Saturday, December 01, 2007

Street Food of Delhi

Delhi-belly - a term I’d like to see done away with, considering the symptoms affect alike, people holidaying in Bangkok, Karachi or Dhaka for that matter. The accused in every case is street food. But ask a local, and pat comes the reply, “I see my food being prepared on the spot, so I don’t suspect the hygiene.”

Writing about Delhi’s street food is a tough act. Do I begin with the variety of fare? Or should it be the history of each type of cuisine? How about the favourite haunts? But in the interest of appetite, perhaps I should categorise the array into levels of richness and how heavy one feels after a meal?

Here’s an advice from a local - the fare is so varied that one is best advised to sample it while taking in the sights. This is also one way of avoiding what is called, ‘eat in haste and repent at leisure’. So, perhaps the objective of this article is really to equip the seeker of good food with a basic vocabulary of street food and an approximation on where one can find these in Delhi.

Mughlai food takes its name from the Mughals and the famed culinary expertise of their khansamas (chefs). A plethora of spices infuses richness and flavor to the Biryanis, kormas, Nahiri (beef/lamb stew) and rumali rotis (handkerchief-thin chapathis). Let’s not forget the succulent kababs (kebabs) that are on offer, like shammi kabab, sheekh kabab and boti kabab. The area around the Jama Masjid is one great Mughlai eat-athon, burgeoning with food vendors especially during Iftar (breaking the Ramzan fast).

During the Indian Independence in 1947, the influx of people into Delhi especially from the Punjab region, increased. The feisty Punjabis brought with them their famed culinary expertise and a passion for food. Tandoori Chicken, Chole Bhature (chickpea gravy with a deep-fried bread like poori), Channa Kulchas and Parathas with a variety of fillings are their contribution to Delhi cuisine. Chandni Chowk – that great market square since the time of the emperor Shah Jahan – is a warren of streets with eateries at every turn. The Parathewaligali is a street where parathas (unleavened bread) rule the appetite. There are parathas with every conceivable filling, from nuts to mince to the humble cauliflower. This is close to the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort. Do note that some people pronounce the word ‘paratha’ with a nasal twang - paraNtha.

For light eats, there’re always alu tikkis (potato patties), samosas, raj kachori (lentil filled fritters), dahi bhallas and the ubiquitous chaat comprising golgappas (also called puchkas in Kolkatta and pani Puri in Mumbai), papri chaat and the like. The combination of sweet, sour and chilli in Chaat, is personalised to the customer’s taste. Try these at the Main Colony Market and Gol/Bengali Market. Try the pakoras with hot milky tea at Bhikaji Cama Place.

For the workforce around Connaught Place, there are stalls serving South Indian food like idlis and dosas. There’s also the roti-sabji-dal (Indian bread-vegetable-lentils) combination that mimics home-food in its simplicity.

In areas like Janpat, you can’t miss the Fruit Chaat and Aloo Chaat vendors. Fruit chaat is a fruit salad tossed in the signature sour-sweet chaat masala. Aloo chat is boiled potato tossed in the same masala with a dash of lime and some sliced onions for variation. The street food experience is incomplete without dessert - jalebis, phirni, kheer, gulab jamun, shahi tukda. The Jalebis and gulab jamuns are deep fried and marinated in sugar syrup The shahi tukda is a deep-fried piece of bread, soaked in sugar syrup and served with rabdi (thickened milk pudding) and a garnish of finely sliced pistachios. Kheer and phirni are really variations of milky rice pudding.

There is also a range of the usual roasted corn, peanuts, pop corn, hot milky tea, sharbat and sugar cane juice to stave off hunger pangs until the next indulgent meal.

A recent court ruling prohibits the making of food on the street in Delhi. The ban is, thankfully, yet to be implemented and there’s still time to sample the uniquely-Delhi street food experience.

(An edited version was published in the December 2007 issue of 'At A Glance')

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