New restaurateurs are reinventing street food favourites across the country

Updated on Jan 10, 2017 07:43 PM IST
New chefs and restaurateurs are reaching into their memories to find dishes that remind them of the streets, clubs and restaurants of old, writes Vir Sanghvi.
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Hindustan Times | By
It’s a funny thing to say, but it was in London, of all places, that I had a couple of Eureka moments about Indian food. The first came when I was chatting on the phone to Maunika Gowardhan, a private chef and food writer who I have still to meet but who I frequently interact with on social media. Maunika was brought up in Bombay, moved to the UK and now divides her time between
London and Newcastle.

She has just published a book of her recipes (it is called Indian Kitchen and I recommend it). But unlike most cookbook writers who focus either on north Indian food or specific regional cuisines, her book takes home-cooking dishes from all over India and combines them with street-food favourites. So you’ll find terrific recipes for dabeli, keema pav, Bombay sandwich, bread pakoras, Frankies, roadside chhole and many others.

I asked Maunika about her choice of dishes – unusual and largely unheard of in the UK where the book has been published (though it is available here too) – and her response got me thinking. The food of a country, she said, was not necessarily the food of its restaurants. It was the food we ate at home and the new dishes that street-food vendors were constantly creating.

She was right, of course, about home cooking. But it was the street food that got me thinking. The great classics of street food in most cities have been around for decades. The kebabs of old Delhi and the chaat of Lucknow have long and glorious traditions. But in such cities as Bombay, street food keeps reinventing itself.

The Frankie is a Sixties invention. Pav bhaji became popular at around the same time. Vada pav and dabeli came much later. So, I imagine, did the bread pakora (in my humble opinion, one of the most revolting street-food dishes of all time). The Bombay sandwich found fame in the Eighties.

I pulled out my old friend Cyrus Todiwala’s books. His recipes for dishes from Bombay’s Irani restaurants (admittedly not quite street food) and for Bombay-style chaat are epic. Cyrus is now the best-known Indian food personality in the UK and a pillar of the British establishment. But he has never forgotten his roots, which is why his food is so exceptional.

And certainly, street food seems to be the basis of some of what modern Indian chefs are doing. The phenomenal Manish Mehrotra, probably the best chef cooking creative food in India today, frequently goes back to the food of the streets. Because he is not from Bombay, he goes elsewhere for his inspiration.

Show me the money: The single greatest dessert available at any Delhi restaurant today is Manish Mehrotra’s (left) version of

malaiyo from the streets of Banaras (it goes by many names, including Daulat ki Chaat)

The single greatest dessert available at any Delhi restaurant today is his version of malaiyo from the streets of Banaras (the dish goes by many names: an inferior Delhi avatar is called Daulat ki Chaat). This is the lightest, most airy cream dessert that, when it is made in the streets, can only last for a few hours on a winter morning before the heat causes it to collapse. The Indian Accent version, which Manish has perfected, uses molecular technology to keep its shape for much longer in any temperature.

So much of Zorawar Kalra’s menu at Delhi’s Farzi Café, for instance, consists of witty reinventions of street food favourites like vada pav. Zorawar knows how to go the seekh kebab-butter chicken route – his Made In Punjab chain packs in the punters. But at Farzi, where he appeals to a younger, trendier demographic, he takes many street-food favourites (including paan!) and reinterprets them with flair. All this makes Farzi the hardest table to book for dinner in Delhi.

Out of the street: At Farzi (top), Zorawar Kalra (above) appeals to a trendier demographic with street-food favourites (including paan, above right) reinterpreted with flair )

Then there’s the world’s most successful Indian chef, Gaggan Anand, who made his reputation with his spherified papri chaat, taking the techniques he learnt at El Bulli and applying them to Indian street food at his restaurant in Bangkok, which was recently rated on the San Pellegrino list as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants and the single best restaurant in all of Asia.

All talk of Indian street food on restaurant menus always leads to the influence of the legendary Camellia Panjabi, easily the most influential woman in the Indian food world. Way back in the Sixties, it was Camellia who pushed the Bombay Taj to include street food on the Sea Lounge menu. She took a version of the keema ghotala from Bombay’s Mohammad Ali Road and put it on the menu at the Shamiana, the Taj coffee shop in 1973. (This was long before keema pav became a trendy dish.)

Camellia knows more about Indian street food than anyone else I know so I was not surprised when, a few years ago when she was invited to address a global gathering of international food luminaries, she chose to make a presentation about the one Indian dish that none of them had ever heard of: the Bombay sandwich. Her presentation was based not on any recipe but on what the roadside vendors actually did: were both sides of the bread buttered? Did they mix the chutney with the butter before spreading it? And so on.

I mentioned briefly last week that I had eaten at the new Chutney Mary in London. And while the restaurant is a commercial success (it was heaving with people the night I went) and has received rave reviews from those London critics who understand Indian food, only Indian restaurant insiders will understand the context of the food. In many ways, the menu is really just a collection of Camellia’s greatest hits, of the dishes she helped create in over four decades in the hotel and restaurant business, and of the best dishes she has eaten in India.

The menu does not always betray the food origins. For instance, the Tandoori Black Pepper Dover Sole is really a riff on the Tandoori Pomfret the Bombay Taj used to serve in the Seventies. The Guinea Fowl Reshmi Kebab is based on the legendary Chicken Reshmi Kebab at the old Tanjore at the Bombay Taj.

Nobody at the Taj remembers how to make it and even Camellia did not know the secret, so they tracked down a cook from that era and bought the recipe off him. (The trick is to cook half the keema filling one way and the other half another way – or that’s all she would tell me!)

The Golden Fried Prawns are a tribute to a dish the Golden Dragon made famous. At the time, the Sichuan chefs the Taj had hired to open the restaurant told the Taj management that these were a Chinese delicacy. Only now do we realise that this was the first great Indian-Chinese dish!

The Flaked Cornish Crab in Garlic Butter sounds properly posh but is actually an old friend: the Trishna/Gajalee Crab in Butter Garlic. At Chutney Mary, they tried various butters till they found one that was perfectly light. And while we don’t pay much attention to the sourcing of the crab in India, the Chutney Mary version uses a particularly tasty Cornish variety.

At the large bar (which serves meals), the debt to street and club food is more obvious. There is a dosa (made with jowar), akuri on toast, chapli kebabs served as sliders, and for those who have happy memories of room service at the Taj, masala omelette (with toast or as a sandwich) and chilli cheese toast.

The Willingdon Sports Club’s Kejriwal Toast, of which Chutney Mary does an excellent version must be the dish du jour. After Floyd Cardoz put it on the Bombay Canteen menu, it is suddenly ubiquitous. The Chutney Mary samosas are not the fat Punjabi version, but the crisp thin-skinned Bohri samosas from Bombay, except that the keema filling is made from venison which makes them taste more like the goat-meat original than fatty lamb would.

Hence, my Eureka moment in London. In the first wave of Indian restaurants abroad, we had North Indian food (even if it was murdered by Sylhetis). In the second wave, we had places that specialised in specific regional cuisines (such as the excellent Quilon in London). In the third wave, we had European-style presentation of Indian food.

But now, in India and abroad, there’s a new wave. There are new chefs and restaurateurs moving beyond traditional menus, reaching into the deepest recesses of their memories and finding dishes that remind them of the streets, clubs and restaurants of old. Sometimes they will completely transform the dish (as Gaggan does with his classic Charcoal, based on a Calcutta chop) and sometimes they will just refine them, as Chutney Mary’s chefs do.

But, make no mistake: a new wave is here.

From HT Brunch, July 26

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