Kunal Vijayakar on food trucks: Why I want more meals on wheels
Around the world, food trucks provide affordable, filling fare that’s cuisine-driven, experimental, and harbours gourmet ambitions. What’s not to like?Updated: Apr 05, 2019 21:22 IST
For as long as there’ve been streets, there have been hawkers, peddlers, vendors, carts or wagons selling something or the other on the cobbles, including food. Street-side food dates back to a time when large cities had very small homes, and the labourer and worker who came from the village in search of bread and butter had neither the space nor the skill nor a wife to cook his meals.
In Mumbai, food was sold at non-fussy khanavals (eating houses), small carts or roadside establishments, and even today you see this model prevail around the world, especially in the cities. Now adding more excitement to all that food on the street are food trucks. Mumbai’s first Food Truck Festival was hosted in 2016 at Kamala Mills, and Mumbai’s first Food Truck Park was opened in 2017. It’s another story that the 5,000-sq-ft park in Bandra was shut in exactly one week of its opening.
The truth is, food trucks in Mumbai are not as new as you may think. The food trucks that I used to frequent date back to the late ’70s and early ’80s. Those were the days of the license raj, and though you needed a license to conduct any kind of business, acquiring one was as difficult as nailing jelly to a tree. So nearly all the food stalls on the road were illegal. To make matters worse, the municipality conducted regular raids on the food sellers. In the hullabaloo that ensued, as each bhelpuri-wala bolted, vada-pav-walla vamoosed, or gola-wala hotfooted it, his wares would be confiscated, leaving a trail of sev, sharbat and sauce on the street.
So, some artful and wily fellow then decided that if the stall was on wheels, it would no longer be a stall, and in case of a swooping municipal raid, he could push his stall away and flee the scene of the crime. This was till the government decided to have food trucks of its own.
Most of the younger generation may not remember Mafco. Mafco, or Maharashtra Agro and Fruit Processing Corporation. Now defunct, it was a pioneer in food trucks. Owned by the government, they could establish a food truck wherever they wanted and so they did. Large and wide four-wheel vehicles with open fronts sold everything from really good cold cuts, pork products and broiler chicken to mango pulp and flavoured milk.
Though most of these have disappeared, a couple of them, owned by someone else, have now grown wheel-less and into the ground, and can still be found at Nepean Sea Road and off Peddar Road.
Following in their footsteps were the food trucks that lined the pavement opposite the Oberoi at Nariman Point. Chinese-food trucks. Each named after the state of the office-goer who needed to be fed at lunchtime — Hungry Eyes, Empty Stomach, Chopsuey Wheels etc. In a city where there is a shortage of places to just hang out, we often drove to Nariman Point at night and sat on the waterfront while hissing woks ably handled by Nepali cooks masquerading as Chinese chefs tossed up Hakka Noodles in dark soya sauce; flaming crimson American Chop Suey, piping hot Hot and Sour Soup, Fried Rice and Dry Chilli Chicken, all served in orange melamine bowls and plates.
The place was filthy, the pavement was an overflowing gutter, the crockery greasy and the cooks sweaty and unwashed, but the food was delicious. Once the authorities were suitably bribed, these trucks turned into permanent installations with tyres and wheels that disappeared and engines that were sold for scrap, leaving just the shell of the truck behind to do business.
Today, food trucks throughout the world provide affordable, filling food that is relatively simple to prepare. A lot of the food is cuisine-driven, experimental, and harbours gourmet ambitions. Ribs, tacos, pulled pork, Thai-style burgers, cheesy burritos, curry buns, sushi and dim sum are just some of the dishes available on wheels.
Mumbai too has seen a revival of food trucks and my hope is that it lasts. The Bombay Food Truck is the city’s biggest and most popular. Their main truck is parked at One BKC, with offshoots at a couple of other busy locations. You cannot miss their red exteriors with large windows and smiley staff that dish out pasta, rolls, eggs and vada pav. Speaking of which, their Broken Vada Pav with spicy cream cheese sauce and buttered vegetables is an ideal food truck meal.
In Matunga East, and Breach Candy, is Dumpling Delights. A momo-dumpling joint that adds cheese, paneer and tandoori sauce to dumplings and serves a menu of Indo-Punjabi-Tibetan momo combos. For instance the Chicken Tandoori Momo, which is fresh chicken minced with chopped vegetables along with Tibetan-spiced dumplings dipped in tandoori masala and grilled on coal. Quite a mouthful.
The Waffle Truck at Breach Candy looks like a huge waffle on wheels and does waffles with Nutella, Kitkat, Oreo, maple, banana and added toppings of ice-cream, nuts and other things colourful. I’ve often thought of stopping there but my growling belly is usually at odds with my growing belly.
But we need more food trucks. Many have opened and shut. Seems like the permissions required are as numerous as the departments you need to get them from. So we still await some real meals on wheels.