I left India in 1991 to study at Chef’s school in Switzerland, and have also lived in
Australia and Dubai before moving to Canada. I visit India regularly to find my
food and spiritual inspirations.
Since leaving India, I have always been scared to eat “real” street food on the
streets of India, because most of the street food vendors do not practice hygienic
practices around food and water. Street food vendors also lack proper food
handling and waste disposal training. So, last year I decided to visit a street
festival in Delhi, which was organized by the national association of street
To Indians living abroad the street food means little more than chaat; street food
is about snacking: paani puri or pau bhaji or kathi rolls.
But for those who live in India, street food is about sustenance. Most street-food
vendors cater to daily-wage earners who are not so privileged, who are too poor
to afford to eat at fancy eateries. So the cuisine street-food vendors serve is
usually vegetarian, low-cost and packed with lots of calories.
Last year, National Association of Street Vendors (NASVI) made a conscious
attempt to locate the best vendors in each region and to bring them to Delhi. 25
states (provinces), over 100 food stalls and 300 food items – a real treat for all
food lovers. NASVI had organized this Street Food Festival to tantalize the taste
buds of Delhiites (as people from Delhi are called). As far as I could tell, every
food stall did well but there was a clear regional divide. Folks from Delhi queued
up outside the Lucknow vendors serving kababs and pulao.
The Delhi stall attracted crowds, too, but most people from Delhi could eat this
food every day. I went to the festival a few times over the three days it was held, and the
highlights, for me, were my conversations I had with the vendors. They were all
so excited to be part of the festival, they took so much pride in their food and
their style that it was hard not to be impressed by their fervour.
The North Indians vendors got me enthused with the passion they demonstrated
for their regional cuisine. I tried Benaras chaat for the first time, which is a million
times better than Delhi chaat. Next I tried the tomato chaat, which was to die for,
and I will be showcasing it this summer at my restaurant in Toronto. When the
boy who ran the stall learnt that I was a chef, he would not let me go. I had to try
all his dishes.
I went to the section where they were serving street food from Central India next,
where the guys served me dabeli (a patty-less hamburger). The secret of the
dish they told me was the masala, which had 205 ingredients, the flavours were
so robust, with onion, sev and toasted peanuts.
Everybody knows that the best chaat in India comes from Bombay but the
Bombay vendors had decided to give traditional bhel a miss. Instead, they went
with some fusion - they made a Chinese dosa with had a noodle filling, and a
Cheese Dosa. There was also a Pizza Dosa, which was served open-faced.
Innovation of the classic – The Kolkata counter made Daab Chingiri. This is
where art, science and tradition come to life. Prawns are stuffed inside a coconut
with all the spices, onions and herbs and sealed with a dough, and then cooked
in boiling water for 45 minutes. The result is a dish with a beautiful texture and
colour. The presentation is like layering of a cake.
And now the food from my favourite - the Punjabi Stall which was serving momos
(dumplings), made with Punjabi spicy masala filling and served with tempered
yoghurt. I was still enjoying at their creativity, when a lady approached the stall-
walla and asked “Do you have Tandoori momos?” When the vendor apologized
and said no, the lady got very upset. I did not know if Punjab had any links with
China but the adjoining food cart was serving “honey glazed cauliflower”. When I
told the vendor that I had never heard about it, he was so disgusted and said I
had no idea what the real Chinese food was!
The Festival: I was amazed to see the innovation of classic Indian street food.
Also the most intriguing part was the street food travelling from one state to the
other and all the locals claiming ownership.
It is easy for a chef at a fine-dining restaurant to take pride in his food. But when
you own a food-cart, you are forced to pay bribes to the local authorities and
barely make enough to feed your own family, you are able to still care about the
quality of the food and take pride in your cooking – to me, this is real passion. It’s
that passion that makes street food in India great, and keeps our food so