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Street Food in India
Despite the sudden mushrooming of American fast food joints across Indian metros, churning out their monotonous fare of burgers and French fries and insipid coffees, the grassroots level street food and dhabas will always be there. What is street food really? At one time, street food was generally chaats, vada paus, and so on from dhabas in Indian cities, big and small. The difference lies in the incredibly low prices of the dishes, lack of proper seating, quick service and last, but never the least, a lack of nutrition and hygiene within the preparations. Street food is prepared then and there in the open air with flies and other pests having a free run of the menu.
Street food today ranges from the original chaat fare through Chinese food, South Indian idlis and dosas, the vada-pau made famous by Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena, Moghlai kababs and biryanis, sweets like jalebis, balushahis, and gulab jamuns, snacks such as puri-bhaji or stuffed paratha and innovative dishes such as Frankies and rolls of all shapes and sizes. Even Tibetan momos served with steaming hot soup can be bought from a street food joint. Tea stalls will also dish up a spicy omelet for you while some believers in tradition will still stick to samosas, nimkis and batter fried pakoras and bhajias. Beverages are no exception. Apart from the manufactured aerated drinks, you can have a glass of lassi with the thickness and the froth of your choice. There are all kinds of tea – lemon tea without milk or sugar, green tea, masala tea, mint tea, milk-tea and normal tea poured out of a battered aluminum kettle. You can have hot milk served in a conical earthen pot called a kullad or you may opt for the many fruit juices and milk shakes on the menu of a juice stall. Then there is your favorite tender coconut and sugar cane juice spiced up with a dash of lemon and a little ginger juice! Delicious! Ices such as the gola sherbet, all kinds of ice cream and the indigenous kulfi in its mutli-hued flavors are there for the asking. While in Delhi, one must stop at Charan Singh’s Special Chuski and Kulfi at South Extension, Part III, opposite Regal Cinema. Charan Singh has been making golas for more than ten years now. His chuskis – indigenous mocktails and ices made on the spot – are as cheap as Rs.15 but great to taste. Do not forget the cut fruits, sliced cucumber sprinkled with salt and chilli powder, ripe guavas similarly served, masala shikanji (lime juice with soda and spices), chomchoms and langchas.
Any neighborhood of a congested working area in any Indian city is choc-a-bloc with street lunches. Mattar Pulao, fried rice, chow mien, rajma-chawal, aloo paratha, puri-sabzi luchi-aloo dum, Moghlai parathas and thali lunches from different Indian states can be had at half the price of the ill-equipped office canteen. So street food has freed itself from the trappings of the Indian snack to step into the area of full-sized menu meals.
Each Indian city specializes in its own variety of street food. Calcutta, says food writer Rajlakshmi Bhattacharya, has an amazing diversity of street food. From full meals to simple snacks to fast refreshers, the City of Joy has it all. One of its outstanding specialties is the indigenous roll. It comes with all kinds of fillings – paneer, vegetables, egg, chicken, mutton, pork and potato served with or without different kinds of sauces. Delhi enjoys its rolls as tikka wraps where roomali roti and kebab with green chutney make it less greasy than its Calcutta counterpart. “More than rolls, Delhi specializes in kebabs where the seekh, shammi, burra and gola kebabs that can be eaten at throwaway prices in and around the Jama Masjid area, Balli Maran near Fatehpuri Mosque and even at Gol Market,” says food critic Rahul Verma. Adman Suhel Seth enjoys the Amritsari kulchas and cholas available on handcarts all over Delhi.
A much sought after dish in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar and Calcutta, chaat is one of the most mouth-watering delicacies within the street food menu. The word chaat is derived from the Hindi verb ‘chaatna’ meaning, “to lick one’s fingers clean” after eating a delectable dish. It was a concoction prepared and eaten by banias known for their sedentary lifestyles. While they sat at the gaddis managing accounts and since their businesses mainly comprised of retailing, money lending and so on, they would nibble at savories like sev and puffed rice to pass the long hours of trade. Then, they began to add things like amchur, jaggery, ginger, tamarind chutney, and this turned into such a delectable concoction that they began to lick their fingers after the dish was clean. Chaat of any variety is a lovely blend of four tastes – sweet, sour, pungent and spicy. It has a chatpata taste and can never tire your taste buds provided you have a stomach strong enough to digest the stuff.
They originated during medieval India when chaatwallahs visited mohallahs to sell chaats to the womenfolk in the afternoons. “Confined within the four walls of their homes, the women enjoyed their chaat as it gave them an excuse to socialize and exchange gossip,” says food historian Pushpesh Pant. When the women began to step out of their homes to do their own shopping, they began patronizing these chaatwallahs who sold their stuff out of stationery pushcarts. The most basic chaat is the aloo-kabli or aloo-chaat. It is made up of mashed potatoes and the masalas that go into any chaat dish, which is then garnished with broken phhuchkas and boiled chickpeas to be finally laced with tamarind water. Chaat gets its wholesome taste from its basic ingredient, the potato. It goes into the making of most chaats from dahi kachori to sev puri to papri chaat to aloo chaat. During the Navratri festival in Delhi, one can savor a variety of chaats at the chaat mela, but the best of them all is the aloo ka kulla. The dish is prepared by scooping out a boiled potato, filling this with pomegranate or chickpeas and garnishing with chaat masalas and lemon. Old Delhi is noted for a dish called the matra chaat. For this, chickpeas are boiled on a slow fire overnight and the next day, they are mashed and spiced up with long slices of ginger juliennes, green chillies, tamarind, lemon and chaat masala. The street food stalls outside the Vardhaan Market in Calcutta also sell a variation of this chaat dish. Then there is the pakori chaat, a favourite among the Jains. Moong dal pakoras are soaked in water and served like papri chaat.
Chaats could either be a cocktail of seasonal fruits or a lip-smacking mixture of potatoes and mixed papris – mostly a stiff, wafer-like ‘biscuit’ made of wheat or refined flour. Most chaats are garnished with strained curds, which have a cooling effect on the digestive system and partly neutralizes the effect of chillies and spices. The two chutneys, the green one made up of green coriander, pudina, green chillies and salt, and the sweet one made of dates, tamarind and jaggery work as appetizers and make you want more. Calcutta chaatwallahs have invented what they call the Dilli Chaat. It consists of a large, fluffed-up and stiff puri. The chaatwallah makes a hole in the middle, fills this up with lots of wonderful stuffing and then tops it up with tamarind chutney and curd.
No story on chaat can be complete without reference to the famous paani puri. In Delhi, they call it the gol gappa. In U.P., it is called the batasha, Mumbaiyas call it paani puri while in Calcutta it is popularly known as phhuchka. It is almost similar in taste and the methodology does not vary much so the variety in names does not really make much of a difference. A puri is a tiny roundel composed of wheat flour and semolina (sooji) deep-fried in oil till it fluffs up into a hard and hollow ball. This ball is then punctured from the top and filled with either a mashed-potato filling or a boiled chickpea filling or a filling of boiled bean sprouts, dipped in water spiked up with coriander, black salt, green chilli paste, mint, cummin and sometimes, tamarind. The water could be made more or less pungent according to one’s taste. The fillings too, could be custom-made with masalas of varied sharpness. For one who has never tasted the phhuchka, one can say that he has not experienced the complete taste of chaat.
Most chaats, says Vir Sanghvii, have their roots in UP though Delhiites like to claim that it originated in the Moghul court on the basis of the fact that Emperor Babar brought it from Samarkand. But all North Indian chaats are actually UP chaats. Mumbai could be given the credit for inventing all kinds of fusion chaats. The Mumbai chaat is essentially a Gujarati chaat that has taken on from the UP chaat. Bhelpuri, insists Sanghvi, is a Gujarati invention and so is the famous dahi-batata-puri, a variation on the traditional paani puri unique to Mumbai chaatwallahs. Calcutta prides itself on its brilliant invention, the masala moori made of puffed rice mixed with raw mustard oil and shaken up with small boiled potato bits, minced onion, minced green chillies, salt, boiled chola and garnished with a sliced piece of coconut. The spice used is called gota moshla and adds to its unique taste. According to Sanghvi, the pav-bhaaji, made nationally famous by Mumbai chaatwallahs, owes its origin to the Gujarati traders’ demand for a quick bite at the cotton exchange. Ragda-Pattice, another invention for Gujaratis, is a concoction made up of a mixture of pattice made up of mashed potato and flat-fried on a huge griddle with very little oil. It is served on a bed of boiled and spiced chickpeas, garnished with minced onions, green chillies, coriander, two kinds of chutneys and a generous sprinkling of sev.
The southern states do not share the chaat experience at all. But here we find street corners dotted with food stalls doling out hot idlis, medu vadas, uthappas, or spreading a dosa on a hot griddle offered for one-fourth of what you may have to shell out at a proper restaurant. One street stall in Mumbai prided itself in offering its customers no less than 27 varieties of the dosa that included a Chinese dosa, a noodle dosa and other hybrid versions. It has now become a proper street corner shop. Another food stall owner has invented his own variation of the bhelpuri by adding crumbled dhokla cubes to the traditional mixture and using fresh pomegranate grains among the toppings. One disadvantage of the chaat that actually works in its favor is that no conversation is possible while friends are partaking of a chaat feast. The style in which one must eat chaat – with one’s fingers and with the mouth wide open, precludes any conversation. The best advantage of chaats other than that they are dirt-cheap (no pun intended) is that they hardly have any fat content in terms of oil. So, what’s stopping you from taking to the streets an going “chaating”?
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