We are at the Noida Sector 16 Metro station. On one side, you can see the massive satellite dishes inside the HCL campus; other IT powerhouses have offices close by. Next to them, divided by a lane, is the factory of DS Kothari, manufacturers of Pass Pass, Pearls and other mood elevators.
Catch Masala and numerous unmarked factories are a few lanes away. On the other side of metro station are Noida’s largest car-accessories and repair market and many smaller IT companies.
Though a few of the large IT companies have canteens, everyone else eats on the streets. The office workers, the rickshaw pullers, the shop owners and the countless guards and factory workers—all eat at not-so-segregated places. Precisely why a walk through the area can be an interesting study for a foodie.
The range of food outlets includes dhabas, air-conditioned restaurants, multinational chains like McDonald’s and Subway, push carts, makeshift shops on the footpath, vendors in informally designated areas and standing-only places that serve quick meals such as rajma, chole, kadhi, sambar-rice combos and more.
When it comes to food, one can have the full range of North Indian roti sabzi, biryani, Bihari litti, Indori poha, Amritsari naan, countless sorts of thalis, Maggi, parathas and puri sabzi platters, grilled sandwiches, the Indian thela Chinese and much more.
But I am going to focus solely on street food, because it does not just give you an idea of the kind of cuisine on offer, it also depicts migratory behaviour and demographics. The seeming arbitrariness of the stalls always points to something larger.
All the shops are temporary, with a more or less fixed routine. But you can see them come and go as per festivals of their states, or when the state administration wakes up to the fact that they are all illegal vendors. The streets lie vacant for a few days until the administration starts snoring again.
There are also many other variables that affect their operations, not all causes are known. A vendor from Bihar who used to sell brilliant dal pakoda and mustard chutney had vanished by the time I got to writing this article.
All the bel (stonefruit) juice vendors are gone because of the change in seasons. Now they all sell roasted corn cobs. The gentle old man who sold roasted gram dal (sattu) shake is gone with the summer and will come back with something else.
These stalls are so much more alive and responsive than a standard restaurant that they compel us to take a closer look.
Here is a selection of the five most interesting food vendors that were still there at the time of writing.
This cart is run by a sweet looking couple in the informal hawker zone of Sector 16. They are from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh and the man’s name is Sanjay Pal. They have three things on the menu—tiny samosas, dal kachoris and gujiya. Everything is for Rs10 a serving.
The samosas are cut in half and doused in a mix of red sweet chutney and green coriander chutney and served—five pieces a plate. The crispy kachoris break at your touch and are served with a spicy potato sabzi. Gujiya here is an excessively sweet version of the north Indian Holi specialty, but it has coconut inside.
Ramu Veg Biryani
Ramu’s cart would rile those puritans who say there is nothing like a vegetable biryani. To make matters worse, this is one with soya chunks. And, it’s delicious. He cooks the biryani at home and sells in Rs20, Rs30, Rs40 portions. He is from Aligarh and says he learnt the recipe while assisting some cook, the original master.
Though Ramu is fast, serving the biryani is an elaborate affair. First, he takes out the biryani in a foil tray, adds raw and fried onions, boiled green peas, a chili sauce and a green coriander sauce, then sprinkles a spice powder on top—and only then is it served.
It’s rich with a strong aroma of whole spices, generous helpings of soya chunks per portion, and every bite has enough complexity to keep you looking forward to the next.
Standard’s was the site of a bloodbath. The shop next to it, now closed, was run by a couple who had started this multiple-choice thali system. The shop was simple, and so was the food—dal, rajma, chole, one or two seasonal vegetable curries with rice, roti and raita.
Standard’s arrived on the scene with all that the old shop had, added a tandoor for naans, shahi paneer, a separate kulcha stall and high wooden tables in place of the stand-and-eat plastic tables of the old one. Thalis came for Rs60, Rs70, Rs80 (the price increased with the number of sabzis) and the premium thali had a gulab jamun as dessert.
Within two months, the old shop went out of business. In another two, tall plastic tables replaced the wooden high tables at Standard’s. The Jat owners sit in a group at the billing counter, which has gur and saunf as mouth fresheners, smoking hookah and enjoying an enterprise that runs on autopilot.
Fried Litti & Ghuguni
This is a favourite among factory workers. I have seen few office workers at this stall. The couple has set up shop on the sidewalk, at the corner of Catch factory, so once in a while you get a strong whiff of the spices. They make poori and sabzi for lunch and fry samosas and littis as an afternoon snack.
The sabzi is the dried white peas and potato curry, which is a runnier version of the Bengali ghugni. The samosas and littis are crushed, drowned in the curry and garnished with generous sprinkling of chaat masala and onions.
Sanjay Kumar, the owner, is from Aloli village in Khagaria district, Bihar. He is a favourite among rickshaw pullers and is the centre of conversations about metro guards asking for money, the coming of e-rickshaws and all else that affects their lives. His spectacles make him look immensely serious until he smiles, which he does only rarely. A plate of two samosas or two littis and curry comes for Rs10.
There are three of them, maybe more. This cart is at the exit of the Sector 16 Metro station, on the HCL campus side. All the carts are branded, they stand in different sectors, come by breakfast time and are gone before lunch.
The finished plate looks interesting but does not indicate the frantic and elaborate efforts behind it. The guy makes four-five plates of poha at one go, measuring poha with accuracy in a spatula, then in a well-oiled motion, he sprinkles raw onions, peanuts and sev bhujiya, and cuts pre-sliced tomatoes onto the plates with a scissor.
If you ask for it, he will cut a few slices of the large chillies that he cooks with the poha. The chilis are tart and not hot at all. The plate comes for just Rs20.
This cart has probably had the shortest and the most interesting life yet. It came out of nowhere one day, across the road from the litti guy. They roll in the cart after 11am and stay till 8 in the evening. There was the cart owner, an Einstein lookalike old chef and a helper. No one spoke Hindi, the owner only managed to take orders and handle cash talk.
They sold dal vada, dosa, uthappams and something called ponda that I had never tasted before. It was a blob of fried dal batter that was dunked in sambar and served. The dosa was unique too. Einstein used boiled potatoes that he had grated and turned into a masala for filling. He spread the masala all over the dosa, added chopped onions, tomatoes, boiled green peas and, for Rs10 more, grated a cube of paneer on top. The dosa tasted brilliant and came for only Rs30.
Then, suddenly, one day, the cart stops showing up. Two months later, it appears again. Einstein is gone. The owner’s younger brother is the cook now. He can’t speak Hindi either—worse still, he can’t cook. The unique grated potato filling is bland and colourless. The sambar is absolutely inedible. I doubt if business will ever go back to how it was, but that is the life of a cart.
This article can be a guide until the carts go and some other cart takes their place. But don’t we all love that about street food? Some stick around for decades, some make you fall in love and then vanish without a trace.
Om Routray is a Delhi-based writer with a keen interest in food, cityscapes, travel and fiction. The Young Bigmouth is his one-man magazine through which he shares it with the world.
Photographs by Om Routray.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org