Thursday, November 02, 2006

Indian Street Food

It’s a given that India is a gastronomic heaven. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on Indian streets with its diversity of street food.

There are regional specialties like Jhaal Mudi (made with rice crisps, onion, mustard flavour and nuts) and Vada Pav (akin to a burger). Then there are generic favourites like fritters – bajjis, pakodas and bondas. Not to mention desserts like kulfis and jalebis to cater to those who’d like to end their street food meal on a sweet note.

Typically, a street food vendor pitches his stall or his cart at a standard location, and makes his wares on the spot. There is a plethora of street food options in India – here’s a rough categorisation.

BEVERAGES: Tea, Coffee, Masala Tea, Masala Milk etc. with biscuits as accompaniments.
MEAL STALLS: They serve only lunch and dinner – rice with vegetable or chicken gravy, chapathis or pooris with a vegetable, idlis/dosas/vadas etc.

SNACK STALLS: These are quick bites and the stalls are most frequented mid-morning or early evening. Sandwiches, Katti Rolls (similar to a spring roll), bajjis/bondas/pakodas (fritters), fruit salads etc.

SPECIALITY STALLS: These serve only one item that’s their core competence. For example, Dosas, Momos, Vada Pav and Pav Bhaji (bread mounds with mixed vegetable gravy). By the way, the word Pav is derived from the Portuguese term for bread, Pao.

CHAAT STALLS: Perhaps the most kind, with Bhel Puri (puffed rice with chopped vegetables, crisps and spices), Pani Puri and other items like Sev Puri, Dahi Puri, Papdi Chaat etc. Chaat is always served cold or at room temperature.

Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta are all credited with their own versions of chaat. Case in point – the humble Pani Puri. This is a crisp hollow bite-sized ball, filled with mildly spiced boiled potatoes, dipped in two syrups(one sweet and one sour), and then served. This is simply popped into the mouth one at a time. While it’s generically called Pani Puri, the Delhiites know it as Golgappas and those from Calcutta have savoured it as Puchka. While the basics are essentially the same, there is simply a minor variation in flavour and ingredients.

Innovation is a buzzword even in street food. While hygiene is a factor that is touched upon for street food, enterprising vendors use only mineral water and the freshest of ingredients. To cater to the Jain community, Jain variants have been created without onion and garlic. Not to mention Diet Bhel / Diet Vada Pav for the calorie conscious!

So, how do you find out which vendor serves the best street food? Look for the most crowded stall!

An edited version of this article was published in At A Glance.

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