It is not for the faint hearted. What I mean to say is that Indian street food needs guts- literally and figuratively! The courageous, however, will be amply rewarded by some utterly new tastes.
India is truly a large and diverse country. There are over 22 states, each with a cuisine that is similar to, yet, noticeably different from its neighbour. In some cases, the same dish has different interpretations in different states. The street food of each state faithfully mirrors this diversity. If the streets of Lucknow offer tantalizing kebabs, the lanes of Delhi present their own interpretation. If the roads of Bombay give you Pani Puri, the by lanes of Kolkata give you their version called ‘puchkas’. These days, Street Food in India is not confined to Indian cuisine alone. You can get Chinese, Continental and even Thai food, which have, of course, been suitably “Indianised” to suit the local palate. Usually, every major Indian city has a “Khau Galli” which literally means the “Food Street”; some even have more than three!
There are some fundamental truths that you need to know before embarking on this “road trip”. A bit of familiarity with the dishes and their nomenclature is also helpful. So read on.
The Street Food Glossary
Chaat, pronounced so as to rhyme with “Part”, is the mainstay of Street Food in India. It consists of a family of dishes that are essentially assembled together in varying proportions, rather than cooked to a detail. Chaat is made from a medley of ingredients like puffed rice, roasted lentils, flattened crisps made from wheat flour, deep fried, spicy noodles made from gram flour, potato patties and round, thin, hollow, crisp balls that are filled with salads and dipped in a tangy liquid. The two most vital ingredients in chaat are the green chutney called Theehka (pungent) chutney and the brown chutney called Meetha(a tangy sweet sour chutney) chutney. Theekha chutney is made from fresh cilantro, cumin seeds, green chillies and lemon juice, while the Meetha Chutney is made from jaggery( refined sugarcane extract), dates and tamarind extract and finally that magical ingredient that elevates an ordinary dish to a creation, namely, rock salt!
Chaat is normally spicy and tangy though you can always ask the ‘chaatwalla”, as the chaat vendor is known, to tone down the spice. Lesser mortals can also choose to cool down the spice factor with a liberal drizzle of yoghurt. While chaat is more of a generic nomenclature and a wide variety of dishes come under its umbrella. Keep this ready reckoner handy when you choose your chaat dishes.
Bhel Puri – a potpourri of puffed rice, roasted lentils and deep-fried gram flour noodles(Sev) tossed in spicy green chutney and tangy sweet sour sauce and seasoned with minced onions, raw mango(during the mango season) and fresh cilantro.
Pani puri – thin, hollow, round balls (puri), stuffed with mashed potatoes or cooked lentils and dipped in a tangy sweet, sour and pungent liquid. In Kolkata, this dish is called Puchka, while on the streets of Delhi, it goes by the name of Gol Gappa. This dish can test the most courageous, because the chaatwallah pierces the ball with his thumb, fills it with the stuffing and dips it in a bottomless earthen pot. It is a handmade product down to the last ‘t’ so pack up your hygiene requirements before you slurp away at pani puri!
Sev Batata Puri and Dahi Puri – a dish consisting of mashed potato spread over a flat wheat based, deep fried cracker and garnished with pungent green chutney, sweet and sour chutney, freshly minced onions, cilantro and crisp, deep-fried gram flour noodles called ‘Sev’. A dash of yoghurt on this entire spread makes it Dahi Puri. Sometimes Dahi Puri is also made from the hollow, round puris filled with mashed potatoes and minced onions.
Ragda Patties – this is dish where a tangy spicy chick pea based gravy is spread on potato patties and seasoned with the same two chutneys. Ragda Patties is a great favourite in the Khau Gallis of Mumbai, on the sea side stalls that dot the beach on the Marine Drive in Mumbai, the lanes of Law Garden in Ahmedabad in Gujarat and Khan Market in Delhi.
Pau Bhaji – This literally means bread (Pau) and vegetables (Bhaji) and was born on the streets of Mumbai. Its fame spread far and wide and very soon it made its way to Khau Gallis around the country with as many interpretations as there are Gallis. Pau Bhaji is a meal by itself because it consists of a spicy gravy of mixed vegetables seasoned with generous dollops of butter on a huge iron griddle and served with special bread that is also toasted on this griddle. It comes to you with minced onion salad and wedges of fresh lemon. If you are calorie conscious or are subject to health constraints, you can ask the vendor to tone down the butter, or else, just let go and enjoy yourself because it is worth it.
Vada Pav – This is the signature dish of the Khau Gallis of Maharashtra and can be found on the streets of Mumbai, Pune. Simple yet filling, the vada pav is a sandwich made from the same kind of bread that is used for pau bhaji. It consists of a potato filled, spicy deep fried doughnut-like ball called batata vada wedged between a portion of pau that has been slathered with a pungent, red, garlic based chutney. It is tangy and spicy not for those who prefer subtly flavoured or bland dishes!
Paranthas form the mainstay of street food in North India. Delhi has an entire lane devoted to paranthas – the Paranthewalla Galli. This street has, down the ages, been serving a mind boggling variety of paranthas and has been drawing both Indians and non-Indians, by droves. A Parantha is a flat bread made from wheat flour and stuffed with vegetable or meat. You can fill a parantha with anything from simple onions, spicy vegetables or seasoned lentils, to chicken, meat or even dried fruit! In Kolkata, the parantha goes by the name of Kati Roll, where it is stuffed with kebabs. On the streets of Mumbai. the egg parantha or Baida Roti is the paratha of choice. Paranthas do not have a very strong presence on the streets of South India, but in Chennai, paranthas come to life, thanks to the vegetable gravy (kurma) served with them.
Samosa – This calorie ridden snack is ubiquitous in every street of India. Samosas consist of spicy vegetable or meat fillings wrapped in a triangular cases made of refined flour and oil or butter and deep fried to a lovely golden brown colour. In some cities, samosas are served with ‘channa’, which is a spicy gravy made from chick peas.
Kachori/Kachauri – This is a great favourite in the Street food menus of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Central India. Kachauri is a flour based, deep fried doughnut filled with spiced black lentils. On the streets of Mathura, Brindavan, Bhopal and the rest of Central India, Kachauri is served with the two chutneys. On the streets of Ahmedabad and other cities of the state of Gujarat, however, Kachauri is a round flour based, deep fried ball filled with a sweet sour mixture of dried fruit, cooked lentils, aniseed and chillies.
Dosa and idlis – Street food South India, especially Tamil Nadu, consists of a mind boggling variety of Dosas, which are pancakes made from a batter or rice and lentils. They are often stuffed with an array of vegetarian and non vegetarian fillings. Idlis are steamed cakes made from similar batter which is left to ferment so that the end product is soft and spongy.
Kebabs and Biryanis – The streets of Hyderabad and Lucknow dish up biryanis and kebabs that need no introduction. Kakori Kebabs and Galouti kebabs trace their origin to the royal kitchens and live in a variety of interpretations today!
Drinks on the Street
Mindful of the need to wash down this sumptuous fare, street food vendors serve both branded, bottled beverages as well as indigenous drinks. The one drink that you can find in streets all over India is the water of tender coconut. You can find these vendors along roads and even highways. Some of them string a bunch of tender coconut on a bicycle and cycle around. It is quite interesting to watch the vendor knock the coconuts, choose one based on whether you want a coconut with more water or cream, position it on his knee, shear it to a cone at one end, cut off the cone and hand it over to you with a straw.
Kala khatta is a famous street food drink, the recipe of which is held close to the heart of the vendor. It is tangy, spicy and sweet, all at the same time, leaving you in an aura of mystery!
Then there is the ice gola, which is a lollipop made from crushed ice and dipped in a glass of kala khatta and other juices. Ice Gola, again, is a must-have!
Another delicacy is the sugar cane juice. It is treat to watch the hawker put a bunch of sugarcane into an indigenous thresher, collect the frothy juice on the other side, sprinkle it with a wee bit of salt and a drop of lemon juice and hand it over, as fresh as fresh can be! Seasonal drinks like buttermilk in summer and hot chai in winter are worth a try. The chai on the street is strong, sweet and milky, so, do not expect any subtlety!
Khau gallis all over India share some basic characteristics and therefore some broad rules apply.
The Night bird Catches The Worm
Most Khau Gallis start functioning around 11 o’clock in the morning but they really come to life only after sunset and continue to function late into the night. While services in the day are essentially skeletal and cater to the office goer who is in a tearing hurry or the shopper who is urgently in need of replenishment, it is only during the evening that the Khau Galli comes alive and the gourmet stalls appear. If you a serious foodie, then make it a point to schedule your Khau Galli visit in the evening.
Do not expect cleanliness
Most of the Khau Gallis have open carts or makeshift tables and stalls. Plates and spoons are cleaned by scraping off the remnants into a can, hurriedly soaping them and then dipping them in a bucket of water. Very often two stalls may share the same bucket, so turn your face away, if you are the squeamish type. In fact, it is a popular belief that much of the lip smacking taste in Khau Galli comes from the dirt!
However, these days, stalls have become more environment friendly and conscious of hygiene. They serve food on banana leaves placed on the a plate or on disposable husk plates and use disposable plastic spoons. There is, therefore, no question of reusing plates and spoons. You can ask the vendor to give you disposable plates and spoons. Many of them even give you paper napkins.
Do not bother to bargain
While there may be marginal differences, prices for the same or similar dishes tend to remain within a band, across all stalls serving them. Stalls that offer add-ons like better hygiene and cleaner surroundings do charge more, however, there is really no scope for bargaining as stalls and carts serving similar fare tend to cartelize and charge the same price.
Carry your own bottle of water
Many carts do have a water dispenser and disposable glasses, but there is nothing like carrying your own water. Some khau gallis have drinks carts that sell mineral water but the mark-up is significant. Carrying your own water is safer and economical.
The oldest khau galli in the New Delhi is located on the streets of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. ‘Paranthas’ and ‘Chaat’ are the signature dishes of this khau galli. In fact, there is a whole by-lane full of parantha vendors, aptly called Paranthewalla Galli (Lane of Parantha Vendors). Khan Market is another prominent Khau Galli in New Delhi. Manek Chowk and Law Gardens are the traditional Khau Gallis of Ahmedabad. Mumbai has a khau galli in almost every locality. In Kolkata, walk along the Esplanade for crisp jhal muri, which is the Bengali version of Bhel puri, gorge on puri bhaji at Mullick Ghat Flower Market, The old city in Hyderabad near the Charminar is offers exciting street food options right from dishes that are spin-offs from Nawabi cuisine to Tibetan Momos. Your hotel desk can provide you with information about the khau galli in that area. Do cross check this information with the locals before you set off. Happy Gorging!