India, the street food nation

Updated on Jan 11, 2015 05:12 PM IST

Indian street food is more than just chaat. For some its about snacking, while for some, sustenance. And the recent Street Food Festival in Delhi was a great place to sample its diversity, writes Vir Sanghvi.

Hindustan Times | By
Each time I go to the Street Food Festival, organised every winter in Delhi by the National Association of Street Vendors of India, I am struck by how much the food of the streets reflects a changing India.

Street food means a little more than chaat. To us in the middle classes, street food is about snacking: golgappas, bhelpuri, pao bhaji, mutton rolls, etc. But for those who do not belong to the middle classes, street food is about sustenance.

Most street-food vendors cater to labourers, daily-wage earners and people in the not-so-organised sectors, who are too poor to afford to eat at dhabas. So the cuisine they serve on the streets is usually vegetarian (or if it is non-veg, then the meat component is kept to a minimum), low-cost and packed with calories.

Each year at the Street Food Festival, the Delhi middle classes turn up in the thousands (around 40,000 visitors this year, I reckon) and always look vaguely disappointed to find that it is not all channa-bhatura or papri-chaat. They are always taken aback by the Malayalis, still starry-eyed about visiting Delhi, who want them to eat pulao made from an unfamiliar strand of rice, or the Bengalis who try and explain that a chop is a potato cutlet with a centre of keema. (It does not help when the Bongs put up signs outside their stall advertising "Oil-Fried Chop".)

But that’s why I love the festival. It allows us to try the kind of street food we would normally never eat (even when we travel, we rarely go and eat at stalls near building sites or factories). And because the National Association of Street Vendors of India emphasises cleanliness, the health risks are minimised.

The real taste of India: Around 40,000 people thronged the Street Food Festival this year. Held every winter in Delhi, it is a great way to try the kind of street food we would normally never eat.

This year’s Festival was bigger and better than ever before. Sangeeta Singh, my contact at the Association who is in charge of the food vendors section, explained to me that they made a conscious attempt to locate the best vendors in each region and to bring them to Delhi.

As far as I could tell, every stall did well but there was a clear North-South divide. Dilliwallas liked the North Indian food more and the biggest queues were outside the Lucknow stalls (kebabs, pulao, etc) and the Amritsar guys (channa, rajma-chawal etc) Even the Delhi stall attracted crowds, though most of us could eat that food every day.

I went to the Festival twice and the highlights for me were the conversations I had with the stall-holders. Not only were they excited to be part of the festival, they took so much pride in their food and their craft that it was hard not to be impressed by their enthusiasm.

Some ladies from Warangal looked downcast that nobody had heard of their district or their food and only brightened when I told them that I knew it as Narasimha Rao’s area. The guys from Palakkad spent a lot of time explaining to everyone that they were Malayalis not Tamils.

And when I said that I understood the Tamil-Malayali balance in Palakkad, they got excited and began speaking to me in Malayalam, either because they thought that in faraway Delhi only a Malayali would have heard of Palakkad or because I enjoyed their food so much that they thought I must have a palate trained in Kerala.

Even the North Indians took my breath away with the passion they demonstrated for their cuisine. I love UP chaat, which is roughly one million times better than Delhi chaat, so I gravitated to the Benaras stall where the tomato chaat was to die for. When the guy who ran the stall realised that I knew the food of Benaras a little, he would not let me go. I had to try the jalebis, the moong dal kheer, the laddus, and nearly everything else.

We both agreed that Delhi chaat was very mediocre, and the Benarsis were still upset at not being allowed to serve their golgappas. Sangeeta and her colleagues at the Association had told them that there was no novelty to golgappas in Delhi so why didn’t they serve something more unusual?

"It is not the same thing at all," the Benaras guy fumed, "their golgappas are useless. So is their mithai. I’ve brought my own ghee from Benaras. Next time, I will bring a malaiyon-wallah to show them what rubbish their Daulat Ki Chaat is." I have to say that I agreed with him.

War of chaatwallahs: The Benarsis dismissed the golgappas and Daulat Ki Chaat (above) of their Delhi counterparts as rubbish.

In the UP section, they gave me a bowl of outstanding khichda (Dilliwallas were ignoring the stall thinking it was khichdi) to which they had added (along with all the trimmings), cubes of fried paneer.

I asked the stall-wallah where he was from and he said Etawah. I told him I’d been to Etawah but had never heard of paneer in khichda. Bit by bit, the truth tumbled out. Two years ago, when times got tough and they had to reduce the meat content of the khichda, they started adding paneer for texture. And even I, who loathes paneer, had to admit that it worked as a texture modifier.

I went to the MP section next, where the guys from Jabalpur made me try their local speciality, a sort of patty-less hamburger called a dabeli. The secret of the dish, they told me, was the masala which had 208 ingredients, many of which were not available in Delhi.

It was nice, with onion, sev and peanuts to give it a satisfying crunch. I asked to meet the guy who had actually made it and a Mr Patel arrived. Like two Gujaratis far from home, we quickly got talking and Mr Patel told me that the secret of his dabeli was his unwillingness to use potatoes and the special mix of masala.

I tweeted a photo of the dabeli and was then thoroughly humiliated on Twitter by people who pointed out that a) it was a Gujarati dish, b) that you got it all over Bombay and c) it was so well-known that it even had a Wikipedia page. How ignorant was I that I’d never tried it?

Duly chastised, I looked it up and discovered that it is a Kutchi dish that was invented in the ’60s and that the name means pressed from the Gujarati word ‘dabao’ (not so different from the Hindi word).

But in its most familiar avatars, this is a kind of vada-pao, depending on a potato (or banana) filling. Mr Patel had dispensed with the potato altogether and still made it tasty.

And so to the food of my hometown. Everybody knows that the best chaat in India comes from UP and Bombay (plus the puchkas of Calcutta!) but the Bombay vendors had decided to give bhelpuri a miss and to showcase their city’s special ability to bastardise two or three cuisines at the same time.

At a dosa counter, they made a Chinese dosa which had a noodle-filling (instead of the masala aloo you find in a masala dosa) and a Jini dosa which had cheese! There was also a pizza dosa.

I asked the guy making the dosas whether a Jini dosa and a pizza dosa were the same thing. He looked pityingly at me. Did I not know that a Jini dosa (right) was folded? And a pizza dosa was served open, "pizza jaise"?

There was lots of this sort of innovation. The Ludhiana counter had momos, made with Punjabi-masala filling and served with a dahi sauce. (They were tasty, though!) I was still marvelling at their creativity, when a Sikh gentleman approached the stall and asked "Tandoori momo nahi hai?"

When the vendor apologised and said no, the Sikh gentlemen said disgustedly "Arre kya yaar!" and turned away. Obviously Punjab has links with China that we do not know about because the Chandigarh stall was serving ‘Special Honey Gobi’. When I said this was new to me, the vendor said shortly, "Yeh hai Chinese. Chinese khaana." So now I know.

What did I like most about the festival? Well, apart from the fact that it exists at all, I was intrigued to see how much street food is travelling from state to state. A Kutchi dabeli is claimed by Jabalpur as a regional speciality. The Delhi stall had hijacked pao bhaji from Bombay. And yet the locals wanted to claim ownership. The lahsun kheer stall was described as serving Benaras food. The stall-holder scratched out the Benaras on the sign, and wrote ‘Lucknow’ by hand.

And yes, I admired the spirit of the vendors. It is easy for a chef at a fancy restaurant to take pride in his food. But when you run a stall on the streets, are constantly harassed by the municipal corporation, forced to pay bribes to the cops and barely make enough to feed your family, and still care about the quality of your food and take pride in your craft – well that, to me, is real passion.

It’s that passion that makes India great, and keeps our food so delicious.

From HT Brunch, January 11, 2015
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