Snack food represents a higher form of civilization. We can trace the ascent of man through his diet, from gulped mouthfuls to nibbled morsels. The peasant eats three meals, and often only two, lunch and an early supper. His day is structured around these sittings, and for him eating is purely for nourishment. Evidence of this is before me every day. My lunch is always thick bajra roti, one lightly cooked green, thin chhaas and a paste of garlic and red chillies. The food of my fathers.
It is the trader who has introduced snack food to our culture, bringing variety and art. He’s been able to do this because he has something the peasant does not and that is surplus money and, more important, surplus time. The trader’s workday shows that man needn’t be a creature merely of toil. He celebrates this independence with snack food, an indulgence. There are other benefits to not staying in the field the entire day. Surat’s textile merchants have coined a word, baporiyu, for afternoon sex.
Mumbai classic: (above) The sweetness of bhelpuri points to its Gujarati roots , Photo Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint; and a vada pav stall patronized by the Shive Sena, Photo Bala/Wikimedia Commons.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
Snack food in India is the product of its urban centres. The first community to settle in Bombay’s Fort area, in the 1660s, was the traders of Surat. Now Gujarat has been an urban state for centuries. While Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras were settled by the British, Ahmedabad and Surat existed as urban centres before the British arrived in 1608, their ship docking on the Tapi’s right bank near my house. When the Tapi silted over later in the 1600s, Surti traders were cajoled to move to Bombay. They brought with them their afternoon food—khandvi, dhokla, patra—and their breakfast snacks, fafda, thepla and khamni.
This, of course, isn’t street food. That would have to wait for a couple of centuries. Street food is very recent in Indian cities and its origins can be dated to around 1840. This is when a group of Gujaratis began trading in the area now known as Dalal Street, starting Asia’s first stock exchange a few years later. They traded mainly in cotton, and many made fortunes in the period 1861-65 when global supply of the stuff was affected by the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s navy blockaded New Orleans and the Mississippi and Manchester’s looms came to a halt, sending cotton prices shooting. The Gujarati merchant is one of the world’s finest managers of uncertainty and he made a lot of money. These early globalizers worked, as today’s call centre workers, late into the night when rates were wired in and orders wired out at American and European times. By then everyone would be quite famished and the wives would be asleep at home.
This demand for regular food at an unusual time created a unique supply. The traders were served by street stalls that invented a late-night special: pav bhaji. This is mashed vegetables (all the leftovers) cooked in a tomato gravy and served with buttered loaves. The loaf came from the Portuguese Jesuits, who settled in Bandra around the mid-1500s. It has been neatly absorbed into Indian fast food, soaking up the oil and gravies that Indians love.
As the city flourished, the street food became more sophisticated. Today, at Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar, regularly bombed because they are Gujarati neighbourhoods, the diamond trader has packets of buttered corn costing Rs 70 and served from roadside stalls. But one thing did not change, at least in south Bombay. The variety expanded, and pani puri makers came from the north, and “tiffin” came from the south, but the food remained vegetarian. The reason for this is that the trading castes in India are quite fanatic about staying away from meat. Gujaratis love south Indian food, because the sambar is familiar through the link with dal, and tiffin is vegetarian. This doesn’t mean that all south Indian food is vegetarian. In fact most of it, in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, isn’t because the peasantry eats meat. The popularity of tiffin in south Bombay produced the sweet sambar that is unfamiliar in the south, but now loved by the rest of India.
And so, while the story of Bombay’s food is interesting, it is also limited. This is the reason Indian street food isn’t popular outside of India. It cannot be easily produced abroad, because it doesn’t use the most commonly found ingredient of street food: meat. Those who wanted cheap non-vegetarian fare would have to wait for a few more decades, till Bombay began receiving a community of non-Gujarati Zoroastrians.
One of Bombay’s most recognizable places is the Irani café. These are run by Persians who have come relatively recently to Bombay, from the turn of the 19th century, the period the French call fin de siecle. They are called Iranis, while the older lot, who came in the centuries after the conquest of Persia in 644 under Caliph Umar, are called Parsis and they speak Gujarati. Both share the Zoroastrian faith.
A century ago, Iranis could come to Bombay and get very good corner places, facing two streets, cheap. In these they would set up their cafés selling bun-maska, keema with peas, omelettes and pastries. These places had names that revealed their Persian origin: Khorshed, Kayani, Bastani and such.
The corner places were cheap because Gujarati merchants would not buy commercial property that was sinh-mukhi (lion-faced, wider at the front than the rear). They preferred gau-mukhi (cow-faced with an opening narrower than its rear). But all corner properties are necessarily sinh-mukhi and so Bombay has a lot of these excellent cafés. Many have shut down and all will be gone in a decade. Iranis brought food that was new to India. South Bombay’s Britannia restaurant is the only place we can eat berry pulao, made with a sour little fruit that is apparently still imported from Persia.
Most Indian snack food is vegetarian because our merchant castes are almost without exception Hindu. The exception is Gujarat, and Surat has always had excellent non-vegetarian street food in the Bohra neighbourhood called Jhampa bajaar (Zampa bazaar in English). Here you can eat organs deep-fried and served with delicate sauces on small sheermal bread. The Hindu equivalent of the area is called, unpretentiously, Khau Galli. This is shortened from the word khaudra, which means greedy. Uniquely among Gujarat’s cities, Surat has non-vegetarian street food. Surat’s OBC communities such as Khatris and Ghanchis, both meat-eating, are economically empowered and because of that it has excellent and diverse street food. Oppressively vegetarian Ahmedabad has the dullest restaurant experience of any city in India because the Baniya and Jain is intolerant in this sense.
The last wave of innovation in Bombay’s street food happened in the early 1970s. Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s great idea was to encourage Marathi boys to set up stalls selling vada pav, the deep-fried potato ball stuffed in a loaf lined with dhaniya chatni, garlic chatni powder and a fried green chilli. TV chef Anthony Bourdain took one bite of vada pav and judged it the best Indian food he had ever eaten. Hundreds of little illegal vada pav stalls dot Bombay and employ thousands. Neighbourhood Shiv Sena offices would normally open around these stalls, spreading a political movement through food.
I am quite certain Bourdain hadn’t been taken to eat pani puri. It is the most complex street food in the world. A planet of crust, core and liquid. A globule with two fillings—mashed potato and boiled chana (or moong)—and two sauces, sweet and sour. Boondi is often added. At the mention of pani puri Calcutta’s phuchka and Allahabad’s golgappa also raise their hand. However, these are neo-urban cultures and neither is mercantile. We can safely dismiss either of them as being the origin of pani puri. My guess is pani puri and bhel, given their sweet ingredients and their texture, are Gujarati and probably invented in Bombay in the early 1900s.
Today’s Mumbaikars do not have as rigid a diet as their parents did, and the nature of the city’s street food is changing. One aspect of it is the spread of fast food chains. They have risen as the Iranis and the tiffin cafés have shut down for lack of demand, lack of profit, and lack of ability to scale up. There are few chains that serve Indian snack food, because it is not easy to quickly assemble, and most of it cannot survive refrigeration.
There is one advantage our street food has which hasn’t eroded over time. It is cheap. Bombay’s street food has fed generations of migrants who arrived with big dreams but shallow pockets, and it will continue to be around as long as that does not change.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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