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15 Street Foods S ome stories evoke untroubled times, golden days that transport your mind, make you forget everything but the tenderness and exhilaration of those far-flung images. While attending the Bihar College of Engineering in Patna from 1948 to 1952, my father went once in a while for coffee with friends. The India Coffee House charged onequarter of a rupee for coffee. It was a princely sum to the young college students, but my father got all he could from the treat, adding milk and sugar to the coffee since it did not cost extra, cooling himself for as long as possible under the coveted ceiling fans over the tables. There, he discussed all manner of critical issues with friends. Their heads tipped together in discussion until a strong point caused a sensation, whereupon the men would rear back, raise their voices, and fling their hands up emphatically . Usually, though, the Coffee House was too expensive. For half the price, one-eighth of a rupee, Baba could get corn grilled in a charcoal oven by a street vendor, who first dribbled it in oil and then flavored it with masala. How delicious, how heady to stand and munch alongside the road. How rich the feeling of having enough coin for the act. On family trips to India in the 1960s and ’70s, though, all the adults would mutter dire things about cleanliness when confronted by street vendors and steered us away. I was told that only people who grew up eating those foods Street Foods 115 could get away with it now. The rest of us had stomachs too delicate for the job. So naturally, nothing spelled nation to me quite like munching street foods right from the cart. I was tortured by longing for the sizzling aloo tikkas , puchkas, and shingaras as we passed by. Eating on your feet near a cart and a fryer can conjure place like no other act. The ingredients are local, as are most of the other eaters standing with their hands cupped around puchkas and aloo tikkas, my mother’s favorites. The people stand in relaxed postures, shoulders hunched slightly until they toss their heads back to catch all the savory juices. The dishes are mostly quite fresh, and they are cheap. It is the same the world over. Picture bagel carts in New York, cheesesteak vendors in Philadelphia. In my hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas, I think of snow cones at Lincoln Park. A Tunisian baguette filled with a fried egg, potatoes, and harissa instantly makes me think of hot desert sun. Forget seating arrangements. You could only eat those sandwiches on the go. Dhabas serving chaat, India’s savory, tart, hot, sweet street food, is at the heart of the country’s food culture. In the southern states, the chaat experience is not the same as in North India. In the south, street corner vendors dole out hot idlis, medu vadas, and oothappams or spread dosa batter thinly onto hot griddles. Shingaras (or samosas in Hindi), though, are available in most Indian states. But in the north, chaat is a category by itself. Any variety of it is an enticing blend of four tastes—sweet, sour, pungent, and spicy. The word chaat is derived from the Hindi verb chaatna, meaning “to lick one’s fingers clean” after eating a tasty dish. One story has it that chaat came from a concoction prepared and eaten by Punjabi merchants as they sat managing accounts for their retail and moneylending businesses. To pass the long work hours, the men would nibble at puffed rice and soon began to add things like jaggery, ginger, and tamarind chutney. The resulting food was tasty enough that they began to lick their fingers after eating. One beloved chaat is puchka. A filling made of small potato cubes or mashed potatoes, masalas (spices or spicy sauces), and boiled chickpeas is placed within a broken puchka. The tiny round puchka, made of wheat flour and semolina, is deep-fried in oil until it puffs up into a firmly crisp, hollow ball. This ball is then punctured from the top, filled with potatoes, boiled chickpeas, or boiled bean sprouts, and dipped in water spiked with coriander, black salt, green chili paste, mint, cumin, and sometimes tamarind. In Delhi 116 Street Foods they call it golgapa, and in Mumbai it’s panipoori. The water and fillings can be made more or less pungent according to taste. Chaat wallahs (snack vendors) offer...


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MARC Record
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