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.
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
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.