New Delhi: Street food in the city is a snack of endless varieties, eaten on the run or on a date, while playing or playing hooky from school. It is served and sometimes entirely prepared on the street. It is eaten while standing, also on the street, usually within whiffing distance of the gutter.
But as incomes rise and ways of eating change, the inevitable has happened. Street food, that emblem of raucous, messy, urban India, is slowly being tamed. In recent years, it has begun to come indoors, get sterilized, and go upmarket. Most recently, a court order has prompted the Delhi government to consider a ban on cooking food outdoors.
Across India, street food can range from the gilauti kebab of Lucknow, skewered lamb so tender that legend says it was invented by a toothless nawab’s cook, to the kathi roll of Kolkata, a deep-fried wrap of grilled meat, raw onion and hot sauce of secret provenance. The iconic street food of Delhi is chaat, a variety of snacks that are meant to deliver a range of tastes and sensations to the tongue, from crunchy to soft, tart to hot and sweet. The word is derived from the verb to lick. A good chaat is a complex assemblage, as pleasure always is, and, by definition, it is not good for you. In Delhi, you can find nearly a dozen different kinds of chaat on the streets. They all involve something fried and starchy, and indulging in chaat requires abandoning all concern for hygiene.
Today, across India, brightly lit fast-food chains offer the standard varieties of chaat. Specialty restaurants self-consciously peddle the nostalgia of the unruly street in the least unruly surroundings of all: the mall. Even at a five-star hotel restaurant called Fire, a slender glass platter of chaat can be sampled, improbably, with a bottle of champagne.
Increasingly in these tamed chaat enclaves, the cooks use gloves for the sake of hygiene. Plastic cups and plates have replaced the cups and plates washed on the side of the road. The algae-green-coloured juice that is the vital fluid of the type of chaat called pani puri, and that looks exactly like the sort of the thing you should not ingest, is now prepared with mineral water—and advertised as such at some of Delhi's oldest chaat establishments.
The pani puri, also called gol gappa, or phoochka, depending on which part of the country you’re in, is a deep-fried hollow shell that is deftly punctured by the chef’s thumb, stuffed with boiled potato, dunked in the aforementioned green juice, and ferried from the hand that makes to the hand that eats. That intimate public exchange is as central to its pleasure as the hot-sour explosion on thepalate.
Not surprisingly, a recent government-sponsored survey of street food vendors across India found “poor knowledge” of food- and water-borne diseases. Most vendors, the study found, threw their trash on the roadside and did not decontaminate water used to clean utensils or served for drinking. Even more remarkably, the study found that on the hygiene survey, fast-food restaurants did not fare much better.
The pani puri has been repackaged in sterile and unexpected ways. Haldiram’s, an Indian fast-food chain, offers the shells in a sealed plastic bag, which you have to puncture and dunk in juice yourself. A trendy restaurant chain called Punjabi by Nature offers an inventive cocktail built around the pani puri: Two potato-filled shells are served with a shot of vodka infused with green chilli and lime, along with a glass of draft beer as chaser.
As in everything in India today, the old coexists effortlessly with the new. And so one afternoon under a blazing mid-April sun, devotees of old-style chaat huddled near the acclaimed Prabhu Chaat Bhandar, a grouping of hot stoves propped up on a wooden platform, shaded by four large umbrellas, in a narrow alley of dogs, cars and trash in the heart of the Capital. Shubha Dua, 22, and four college friends had come for one of their regular lunch breaks. They sat squeezed inside a small car, all holding in their hands small foil plates of papri chaat, a blend of crisp wafers, yoghurt, tamarind and spice.
They said they chose not to think about the cleanliness of the fingers that had blended their chaat. “We’re not looking over there,” is how Dua put it. They wouldn’t mind if the alley were a bit cleaner, they said, or if the flies could be kept away. Still, they confessed, they were lured here, week after week. You could customize your chaat to your taste, they said— ask for a bit more heat or a bit more sourness, or adjust the amount of yoghurt. The mall chaat, they said, wasn’t the same, or as cheap. Prabhu’s chaats go for about Rs20 a plate. Naresh Chand Jain, a vendor of betel leaves who came one afternoon for his regular helping, insisted that the pani puri juice at Prabhu’s had the power to cure all stomach ailments.
For a contrast, there’s Fire, the cool, posh restaurant at the Park Hotel. The chaat platter comes with five items, all largely traditional fare, but arranged for the contemporary cuisine set, between mounds of thinly sliced cucumbers, carrots and beets, which gives it a deceptive air of healthfulness. The raj kachori, a large deep-fried shell, is stuffed with two varieties of sprouts, green chillies and dollops of sweetened yoghurt. True to tradition, the papri chaat is blended by hand. There are also deep-fried vegetable pakoras; chickpea dumplings in a spiced yoghurt sauce called dahi bhalla; and the least successful of all, a deep-fried spinach leaf topped with yoghurt and spice.
The chaat maker’s signature lies in his sonth, a sweet tamarind chutney whose recipe he is likely to zealously guard (Fire’s exceptionally tasty sonth incorporates dry ginger powder from the desert state of Rajasthan), and his masala, a spice mixture that in this kitchen can take up everything from rock salt and roasted cumin to crushed pomegranates and dried mango powder.
The perfect chaat, said Fire’s executive chef, Bakshish Dean, must “thrill” the brain. Here, it is not a cheap thrill; a chaat platter for two, spectacularly garnished with fenugreek sprouts, can set you back roughly Rs670, or easily five times the Indian daily minimum wage.
A more modest version of domesticated chaat can be found at City Square, one of the dozens of new malls that have lately mushroomed across Delhi. One of the mall’s sit-down restaurants, Khaaja Chowk, exploits street kitsch in its decor, but produces workaday chaatsthat taste exactly like what they are: food made in the mall. Upstairs, in a food court crammed with purveyors of pizza and nachos, as well as mutton seekh kebab, is a place that calls itself Street Foods of India and promises the roadside snacks of Delhi, Mumbai and Amritsar.
Neelima Chadha, out shopping one Saturday, was unimpressed with what she called the “refined” taste of air-conditioned mall chaat. “If you want street food, you go to the street,” was her verdict.
Street foods in the mall do not immediately threaten the street food of Delhi, but the roadside vendors may well have to change the way they do business. A court order earlier this year directed the city to ban the cooking of food outdoors, though not the sale of precooked foods. The city has yet to issue final rules, but it is likely to usher in changes to chaat-making. The chaat makers along Chandni Chowk, in the tourist-filled old Walled City, for instance, fry their potatoes outside.
Those who would be most affected by the proposed ban are those for whom street food is the stuff of sustenance, not leisure. The daily meals for the city’s rickshaw pullers, porters, construction workers and the like are all made outside. Rice and curries are prepared in giant vats, fresh bread is baked in clay ovens all under the shade of a tree or a sooty tarpaulin. Because there is little or no overhead—for example, the cost of indoor kitchens or refrigerators—the food is exceptionally cheap. A full meal costs roughly Rs10.
“Every day, they are passing new laws,” said Kamal Yadav, 16, who runs his family’s open-air lunch counter near Chandni Chowk. “Where will the poor go to eat?”