washing their hands with (again, questionable) water from an open jug is an experience only to be had in India. Compare that to the dull, boxed meal or fast food you’ll have on an American highway and you’ll understand the extraordinary gastronomic bliss possible in India.

The Famous and Infamous

  • Mumbai
    Pav Bhaji, Vada Pav, Dosas, Rolls, Frankies, Chinese, Baida Roti, The Bombay Sandwich, Bun Maska, Falooda, Kulfi
  • Ahmedabad
    Dal Vada, Fafdas with Kadhi, Dabeli
  • Kolkata
    Jhal Muri, Mishti Doi, Phuchkas, Chanachur
  • Delhi
    Papri Chat, Gol Gappas, Kebaba, Nihari, Samosa, Aloo Tikki
  • Pune
    Batata Vada, Misal, Khichadi Kakadi, Pav Patties, Shira, Aam Panna
  • Chennai
    Idlis and Dosas (the original ones!), Pongal, Bhajiyas, Paratha Kurma, Madras Bhelpuri
  • Bengaluru
    Obattu, Akki Roti, Holige, Fried Bonda, Ragi Dosa

The Mumbai street food experience

  • Elco Arcade, Bandra
    Panipuri, Aloo Tikki Chaat
  • Amar Juice Centre, Vile Parle
    Pav Bhaji
  • Mohammed Ali Road
    Kebabs, Phirni & Falooda
  • Ashok Vada Pav, Dadar
    Vada Pav
  • Mamajis, Tardeo
    Chocolate Cheese Grill Toast & Samosa Kurkure Sandwich
  • Khau Galli, Bhuleshwar
    Dosas, Chilras & Dabeli

Volume 1 Issue 12

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