(This was a quickie for the Indian Express’s Weekend section, carried in July, I think. About a month after I wrote this, we did a nostalgia foodie trip to Old Delhi and ate our way steadily through Japani samosas, dahi bhalla, puri-bedni, assorted chaats, parathas, pickles, the works. Much as I like the convenience of having pure Aquafina-guaranteed phuchkas at the trendy neighbourhood restaurant, street food needs to be Churchilled: unless enough blood, sweat, toil, tears (and snot) has gone into the stuff, it just doesn’t taste right. But if you’re looking for the pro, not amateur, take on Delhi street food, go and read Rahul at once.)
For once, it’s not the Kashmiri wazwaan at Chor Bizarre that’s got our attention. Nor is it their chaat bar, which the Delhi restaurant has famously served out of a remodeled vintage car for years. Instead, my friends and I are eyeing a single item on the drinks list: sattu, the humble thirstquencher that you might see at the small, Rs 10/ plate places where rickshaw-pullers eat.
Vada-pau, idlis, samosas, shikanji, phalsa sherbet, pau-bhaji, assorted chaats, “set” dosas—all of these street food staples have made the transition from Everyman’s snack to fusion cuisine darling of the moment. But sattu is quintessential poor man’s food, available by the handful or as a drink for less than a few rupees. Here, a glass of sattu costs over Rs 50. “It’s there as an amusement,” the waiter says. “So does anyone order it?” I ask. “A few, though most don’t like the taste,” he says. “But it’s a great conversation piece.” We ordered it, we talked about it, but it cast an accusatory pall over the meal.
Perhaps we were trying it in the wrong form. Sattu shows up on Agni’s “fibre-rich” menu, but eating an overpriced sattu, kuttu or bajra roti isn’t as guilt-inducing as drinking a glass, for some reason. That’s what makes eating street food in chic restaurants such a challenge. The line between an amusing riff on familiar themes, and cruel parody, is thin.
Punjabi by Nature cracked the formula years ago when it introduced the Vodka Golgappa, now one of its signature dishes. Golgappas and chaat had been around on five-star coffee shop menus–it was understood that locals had the sense never to order these sanitized, foreigner-friendly versions. And at Holi parties, we’d been spiking golgappas with bhang for years; but by using pepper vodka, Punjabi by Nature made those puffed ovals of pastry trendy, not to say lethal.
What happens when street food goes upmarket? For years, the answer to that question in India’s restaurants was that it lost its savour. “Calcutta kathi rolls” on the Yellow Brick Road menu couldn’t compete, and no one in Bombay would order baida roti at a coffee shop, not when you could have the real thing at Bademiyan’s at half the price and twice the taste. I won’t name the chef who disastrously, and briefly, flirted with mushroom pau bhaji, but he’s wiser and older now.
In between the five stars and the streetcorner vendor, street food has made a far more successful entry, courtesy a hundred shopping mall food courts. The legendary Swati Snacks in Bombay took its cue from Haldiram’s and Nathu’s, which served streetfood specialities sans the dirt and germs—but Swati Snacks broke the mould by serving the more unusual specialities from Gujarat and Maharashtra in clean, pleasant if unspectacular surroundings.
They score on taste, which is where the food courts lose out. Eatopia in the India Habitat Centre, for instance, does decent facsimile versions of papri chaat and dahi bhalla, but except for the sugarcane juice (fresh and guaranteed lizard-free), the serious foodie would find far better original fare in Old Delhi’s gallis. A few years ago, Pragati Maidan’s food court brought in Tundey kebabs from Lucknow, Irani chelo from Bombay , Amritsari fish and the like. The staff came from the original outlets, which helped to keep the flavours authentic.
Even so, what we lack in India is the equivalent of the hawker centres in Malaysia and the food streets of Thailand, where an emphasis on hygiene and licensed vendors ensures quality without sacrificing any of the original flavour. The food courts try, but they can’t quite make it—and meanwhile, “original” street food has started incorporating bad versions of the Bombay Frankie in Delhi and the ubiquitous spread of those boiled corn stands alongside bhelpuri, choley-bhatura and alu tikki. (A scientific study claims that the smell of boiled corn is exactly equivalent to the smell of human semen, but don’t let a small detail like that stand in the way of your next health-food snack.)
And when street food goes seriously upmarket, the results wobble between truly inventive and deeply alarming. Excellent miniature “chuskis” with a raspberry coulis served at a Calangute restaurant in Goa works; Agni’s mishti doi with caramelized burnt sugar-aniseed topping takes some getting used to; and Veda’s sprouted moong chaat is flat out awful. But Veda’s roasted papad with jhalfrezi is a clever riposte to those sad five-star papad baskets containing limp slices of tomato and cucumber. And Agni’s banana stem-chaat is pretty funky, while the miniaturized set dosas at the Marriot’s Royal Dakshin take an Udipi standard and reinvents it with a fabulous twist.
I won’t drink sattu except at a roadside shack, I’m sick of miniaturized samosas and uninspired “fusion” dimsums, I would prefer never to see a downsized gulab jamun in brandy sauce ever again. But it’s good to see fare once considered only fit for the masses—”ordinary” red rice, kuttu atta, yams, tinda and gourds, banana stems and humble chana—making the journey to the high table. Sometimes, taking the street out of street food is a pretty good idea.