The aroma of bread being toasted with sizzling butter on a flat griddle wafted through the air from all sides. This was combined with aromas of mixed spices, potatoes, tomatoes and onions. The air was filled with vendors shouting out to customers to try the “pav bhaji” at their stall. As I walked around I could see colourful roadside eateries with their menu written on the boards outside – pav bhaji, sev puri, dahi puri, bhel puri, pani puri, etc. I was drooling!
Welcome to Chowpatty in Mumbai. Chowpatty is a paradise for street food lovers and one of my favourite places to indulge. Indian cuisine is hugely popular world over, but, it is the quintessential street food that walks away with the applause from the common man. The Indian culinary experience has been diversified and modified to a large extent owing to the waves of migration, climate and the tastes of the local population. As a result, Indian food in general and street food in particular, is inspired by multiple sources but always reflects local tastes. Hugely popular, wonderfully delicious and most important – very affordable – Indian street food is constantly reinventing itself to suit modern times, yet, remains truly “desi” or Indian.
From Mumbai to Delhi to Lucknow to Kolkata, each city has stamped its own brand on the street food sold there. The ‘cart menu’ in each city is a reflection of its history, people, and local produce available and regional flavours. The variety is as mind boggling as it gets. If you have to look at culture through the eyes of food, then the Indian food is a veritable kaleidoscope – a medley of colours, flavours, spices & aromas. With every bite your taste buds are treated to such delightful combinations, that your stomach may protest, yet, the heart will want to go on! The bustling streets of India is where you will find an array of these kaleidoscopes, tantalising you body & soul.
We introduce you to 12 of India’s amazing street food that will leave you wanting for more…
I was once chomping on a burger and my grandmother asked me what I was eating. I told her that the burger is similar to the vada pav, to which she pithily replied “Must be the poorer cousin!” It actually set me thinking and I laughed. True, so true. The vada pav is a staple diet for anyone in Mumbai, Pune and other parts of Maharashtra. The patty or ‘vada’ which is made with potatoes, green chillies, garlic & spices is sandwiched between the ‘pav’ which is between a bun & bread. The patty is deep fried and the pav is smeared with two types of chutneys and the whole combination is served like a burger with a couple of sautéed green chillies to add to the flavour. Wash it down with a lemonade or cup of ‘cutting chai’ and you are ready to take on the world.
Gol Guppas/Paani Puri/Puchchkas.
Shakespeare once said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” It doesn’t matter what you call this particular street food, it will continue to be the nation’s favourite. So delicious is it that I really can have it for breakfast, lunch & dinner and in between. Gol guppas in Delhi, Paani Puri in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or Puchchkas in Kolkata, these spicy + tangy + minty concoction have a way of exploding in your mouth and overpowering you with flavours. The little fried crisp ‘puris’ are made of either wheat or semolina and are stuffed with spicy potato – chickpea/sprout mixture. These are dipped in a sweet chutney and flavoured water of mint + coriander + green chillies with spices. My personal favourites are the ones that are served with a variety of flavoured waters including asafoetida or hing, cumin or jeera and kewra or pandanus. Mouth-watering and lip smacking!
I honestly don’t know what the Chinese would actually think of the variety we serve under the brand of Chinese food. However, Chow Mein has been the hot favourite with generations ever since this type of noodles was introduced to the Indian palate. We have of course created an Indianised version of the noodles. Mixed veggies tossed in a hot wok with red chilli and garlic paste, soy sauce & a dash of ketchup, add the pre-cooked noodles and mix it up. Viola, you have a plateful of hot, spicy & savoury noodles that you can wolf down very easily.
There are kababs and there is Tunde Kabab. Lucknow’s most famous, melt in the mouth kabab is the classic story of how royal food became part of the Lucknowi culture. Exceptionally soft and succulent till the core is what makes these kababs a hot favourite. Haji Murad Ali, the creator of this authentic cuisine had only one hand and hence the name Tunde. In Hindi a person with one hand is called Tunde. Haji Murad Ali made these kababs with a single hand to fulfil the last wishes of a toothless royalty!
A native to Tibet & Nepal, momos are probably the most popular street food in India after Gol Guppas. The soft & spicy dumplings are part of the ‘cart menu’ and ‘a la carte menu’ today. They can be served steamed or fried and the tangy red chilli – garlic sauce accompaniment with it explodes a bunch of flavours in your mouth. You can choose vegetarian or meat stuffing depending on your preference. Wash it down with a chilled beer on a warm summer evening or a bowl of hot soup on a winter evening!
A common snack on the streets of Mumbai and in college & office canteens, the Misal Pav is in the same family as Vada Pav. Pav is the bread and Misal is the tangy, spicy gravy with sprouts and tomatoes and onions, garnished with ‘sev’ and freshly chopped coriander. Sprinkle some lemon juice and mop up the bread with this mouth-watering gravy. Misal Pav represents the essential “grab it on the go” kind of a meal that fills your stomach.
The Silicon Valley of India runs on this tasty, crispy, spicy snack made of rice flour. It is flat pancake made of rice flour, coriander, green chillies & salt, eaten with freshly made coconut chutney. Bangaloreans can eat this hearty snack for breakfast, lunch & dinner and any time in between. This staple diet is available at roadside eateries and in restaurants across the city & is best had with a cup of hot filter coffee.
Pakodas are a must mention in the list of popular Indian street food. These are fritters made of a variety of vegetables & gram flour. Each region in India has its own way making these pakodas. Every Indian can relate to the phrase “chai – pakoda weather”, which means the monsoons. Pakodas are akin to soul food and can be immensely satisfying as a party snack, an in between filler or an accompaniment to a meal. They are served with different kinds of chutneys depending on which part of India you come from.
A sweet & sour combination with colourful fusion of tastes, Chaat typically has universal appeal. It is said that this excessively common street food originated right from Shah Jahan’s kitchen. Yes, the Mughals also loved the medley of flavours in a dish like this. The crispy, soft combos with a variety of chutneys & yoghurt, Chaat has evolved into various new forms today – Dahi Puri, Bhel Puri, Paani Puri can be thus considered as cousins of this tangy treat. Some of the best Chaat I have eaten is to be found in old Delhi, Amritsar, Patiala, Indore & Lucknow.
Indian bread has always been more exciting than the sliced variety. The flavours and the freshness of the bread itself warrants no accompaniment, except maybe a pickle or a basic curry. However, the Chhole Bhature is that combination of bread & curry that can be called soul food for many Indians. Chhole is a kind of chick pea curry made with onion – tomato gravy base and typical Punjabi spices meant only for the Chhole. Yes, you guessed it right – Chhole Bhature originated in the Punjabi household many decades/centuries ago and today is available in many parts of India. The Bhatura is fried Indian bread made of flour and yeast or yoghurt with baking/cooking soda.
While a lot of street food from Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar & Kolkata is eulogised and popular, one of my personal favourites is the Paddu from Andhra Pradesh. This scrumptious snack is made from a batter similar to the Dosa batter and is flavoured with chopped onions, green chillies and fresh coriander. Sold at every street corner in Hyderabad, Paddu can be eaten with different chutneys. A perfect snack, either mid-morning or late evening, Paddus go well with coffee or beer!
Samosa & Kachori
No Indian street food list is complete without the mention of these two snacks. The Samosa is a big fried dumpling with either a potato/onion/peas filling and the Kachori is also a fried dumpling with or without stuffing. When you eat the Kachori you will bite into multiple crisp layers of the cover before tasting the stuffing. Both Samosas & Kachoris can be by themselves or can be used as part of a Chaat preparation and you will still enjoy it as much!
With the variety that is available in every street or street corner in India, all I can say is explore, eat & enjoy!!!