Chandni Chowk to Chowpatty – Indian street food at its best.

I don’t like food that’s too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.
Andy Rooney

A quote that sounds just right when we think of the rustic Indian street food served on the roadside stalls, in open markets, beaches, melas, railway stations, bus stops, offices and various other colourful locations all over India

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With a huge increase in fine dining restaurants, cafes and bars the Indian street food was somehow loosing its identity along the way, however a modified version of them was being served on fancy plates with overdone garnishes, served by sophisticated waiting staff in a cozy and posh environment, accompanied by a glass of a good vintage wine served by the best sommeliers in town and to add the cherry to the cake the dishes being ridiculously over priced.

Well these places never did justice to the great Indian street food dishes. It didn’t even come anywhere close to their original roots which had the taste, the smell, the rustic serving plates which were made of either dried leaves, newspaper or clay, imparting a distinctive flavour to the the dish, the hustle and bustle of the market place and more-over digging your fingers into the dish rather than using cutlery was an experience in itself, it had its own magic and in every way contributed to the dish as a whole. This experience is irreplaceable, and no matter how much one tries getting close to creating that whole experience in a restaurant there will always be that one element missing.

With a sudden increase in Indian street food restaurants popping up all over London I thought it would be a good idea to write about this great concept and how it evolved. From its birth to finding its way to the streets and now on your dinner plates at a restaurant near you.

Some of these restaurants have painstakingly created a replica of this great institution and have tried to bring an honest plate of food to you combined with age old traditions and culture.

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The History

The birth of Indian street food was mothered by The Grand Trunk Road which is the longest and the oldest road built to connect western and eastern regions of the vast Indian subcontinent by the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, however it was Sher Shah Suri who renovated and extended this road in the 16th century and was later upgraded in the British period between 1833 and 1860.  It runs from Kabul in present day Afghanistan to Calcutta in the eastern part of India.

The Grand Trunk Road is where the present day Street food found its first stepping stone. The route was used by traders, travellers, armies and being such a long route people couldn’t store food with them while travelling  hence the locals starting setting up food stalls to feed the travellers.

These food stalls were typically called “Dhabas” which were often run by single families and mushroomed all along the trunk road serving fresh regional cuisine. The dhabas mainly gained popularity in the Northwestern part of the country from Peshawar to Punjab. The dhabas were characterised by open kitchens, clay ovens also know as tandoor and used brass and copper utensils. Dhabas today have become very popular all over the country and many modern versions have evolved.

Food was always the landmark of these Dhabas some offering the best teas often referred to as the ‘sau meel waali chai’. This concoction is a heavenly  mix of fresh milk,   sugar and tea leaves all brewed with a hint of cinnamon, cardamon, ginger to provide flavors impossible to reproduce anywhere else.

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While some dhabas boasted of a vegetarian menu; lip smacking chanaa bhaturas for breakfast, the all time favourite  tadka daal with liberal dosage of ghee; the crisp tandoori rotis and succulent paneer dishes.  Some excel in the kadi (made with yoghurt and gram flour) while others sweetened  the palates with a great array of desserts.

The non vegetarian fare was the one to watch out for, tender juicy kebabs made with chicken, quail, lamb, beef and delicate seafood preparations along with large pot or handis of curries being cooked in an open kitchen on slow charcoal heat. A few examples are  Dahi Bhalla, Chaapli Kebab, Sofiyani Machhli, Paneer ke Soole  Dhaba Murg, Kosha Mansho, Chingri Lau Ghanto, Gobi Mussalam, Pindi Chana, Yakhni Pulao, Daal Makhni and the ever famous Tandoori Chicken.

As cities started developing, the street food got Urbanised and found its way into the main streets, now street food outlet became a destination where the whole family came to enjoy the delicacies, a cuisine in itself, it became very popular among the middle class in the early 20th century. Food stalls started mushrooming on busy and important locations in the cities and the stalls became a landmark in itself.

The famous chandi chowk in old Delhi known for chaats .

(Chaat is a term describing savoury snacks, typically served at roadside tracks from stalls or carts in India. With its origins in east India, chaat has become immensely popular in the rest of India and the rest of South Asia.In cities where chaat is popular, there are popular chaathouses or dhabas, such as Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach. Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi. The chaat specialities vary from city to city. Chaat from Agra and Mathura are famous throughout India.)

The famous Shirmal Wali Gali, Chowk, Lucknow know for Tunde ke Kebab a dish made with Lamb mince and is said to use around 160 spices along with other ingredients.

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(India is proud of its Kebabs.The kebabs of Awadhi cuisine are distinct from the kebabs of Punjab insofar as Awadhi kebabs are grilled on a Chula and sometimes in a skillet as opposed to grilled in a tandoor in Punjab. Awadhi kebabs are also called “Chula” kebabs whereas the kebabs of Punjab are called “tandoori” kebabs.)

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Calcutta the capital of West Bengal is another famous street food destination. The Puchka refers to the crisp sphere that is placed in the mouth and eaten one at a time and because of the bursting sound in the mouth it was named puchka. This dish is a very famous street food all over India served in different ways and the recipe changes from region to region, its also referred to as “pani puri” and “gol gappa” It consists of a round, hollow puri, fried crisp and filled with a mixture of flavored water (“pani”), tamarind chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion and chickpeas.

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Jhal Muri is another classic which consists of puffed rice, boiled potatoes, chickpeas and coriander all tossed together with tamarind, chilli sauce and spices, served traditionally in newspaper cones.

The Kati rolls were yet another popular delicacy. Spicy chicken, lamb or beef kebabs char grilled and wrapped in parathas (soft flat bread cooked on a griddle or tawa) with onions and peppers with a spicy chutney. It was to die for.

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Moving towards the western part of India, Bombay the financial capital of India boasts of a wide array of dishes.

Vada Pav a popular spicy vegetarian fast food dish native to the Indian state of Maharashtra. It consists of a batata vada sandwiched between 2 slices of a pav. The word batata vada refers in Marathi to a vada (fritter) made out of batata, the latter referring to a potato. Pav refers to unsweetened bread or bun. It is also known as Indian Burger. Finely chopped green chillies and ginger are added to mashed potatoes and is further tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves and dipped in a gram flour batter and deep fried.

Pav bhaji is a Maharashtrian  dish that originated in Bombay. It is native to Bombay and has now become popular all over India, especially in those of central and western Indian states such as Gujarat. Pav means bread. Bhaji in Marathi means vegetable dish. Pav bhaji consists of bhaji (a thick potato-based curry with vegetables) garnished with coriander, chopped onion, and a dash of lemon and lightly toasted pav. The pav is usually buttered on all sides.

Dosa, a common breakfast dish and street food, is rich in carbohydrates, and contains no sugar or saturated fats. As its constituent ingredients are rice and lentils, it is gluten-free and contains protein. This dish originated in Tamil Nadu a state in the southern part of India.

A mixture of rice and urad dal that has been soaked in water is ground finely to form a batter. The proportion of rice to lentils is basically 2:1 or 3:1. The batter is allowed to sit overnight and ferment. Sometimes a few fenugreek seeds are added to the rice-dal mixture. The rice can be uncooked or parboiled.

A thin layer of the batter is then ladled onto a hot tava (griddle) greased with oil or ghee (clarified butter). It is spread out evenly with the base of a ladle or bowl to form a pancake. A dosa is served hot, either folded in half or rolled like a wrap either stuffed with potatoes or on its own with lentils and coconut chutney.

And the list continues. There are hundreds of other dishes and as i said in my previous blog its difficult to narrate a story that starts from the Bay of Bengal to the Coasts of Konkan, from the rugged peaks of the Great Himalayas through the land of Five rivers ‘Punjab’ right into the Gangetic plains and the southern coast.

India’s language, religion, customs and food differ from place to place within the country, but nevertheless possess a commonality. India is the only country in the world to have so many religions and beliefs. The food culture of India is an amalgamation of these diverse subcultures spread all over the Indian subcontinent and traditions that are several millennia old.

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Biryani – From Persia with Love

The name Biryani is derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted”

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This royal dish is believed to find its roots in the rustic kitchens of the Mughal Emperors in 1800. Through the ages Biryani travelled from the northern part in India to the southern tip. The kitchens of the Nizams in present day Hyderabad  boast of 49 different varieties of  Biryani cooked with different meats, fish and vegetables. A few common versions are Hyderabadi Biryani, Awadhi Biryani, Thalassery Biryani, Vaniyambadi Biriyani, Bhatkali biryani, Memoni biryani, Dindigul biryani, Kacchi biryani, Sindhi biryani, Calcutta biryani. All of them use different techniques to cook and use of spices are varied as well. Not to mention i love all of them.

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However the traditional method to cook biryani was by a method called “Dum” it simply means to breathe in. A very heavy bottomed pot is used for cooking in which the food is tightly sealed with a “Purdah” also known as veil which is a simple dough made of water and flour used to seal the pot with the lid and the food is cooked on slow fire. This process of slow cooking releases maximum flavour and aroma.

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The legend has it that the Biryani was brought to India from Persia through Afghanistan by the Arab traders, another source indicates that the biryani was brought by Emperor Taimur Lang from Persia to India as early as 1394. There is also a mention about a rice dish known as “Oon Soru” in Tamil as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.

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Another story about Biryani is, once Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1641) visited the army barracks and found that men were under nourished. So she asked her chef to make a dish with meat, rice and spices that can become a complete meal with balanced nutrients. This is how the biryani was originated.

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Still some people say that the biryani originated in West Asia. The wanderers used to bury an earthen pot filled with rice, meat and spices into a pit and after some time the pot was dug up giving rise to the delicious biryani. Although there are many legends regarding discovery of biryani in India, the Islamic Persians have made the biryani popular in India. In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah introduced Biryani to Calcutta which became Calcutta Biryani. This Biryani was cooked with meat and whole boiled potatoes. When Aurangzeb installed Nizam-ul-Mulk as Asfa Jahi, the ruler of the Hyderabad, the Hyderabadi Biryani came into picture. The Tipu Sultan of Curnatic brought the Biryani to Mysore. Tahiri Biryani was introduced by Hindu Vegetarian bookkeepers-hired by the Nizams and Nawabs. The tahiri biryani is made with vegetables rather than meat. Hence, you see that there are so many stories abut the history and origin of Biryani.

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Biryani has evolved with time and chefs in every age have improvised  this dish. The main ingredients for making Biryani are good quality rice usually basmati, leg of goat which is used traditionally (however different meats are used today like beef, venison, hare, chicken, quail, fish and prawns) yoghurt, ginger, garlic, fried onions and potatoes. Now as i mentioned every region has a different version some also use tomatoes and herbs like coriander and mint and dry fruits. Spices play a very important role in dishing out a good biryani, some recipes call for a very limited use of spices while some use around 15-20 different spices including saffron. An extensive use of rose water and srewpine water (kewra) is also prevalent along with Sweet Ittar which is a natural perfume oil derived from botanical sources.

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In most of the versions the meat and rice are both cooked separately and then layered together, sealed in a pot and cooked.The meat is marinated with yoghurt, spices, ginger, garlic and fried onions along with ghee and other aromatics and cooked over slow heat. The rice is par boiled and then layered with the cooked meat in a heavy bottomed pot, sealed with dough and cooked very slowly, heat is applied from beneath and top both to make sure its cooked evenly throughout. Biryani is traditionally served with either Raita a condiment which is made with yoghurt and seasoned with coriander, cumin, mint, and other herbs and spices or saalan usually gravy which is reserved after cooking the meat.

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So i hope who ever reads this will definitely give this historical and royal dish a try at home. Please Email me for recipes if you need them.

The pictures above are those of biryani cooked in my kitchen and we usually cook for 10 to 1000 people for various occasions.

Whenever i design a menu for my clients, biryani always plays a focal point on the menu as i believe special occasions have to be complimented with  special dishes.

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I leave you with this famous Persian quote which was said about India

Agar Firdaus bar ru-e-zamin ast, Hami ast o- hami ast o- hami ast.
If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here it is here.

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Couture Canapés by Ashish Bhatia

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When i started working for The Red Turban around 4 years ago we saw a huge gap in the Indian catering market in terms of the product being offered, after an extensive research we learned that there wasn’t that wow factor. Dishes were pretty standard across the board, served in the same traditional manner, all menus were the same with more or less the same dishes just tweaked a little bit around. So after a good month of brain storming “Grain of Salt” was born delivering bespoke catering services, something that was never done before in the Indian wedding market. Now the challenge was to create products that were bespoke and stood out of the box and would create our own identity and a niche in the market . Hence i was back in my test kitchen creating new dishes.

I figured out that first course to be served was really important as it was the first meal the guest would taste and they had to be blown away. So there i came up with idea of serving canapés – also known as Mis En Bouche typically served as an appetiser before the main meal. I started creating a canapé menu with Indian Ingredients inspired by classic french techniques. Again little did i know that this would be a revolution in itself. Image

Chicken Tikka served on mini roasted poppadums

Initially it was a huge challenge to get the balance of complex Indian spices and the subtle French ingredients right but after days of experiments i came up with an array of beautifully designed canapés perfectly worthy of any grand reception. Below are an example of a few canapés that we serve.

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Curried Creme Fraiche with a hint of roasted garlic in cucumbers.

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Lamb keema vol au vent

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Bhel Puri in Tarts

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Seared Scallops served on a bed of kadai wild mushrooms

Mithai

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RAS MALAI, WHITE CHOCOLATE AND MANGO MOUSSE TRIFLE

The Hindi-Urdu word used to refer to sweets and confectionary is mithai. True origins of mithai are unknown. Some varieties, like Habshi and Sohan halwa, originate from Persia. Its roots have been traced as far as the early 1500s when the Moghul Emperor Humayun was exiled to Persia. When he re-conquered India, the makers of mithai were called by him to India. The mithai makers were not allowed to share their mithai with the common public and it remained for exclusive consumption of the Emperors for around 300 years. Later, in 1835, the makers of mithai were allowed to open a shop in Ghanta Ghar Delhi  I have created a unique fusion of mithai by blending the techniques from the western hemisphere and the best ingredients from the eastern hemisphere.

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GULAB JAMUN AND WHITE CHOCOLATE TERRINE.

The biggest challenge in creating these desserts was the complex taste of the Indian Mithai and the intricate techniques of the Puddings from the west. I spent days and days in my test kitchen trying to create the perfect balance between both. I tried combining mousse with various Indian mithais but eventually settled with Ras Malai, an Indian dessert which consists of sugary white, cream or yellow coloured balls (or flattened balls) of paneer soaked in malai (clotted cream), flavoured with cardamom.

The reason to choose ras malai was plainly because it was light textured and beautifully complimented the light and airy mousse. The next step was to add the flavours and unarguably mango was on top of the list. Fresh Alphonso mango pureed and incorporated with freshly whipped cream and white chocolate gave exceptional results. The next stage was the spices and an Indian Inspired dessert would have been incomplete without the addition of appropriate spices. I tried cinnamon but i felt it overpowered the whole dessert. Then i tried cardamon powder and it worked brilliantly, however, I still felt the dessert was lacking flavour so i decided to incorporate saffron and voila, that made a world of a difference. Little did i know at that time that this dessert would be the highlight of all my menus at the restaurant as well my bespoke catering. 

 

I will be posting the recipes soon.

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GAAJAR HALWA PANNA COTTA IN TARTS

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The Great Indian Culinary History

This is not just a Blog; this is a story, a story so magnificent that it brings all our senses to life. This story is about a journey that began 4000 years ago, during which cultures have changed, geographical boundaries have changed.

Welcome to the land of gastronomic wonder- INDIA.

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Most people believe that the origins of Indian history and therefore the cuisine are as old as humankind itself. The earlier formal civilization is the Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapan Civilization, which is at about 2000 BC. The Ayurveda tradition of cooking which is a complete holistic approach to cooking evolved at this time. This lays the foundation of the concept that everything we eat affects both our body and mind; therefore food should be pure, from nature, and balanced. The core balance consists of balancing the six tastes – Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent. These tastes relate to the attributes of Essence and Effect.

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Its difficult to narrate a story that starts from the Bay of Bengal to the Coasts of Konkan, from the rugged peaks of the Great Himalayas through the land of Five rivers ‘Punjab’ right into the Gangetic plains and the southern coast.

India’s language, religion, customs and food differ from place to place within the country, but nevertheless possess a commonality. India is the only country in the world to have so many religions and beliefs. The food culture of India is an amalgamation of these diverse subcultures spread all over the Indian subcontinent and traditions that are several millennia old.

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The cuisine in India is classified into three major categories. Satva, Rajas, and Tamas. Satva, which stand for balance, Rajas stands for passion, and Tamas stands for indulgence. Food is consumed according to the lifestyle of the person. For example: A King has to be aggressive to defend his country, he would be taking food, which would give much passion and that aggressiveness which is required. When a person tries to lead his life in want of self-realization, he would prefer a Satvic food or known as Satvic diet, which would help to keep his mind in balance. Tamasic food or known as static food is to be taken only if its required, like consumption of Alcohol.

 

Despite this diversity, some unifying threads emerge. Varied uses of spices are an integral part of food preparation, and are used to enhance the flavor of a dish and create unique flavors and aromas. Cuisine across India has also been influenced by various cultural groups that entered India throughout history, such as the Persian, Mughal and European Colonists. Sadly in most Indian restaurants outside India the menu does not do justice to the enormous variety of Indian cuisine available. My Blog is a small tribute to this great land, gastronomically diversified.

 

Chef Ashish Bhatia

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