It all started with a plain dosa: one of those giant crisp pancakes made with fermented rice and lentil batter. It was 1998 and I was on my very first trip to India; there weren’t many places to stop and refuel on long, gruelling drives, but our driver knew the best places for a great South Indian dosa. A wafer thin, crisp rolled pancakes served with a coconut and a tomato chutney and sambar remain my favourite to this day.
My next memory was of a thali. Three of us, surrounded only by locals, devouring vegetarian thalis: a multi-course meal served in a round tray with half a dozen bowls, mounds of rice and a variety of vegetable and dal preparations, all replenished as many times as we wanted. We were also served a bottle of Sprite each and a banana to finish and the grand total was Rs 127.00 or GBP1.20. I’ve never forgotten it partly because it was my first attempt at eating rice and curry with my fingers. I was as hopeless as you can imagine (still am) and was ultimately, begrudgingly thrown a spoon.
Then came the Surekha Market which we would visit every Friday when I lived in Kanha National Park in Central India. She was always there, the wizened old lady in a scruffysari, squatting on her haunches beside a cobbled together fire atop which was a wok of bubbling oil, and she dished up the most delicious deep-fried lentil and chickpea pakoras, infused with coriander, chili and who knows what else. They were served on a square of newspaper with the sizzling hot oil oozing through. Even the staff at the wildlife camp thought I was mad to eat them, but they were my weekly addiction.
During my Kanha days, when Goverdhan Singh Rathore and a couple of his friends came to Kanha from Ranthambhore, we didn’t meet at a lodge as I’d expected to. No! Instead, we met at the local dhaba, supporting the, in those days, much overlooked local communities. On a cycling trip from Kochi, (at that time Cochin), it was a toddy shop that we stopped at for lunch, though to be honest, I’ve never developed a taste for toddy and when I asked my driver Manoj if we could stop so that I could try some of Kerala’s quintessential deep-fried banana chips, we drove an additional 45 minutes to a place he knew of just outside Palakkad. Far to the north, in Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, it’s positively rude not to stop at Moti’s for the largest jalebi you’ve ever seen and when driving to the Osian temples from Jodhpur, we always stopped at the famous kachori seller, who has sadly passed on since. In Bhopal, poha made with beaten rice and jalebi is the only way to go, that knocked dosas off the top spot for me.
Hang around New Delhi and it doesn’t take long before you notice a long line of Mercedes & BMWs outside the impressively scruffy and otherwise unassuming Kake da Dhaba in Connaught Place. Friends visiting from Kota will bring you a special mithai. In the mountains, it’s Maggi instant noodles or momos – those popular steamed Tibetan dumplings – all the way. There are also seasonal treats. For example, anyone in the know, heads to Old Delhi’s open-air markets on the festival of Eid. The list is endless. I’m sure you’ve got the picture!
People have always been aghast. OMG, you eat street food? Listen, I dream of Delhi Belly… and it’s never happened yet.
If living in India taught me one thing, it is that street food isn’t just a snack to fill you up. No, it’s a feeling, it evokes memories, conjures a smile and invariably an anecdote. One doesn’t just eat street food, one participates in a whole emotive experience. To diss India’s street food is to attack her very soul. The first time I ever got trolled on social media was when I dared to question the obsession with Maggi.
No matter where I mentioned I was traveling to, guaranteed at least two my Indian friends would immediately instruct me where to head for the street food. It’s never, ‘You should,’ but always, “You MUST!’ At the mere mention of Amritsar or Lucknow, Delhi friends would immediately shout out their favourite joint and then would be lost in wistful memories of their visits. I once mentioned I was traveling to Indore on FB and I’m still astounded to this day that the site didn’t crash with frantic messages of where to visit in Sarafa Bazaar. This street that sells silverware by day, metamorphoses into rows of street stalls by night. Each seller has his speciality. All of them are irresistible, expertly spiced and without exception, completely vegetarian!
Despite having become reasonably au fait with India’s street food, there is no way I could comment on what and where and why when it comes to what is considered the best and so I put it to my trusted fellow Indian colleagues, avid travellers and travel writers, there can be no better judges.
- There was a hot favourite and that was vada pav in Mumbai, too many people listed that to mention including Pradeep Murthy from Muddy Boots Vacations, Gaurav Bhatnagar from The Folk Tales, and travel writer Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, none of them Mumbaikers.
2. Varun Narain Mathur, my mentor and brilliant wildlifer was the only vague one and oddly the only person to mention meat; his comment, “I don’t really have a favourite. I would think kebabs or tikkas. I’d prefer meat over chaat.” I’ve always advocated veg over meat just in terms of it being a safer option, but chaat over meat, I’m not so sure.
3. Rajiv Yadav from Royal India Bikes was samosas all the way, and from all over India, though in the evening he switches to papdi chaat.
4. Bomti Iyengar opted for a Kathi Roll at Nizams in Kolkata; not a bad choice, after all, it is where they were ‘invented.’
Then people started getting a little more anecdotal:
5. Vaibhav Kala founder of Aquaterra Adventures: ‘Papri Chaat, Bengali Market (for the 1990’s old days feel).’
6. Anu Dhillon Singh from Chambal Safari Lodge: “Gol Gappas aka pani-puri from anywhere really. Most cities have subtle (or not so) variations in the fillings. Agra is the very spicy mint based pani filling, Punjab tends to be milder, and the preference is for tamarind flavour. Also, chole bhature: used to love the ones opposite the New Delhi railway station when I felt adventurous and the ones at Bengali Sweets in South Ex when the doc warned me of the zoo growing inside me!”
7. Shilpa Sharma, founder of Mustard Restaurant in Mumbai & Goa: “Puchkas/panipuri (Kolkata and just about anywhere else) followed by vada pav quintessential from Mumbai.
My favourite dish (not one but many) rajma chawal/aloo tikki/kulchey choley/kulfi.’
The only mention of that delicate and delicious Indian ice cream, yes, it seems Indians ditch their famous sweet tooth for street food!
8. Travel writer Kalpana Sunder: ‘”Mumbai’s toasted sandwiches…. they are delish stuffed with spiced potato mix, onions, green chutney and cheese, very much a Mumbai concept for office goers. Plenty at Nariman Point.”
9. Journalist P D’Souza: “Paani Puri but I’ve moved off the streets into the shops – I love Kailas Parbat in Colaba, Karachiwala and Punjab Sweet House, Bandra.”
10. Ajit Rana founder of Overlander India: “My favourite street food would be chole bhature. Roshan Di Kulfi in Karol Bagh is awesome! Having said that, in semi-street-food, I just die for the prawn biryani in Gajalee in Vile Parle, Mumbai. I very often ask friends/relatives travelling from Mumbai to pack 8 to 10 portions for me and bring it to me. One time I was in Mumbai (2003 I think) I packed 12 portions of hot prawn biryani on my way to the airport and then had to hand carry it on the flight. Needless to say, the entire cabin had the aroma of a freshly cooked prawn biryani. I don’t think that went down very well with vegetarian travellers! Hahaha… Good old days of travel.“
11. Julie Kagti founder of Curtain Call Adventures: “Momos: dumplings with stuffing usually minced red meat served with a chutney made of charred onions, chillies and tomato.’
Of course, NE food and textiles expert Julie couldn’t leave it there.
“Momos actually are not a part of any traditional indigenous North Eastern cuisine. Originally from Tibet, the dumpling was stuffed with minced yak meat. When the Bhutia tribe migrated, they bought it into Sikkim. Over time, it has become the most popular dish in the Northeast. Every town, city and major village has its fair share of Momo makers. Pork, chicken, paneer, cheese and vegetable are the varieties available. Slowly along with the influx of students and workers from the region to other parts of the country this delicious health snack found its way into the mainstream list of popular Indian short eats and street food. Tiny home shops along some mountain trek routes sell hot steaming ones to trekkers. Oh, it really hits the right spot to recharge me.’
12. Marryam H Reshii, Food Editor of The TOI and author of The Flavour of Spice: “Bhalla Papdi: half the plate is dahi bhallas (soft and laden with dahi) and the other half is papdis: crisp with sweet-sour sauce. Heaven on a plate (dust and germs are free). At Padam Chaat Corner, Kinari Bazar, Chandni Chowk.” And she should know!
13. Anamika Singh founder of Anandini Himalaya tea: ‘The best street food for me has got to be ‘Gol guppe’ or puchka, pani puri, water balls, the different names it’s called across India. And my favorite has to be this tiny, clean roadside shack in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi. It goes by the name Sri Ram Chaat. But the way they serve you in any roadside stall in Calcutta is exceptionally out of the world. The words “atithi devo bhava”, that translates to “guest is God” brings in true meaning there on the street. The man selling golguppa will customise for each person standing in front of his stall, irrespective of how many there are. Some like the water sweet, salty, sour, some love a mix of it all. Even the spiciness and salt content of the potato that’s added to the golguppa is added as per your satisfaction. Nothing is generalised! Golguppa are a mouthful of heaven that have funk music playing in the background!”
And I can’t think of a better comment to end this on!
For more on just how important food can be in India: The value of the perfectly round roti.