Street Food in India
PART I: OVERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION
Every city, town, and village in this vast country of over 1 billion people has its roadside stands and hawkers. Indians eat street food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as an afternoon snack (often taken home for “tea”), and during festivals when special dishes are prepared. Vendors set up shop near office buildings, schools, railway stations, beaches (such as Bombay’s Chowpatti Beach or Chennai’s Marine Drive), places of worship, and in crowded markets, such as Delhi’s ancient Chandni Chowk or Mumbai’s Khao Gali (food lane). There are an estimated 300,000 street food vendors in Delhi and 130,000 vendors in Kolkata alone.
The Hindi word for vendor is ‘wallah’, which is attached to the name of the item being sold; e.g., kebabwallah, paanwallah, etc. Most ‘wallahs’ are men. Their cooking equipment includes grills, tawas (a flat heavy griddle), karahis (a wok-like pot used for deep frying), or sometimes little more than a burner and a kettle to make tea. Street food can be savory or sweet, and often is vegetarian. This vastly expands the potential audience, since many Hindus do not eat meat. Also, meat is expensive.
Many street foods are seasonal: Roasted corn and sweet potato are favorites in the winter, certain fruits in the summer. But everywhere you go, any time of the day or night, you’ll find vendors selling chai – hot milky sweet tea served in a disposable clay cups. Chai can be either plain or masala — boiled with various spices, such as ginger, cardamom, cloves, even red chilies.
In 2014, the Street Vendors Association of India won a victory when it the Indian parliament passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act to standardize regulations and the issuance of license and prevent harassment by the police.
Street food is made to order and eaten on the spot, since in a hot climate it is not safe to eat dishes that have rested a while. Some stalls have a few rickety chairs and tables but usually the dishes are eaten standing or on the move. Food safety is a major problem because many vendors have no access to clean water or disposal facilities, and often cook and handle food with dirty hands. In 2007 the Delhi city government tried to ban the preparation of food at street stands, in a move supported by India’s High Court, but the order proved unenforceable and has not been implemented. In theory hawkers are licensed but in practice, only a small minority are, with the result that they are subject to harassment and demands for bribes by officials. Also, the residents of more upscale areas sometimes also object to the presence of street vendors.
Meanwhile, street food is moving ‘off the street,’ especially in urban areas. Chains like Jumbo King in Bombay and The Great Kebab Factory offer sanitized versions of traditional dishes. Street food courts are being added to modern urban shopping malls.Western fast foods are making inroads into India, and hot dogs, made from meat, vegetables or paneer (a hard milk cheese) are especially popular. India has at least one food truck, “Nick’s Mom” in Hyderabad, run by an Indian living in America.
India is a vast country of 16 official languages, eight religions, and countless ethnic groups, each with their own customs. Thus, every city and region in India has its own special street foods. However, as transportation and communication improve and people move elsewhere in search of jobs, many foods have become universal and are enjoyed throughout not only India but Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
MAJOR STREET FOODS
Chaat (from a Hindi word meaning to lick) is a generic term for the savory fried spicy snacks that are the archetypal Indian street food and in recent years have appeared on the menus of many top restaurants (at many times the original price). Chaat is also the name of a specific dish: a mixture of crumbled fried dough and potatoes, sometimes lentils or chickpeas, a spice blend called chaat masala, gur, coriander leaves, yogurt and two or three chutneys (sauces). The most common chutneys are a sweet and sour brown sauce made with tamarind and jaggery (a gritty brown sugar) and a green sauce of coriander leaves, mint, and green chilies. Yogurt is added on top to aid digestion. The result is an appetizing combination of flavors – sweet, sour, hot, and cool. Each serving is made to order, served in a paper cone and eaten on the spot.
Although Mumbai is famous for its chaat, the dish is most likely North Indian in origin. One of the most popular in North India and Pakistan is channa chaat (also called channa masala or chole masala). The vendor starts with a layer of boiled chickpeas to which he adds (in order) boiled potatoes, finely sliced green chilies, chopped onions and tomatoes. He tops this with a sour tamarind and a sweet mango chutney, yogurt and with chaat masala. According to legend, this dish became the rage in the 14th century at the court of a Delhi ruler whose physician recommended it to keep stomach problems and germs at bay. A common accompaniment is bhatura — a large slightly puffy wheat bread.
Papri chaat starts with papris — crisp fried round wafers made from white flour and oil — to which are added boiled potatoes and chickpeas, tamarind and chili sauces, yogurt, chaat masala, and a sprinkling of sev (thin crispy noodles made from wheat flour. )
One of the most popular chaats is called gol gappa in Delhi, pani puri in Mumbai and phhuchka in Kolkata . It consists of a serving of puris — tiny rounds made from a flour or semolina dough that are deep fried until they puff up into hard hollow balls. The balls are punctured and filled with mashed potatoes or boiled chickpeas and then dipped in a sour or savory liquid that may contain tamarind, cumin seed, lemon juice, mint, or dates and goes inside the puri. The customer must pop the whole thing into his or her mouth to prevent it spilling all over.
A variation is dahi puri, in which beaten yogurt is poured over the stuffing. Typically five or six puris are served on a disposable plate made from leaves or paper.
Originally a popular snack associated with the city of Mumbai, bhelpuri became so popular that it has turned up on the menu of upscale Indian restaurants. Recipes start with a base of puffed rice and boiled potatoes, topped with sev (deep fried noodles), onion, coriander leaves, chaat masala, and brown and green sauces. At the request of the customer, the vendor can add tomato, peanuts, more chilies, diced mango, and other ingredients. Another popular chaat consists of seasonal fruits sprinkled with chaat masala.
Kebabs are grilled or roasted meat dishes that probably originated in Central Asia where nomads roasted chunks of meat over a fire. Their relative ease of preparation makes them ideal candidates for street food, since all that is needed is a grill and wood or charcoal. They are usually served with bread, such as naan or paratha, and dipping sauces. The vendors are often Muslim, and in cities like Delhi and Hyderabad, kebabs are sold outside mosques. The common meats are goat, chicken and beef (although the latter is avoided by most Hindus). Spicing can be intense and include garlic, ginger, and aromatic spices such as ginger, cardamom and cloves.
Boti kebabs are chunks of meat marinated in yogurt, spices and herbs, threaded on a metal or wooden skewer and roasted over charcoal. Kathi kebabs are boti kebabs wrapped in a roti (a soft round wheat bread) and mixed with onions, chilies, and sauces. This dish, which originated in a restaurant called Nizam in Kolkata, is typically served wrapped in paper and is a favorite of students.
Seekh kebabs are sausage-shaped kebabs made from ground spiced lamb or goat threaded on long skewers and grilled. Kakori kebab and galouti kebab are light, delicate kebabs made with meat that is ground extremely fine and whipped.
A kebab that is also popular in Iran and Afghanistan is shammi kebab — a disc-shaped patty resembling a hamburger made of spiced ground meat and chickpeas beaten until they are light and airy and lightly sautéed in a pan. Chapli kebab (from the Persian word for ‘sandal’ because of its shape) is a large flat round kebab popular in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North India.
Kofta is a generic term for a dish of well-kneaded ground meat mixed with vegetables, grains, and other ingredients and formed into balls, patties or sausages. Koftas may be grilled, fried, steamed, or sautéed. Pasinda kebab are long strips of meat marinated in yogurt and spices, threaded on skewers and baked or grilled.
Indian workers returning from the Middle East have introduced shawarma. Shaved lamb, goat, or chicken are compressed on a rotating spit, grilled, and sliced off as needed. The meat is placed on a flat bread and topped with chutney or ketchup.
Jalebis are pretzel-shaped orange-colored coils of chickpea batter drizzled through holes in a spoon into boiling oil and soaked in sugar syrup that may be flavored with lime juice or rosewater. Jalebis are served either hot or cold. The sweet is of Arab origin and came to India in the 14th or 15th century. The most famous vendor is Delhi’s Old Famous Jalebiwala in Chandni Chowk, which has been there since 1884 and sells only jalebis and samosas – a mouth-watering combination.
Pakoras (bhajis) These fried fritters are a universal favorite and a popular teatime snack. Chopped potatoes, onions, cauliflower, eggplants, spinach, egg, or paneer are coated in a spiced chickpea flour batter, deep fried, and served with a spicy green chutney or ketchup (which is totally authentic!).
PAKORAS (Indian Vegetable Fritters)
1 medium eggplant (around 1 pound) or 1 medium sweet potato
7 ounces chickpea flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder.
1 cup cold water, more or less
1 cup of vegetable oil for frying
- Cut the vegetables into slices approximately 1/4 inch thick and 2 inches in diameter and set aside.
- Combine the chickpea flour, salt, chili powder and turmeric powder in a large bowl. Stir in enough water, to make a thick batter. Keep it cold if possible.
- Heat the oil in a wok or deep skillet until it is smoking. Mix the vegetable slices in the batter and drop them into the oil one at a time and cook until golden brown.
- Remove the cooked vegetables with a slotted spoon and drain the excess fat.
Serve hot with tomato chutney or ketchup.
Serves 4 to 6
Now a staple of India restaurants and cocktail parties, samosas remain a popular street food that people often take home to enjoy at afternoon tea. In the vegetarian version, mashed potatoes, peas, red chili powder, turmeric and other spices are wrapped in a white flour dough that is formed into little triangles, deep fried and served with coriander or mint chutney. A non-veg version is filled with ground spiced meat, usually lamb.
Throughout India hawkers sell fresh fruit and vegetable in season. Radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, are sliced on the spot and sprinkled with a mixture of chaat masala, salt, and fresh lemon juice. Seasonal fruits are finely sliced and layered with marmalade and paneer to make fruit sandwiches.
Slices of fruits in season – mangoes, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, jackftruit, and many fruits without Western equivalents – are a popular street food.
Kulfi is an ancient and very delicious sweet that can be flavored with dozens of ingredients, the most popular being mango, pistachios, and cardamom. Cream is frozen in triangular molds around a little twig or stick.
Western-style ice cream served in a cone is very popular. Golas are a poor man’s version — basically crushed ice balls bathed in a colored flavored syrup, sprinkled with lime juice, black salt and pepper, and served on a stick. There are hundreds of flavors, including traditional ones like mango, mint, rose, and orange and modern flavors such as chocolate and cocktail. The customer slurps loudly while licking the gola to remove the syrup, which the vendor will replenish.
Spicy roasted corn on the cob (in Hindi bhutta) is a staple of street food in India, as in many other developing countries since it is inexpensive and requires no special equipment to prepare. In India, it is associated with the monsoon season. After roasting over hot coals until the kernels start to blacken, the corn is generously sprinkled with a spice mixture that is unique to each vendor, but always includes red chili powder and salt, and then sprinkled with lemon juice. Sometimes the corn is boiled and served with a tamarind cjutney
Momos are steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables originated in Tibet and became popular among hippies and trekkers in Nepal in the sixties and seventies. Today they are one of India’s most popular street foods, especially among students who enjoy them with a spicy chili sauce.
India can be searingly hot, especially in summer when temperatures can reach 115°, so there are many cooling refreshing drinks sold on the street. Fresh limes or lemons are squeezed and mixed with sugar and salt to make nimbu pani.
Lassi is a cold yogurt drink that may be either salty or sweet. In the salty version the yogurt is beaten with cumin seed, water, and salt until it is frothy. The sweet version is made of yogurt, sugar, and sometimes crushed banana or mango pulp.
LASSI ( Sweet Yogurt Drink, India)
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1 cup chopped mango (peeled and stone removed)
2 to 4 teaspoons sugar (to taste)
A dash of ground cardamom (optional)
Place yogurt, sugar, mango, and water in the bowl of a blender or food processor. Process until frothy. Top with crushed ice and cardamom.
Jal jeera is a mixture of ice water, lemon juice, cumin powder, salt and sometimes mint. Many vendors sell sugar cane juice, made by pressing the stalks on the spot, and coconut water.
Sugar cane juice is popular throughout India, especially in the summer months. It is squeezed by roadside vendors using special equipment and served fresh in glasses with ir without ice. Sometimes lemon, ginger, and mint are added.