India lives and eats on its streets. And we owe a measure of gratitude to the people who feed us.
When somebody mentions ‘street food’ in an Indian context, you immediately think chaat. And yes, chaat is India’s most-famous street food; it is the symbol of the soul of our cities and in many of our metros and towns, it is the signature food.
What is Bombay without bhelpuri? I’m happy enough to go to Lucknow and give the biryani/pulao a miss. But I will never ever leave the city without sampling its famous chaat. So it is with Calcutta. If I don’t have a chingri malai curry, a luchi made from deep fried maida, or the inside-out porcupine that is the hilsa I don’t really care. But I must eat the puchkas.
The problem with this perception is that not all street food is chaat. Some of it is real food, solid hearty stuff that keeps labourers going through tough days. The reason we regard it as street food is because it is usually sold (though not necessarily made) on the streets by people who can’t afford restaurant rents to people who can’t pay restaurant prices. And most north Indian chaat is hard to find in the south, anyway.
PRIDE AND SPICE: the primary distinction between dhaba food and street food is that the latter is made by the people who are too poor to even run dhabas
I was reminded of this when I went to the street food festival on the grounds of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in December. The festival was organised by an NGO called the National Association of Street Vendors and drew a heavy-weight government attendance: two ministers (Girija Vyas and Tariq Anwar) and many senior officials.
After the speeches were over, I wandered through the stands and the first thing that struck me was that this was no bhelpuri festival.(In fact, Bombay was under-represented and I did not come across any of the dishes that have made the city famous except for some dodgy made-in-Delhi impersonations).Much of the food was what you and I would call robust home cooking: rajma-chawal, chicken curry, pulao, chingri malai curry (there is no getting away from that, is there?) and khichdi.
I spoke to many of the stall-holders, several of whom had never been out of their home cities before and certainly had no experience of Delhi, and discovered that they cooked not for middle-class people eager to try a little chaat, but for the labourers and workers of their mohallas. The bulk of their custom consisted of people looking for subsistence food at reasonable prices.
In a way, this made their food more grittily authentic. My favourite of all the stalls was run by a group of Malayalis from Palakkad who were serving a pulao with chicken curry. This was not the sort of fancy Kerala food you find on restaurant menus, but the staple meal of the workers of the state. Though their main stall was in Palakkad, neither the chicken curry nor the pulao seemed local. Were the recipes from south Kerala? The man who had cooked the dish did not know. He had learned the recipe from another stall-holder who had learned it from yet another roadside cook, and so on. This was not delicate home cooking passed down by grandmothers but robust street food made by guys who needed to earn a living.
So it was with the Punjabi stalls. The single most popular dish at the festival was Amritsar-style kulcha-channa and its many variations: tikki-channa, channa with bhaturas etc. But many of the stall holders did not regard what they did as chaat – they said it was “lunch”. One of them fried a delicious, crisp bhatura for me and the others urged me to try their rajma with chawal. (I did. It was so terrific that I wanted to pack some and take it home to eat the next day but sadly only the Kerala stall was offering a ‘parcel’ service. The Punjabis demanded that you eat everything on the spot.)
At a Hyderabad stall, the lady urged me to try chicken pakoras (not nice, by the way) and seemed confused that people wanted to try so much food at four in the afternoon. Her biryani was still cooking, she said, because in Hyderabad, nobody turned up to eat it before 6pm.
Because this was a pan-Indian event, cross-cultural confusion was rife. At a Rajasthani mithaiwallah’s, I saw two local Delhiites berating the vendor for his jalebis with rabdi (“Jalebi mithi bhi nahin hain. Kya yeh rabdi babdi le aye ho?”). At a Bengal stall, two sardarjis complained, “Yeh kehta hai bhetki-fry aur bhetki curry. Lekin yeh nahin kehta hai ke yeh bhetki kya cheez hai!”
The stall-holders coped with this onslaught with varying degrees of stoicism. A Tamil vendor who was serving vadas and sambhar was clearly finding it difficult to understand the Punjabi Hindi of many of his customers but maintained his dignity. When a south Indian lady next to me tried to help out by speaking in Tamil, however, he looked vaguely offended and said slowly to me, with grave and measured solemnity: “The weather is very cold in Delhi”. This was true enough. But no matter what I asked he gave the same reply. Perhaps, it was the only English sentence he had mastered. Still, you had to admire his quiet dignity and his limited linguistic adventurism.
The guys at the Bengal stall coped less well. They came not from any part of Calcutta that I recognised but said that their stall was “Howrah se aage”. I asked for a chicken-egg roll but they explained sadly, that they had no eggs even though their board advertised egg rolls.
No eggs? I asked in surprise. Why? They were easy enough to find, surely.
“Saara Delli mein anda nahin milaa,” the vendor responded helplessly. Bengalis! Don’t you just love them?
Judging by the crowds, the fair was successful if slightly chaotic. (A live band played on a PA system that distorted the music and burst my ear drums. There were many complaints about there not being enough loos). The citizens of Delhi were less adventurous than I would have liked. They formed the biggest queues outside one of the few chaat stalls at the fair. This made sense (the chaat was truly outstanding) but seemed slightly pointless – the chaat guys were from Shahdara and therefore easily accessible even after the festival was over.
The TV chef Kunal Kapur volunteered to work with the street vendors and though he was mobbed everywhere, I found it touching that he had taken so much time off to help other, humbler chefs without getting anything in return. (The organisers told me that it was Kunal who had approached them and offered his assistance because he felt a kinship with the street-chefs).
In a way, I was glad that this was not a mere chaat-fest. The great street food dishes of Asia are not little chaat-like nibbles but substantial meals in themselves: Singapore’s chilli crab and Hainanese chicken rice, Bangkok’s clams with noodles or the fried rice of the streets of any Asian city, including the nasi goreng of Kuala Lumpur.
In most cities, street food originated as a way for poor people to feed themselves or as a means of providing sustenance to those who worked odd hours. (This is true in India as well: vada pao and pao bhaji are both classics of the Bombay street but started out as sustenance foods). We have been distracted by the associations between chaat and street food and need to recognise that in India, the primary distinction between dhaba food and street food is that the latter is made by people who are too poor to even run dhabas.
But because street food vendors are at the bottom end of the food chain (literally!), they are routinely picked on by everyone from cops to municipal authorities to local dadas. Most struggle to eke out a miserable existence only to see a month’s earnings disappear overnight when a corrupt cop demands hafta, locks them up or destroys their food. As a child, I used to be traumatised watching cops go up to street food vendors in Bombay and overturn their carts only because they had missed their weekly hafta. (And my proudest moment as a father came some years ago when my teenage son spontaneously went up to a weeping vendor whose food had been destroyed by the cops and gave him all the money he had in his wallet.)
The ministers who came to the festival talked about changing things. They discussed schemes to licence food carts and even promised to establish hawkers’ centres of the sort they have in Singapore.
Everybody was agreed that, from the hygiene point of view, the biggest problem was water: the vendors do not have access to clean water to wash their utensils, even if they make an effort to use boiled water in their cooking. Unfortunately, nobody had a solution.
The street vendors’ association says that it will organise similar festivals in other cities to draw attention to the plight of food-sellers. I hope they do. India lives and eats on its streets. And we owe a measure of gratitude to the people who feed us.
From HT Brunch, January 5
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