By all counts – culturally, geographically or linguistically, India is a very diverse country. This diversity is reflected in the food and by extension, the Street food. It would be hubris on my part to even imagine that I could write about all the street food in India, I honestly haven’t eaten food across my city, let alone the country. While speaking to my friend Hari recently regarding street food, he came up with this idea of writing about street food, literally on one street or a couple of streets. So he went down to Coles Park in Bangalore on a Sunday evening armed with his camera and sent me a few pictures of the food sold around the park. I’m just the scribe here, describing the food, relying on memories of my childhood from many summers ago! So lets go for a walk through Coles Park and taste some of the street fare.
Let’s start with the raw thotapuri mangoes. We used to also call them poly mangoes when we were growing up. The vendor usually has the mangoes arranged in a circular basket attached to the “carrier” of his cycle or on a push cart. On ordering a mango, the vendor makes slits across the mango lenghtwise, gently pries the slices open and smears the insides liberally with a mixture of salt and chilli powder. The mango is then served on a square of newspaper. You can pry each slice from the mango and eat the slice with the peel. The seed would be tackled at the end once we had disposed off with all the fleshy slices of mango. This is a seasonal fruit and is available only in summer. The mango vendor also sells cucumbers, which are peeled and slit lengthwise and served with the salt and chilli powder combination.
To a large extent, the fruits sold reflect the season. Summers are hot in India and even though Bangalore was cool in the seventies and eighties while I was growing up, it is pretty hot now. Watermelons and papayas are a popular snack. Watermelon especially is pretty much all water and an excellent fruit to slake one’s thirst. I haven’t really eaten seedless watermelons in India, we would just spit the seeds out into a paper bag. The watermelon vendor usually has a large pile of watermelons stacked on the side of the street. He sells the watermelons whole or also sells slices. The slices, wedges really, usually have the rind removed and can be eaten as is or with some salt and chill powder added to them. When buying the watermelon whole, the vendor usually cuts a small wedge to prove how red the watermelon is on the inside. The watermelon vendor is usually not mobile, his large inventory of watermelons usually implies that he is stationary. At nights, he covers his pile of watermelons with a Tarp and secures them.
The papaya vendor is mobile. Papayas are stacked on a cart and the vendor has some attractive cubes of papaya pieces on display in a glass case. As with everything else, newspaper is the universal medium to package street food. While the newspaper industry is under siege in the west facing tremendous pressures from the web, social media etc, India has a thriving newspaper industry reflected by the sheer number of English as well as vernacular newspapers. Newspapers are recycled and many of them find their way to street food vendors who probably buy them from a “raddi walla” or scrap paper merchant. Cold, ripe papayas are refreshing on a hot summer day. Incidentally, raw papayas also find use as a meat tenderizer while making seekh kababs.
Then there is the ubiquitous chaat vendor. Chaat is primarily of North Indian origin but is popular all over India. One can write a treatise on the variety of chaats and when one speaks of street food in India, people are usually referring to some form of chaat. Lets take a look at the chaat that is available at the chaatwallah at Coles Park. There is pani-puri or gol-gappa. A puri at its essence is a form of Indian bread which when fried, puffs up. The puri in this case stays crispy for a long time and has a thin shell. Panipuris are made by punching a hole on one side of the puri and then filling the cavity with a mixture of lightly mashed boiled potatoes, boiled mung bean/peas/chick peas, chopped onions, cilantro chutney, tamarind chutney and the whole puri is then dunked in the pani – tamarind/mint flavored water. The puri is then eaten whole and explodes in the mouth with a sensation of textures and flavors. The puri gets soggy if it is left for a while and so the vendor usually fills the puri with all the fillings and hands it over to the customer with the pani in a container so the customer can dunk the puris in the container.
Next up are aloo tikkis. These are potato cutlets made with boiled, mashed potatoes and spices. These are served either with cilantro and tamarind chutneys or they can be served along with a spicy chick pea curry, yogurt, cilantro/tamarind chutneys and sev. Aloo tikkis are the heart shaped patties kept warm on the griddle. Close to the aloo tikkis are the samosas. These are fried crispy pastries filled with a spicy potato and peas filling. These can be eaten by themselves along with chutneys or transformed into samosa chaat. You could also go for the sevpuri which is similar to the other chaats, the base though is made with a flat puri that is then loaded with garnishes such as a pea/chick pea curry, chopped onions, tomatoes, chutneys and the sev – which can be best described as fine, crunchy noodles made from chick pea flour. Last but not the least is Bhel Puri. Bhel puri is made with puffed rice, sev and what is best described as “mixture” a variety of fried snacks as the base with chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro and tamarind/date chutney along with chopped cilantro as the garnish. The various chaats described here reflect the culinary diversity of India. While panipuri is probably of UP origin bhelpuri likely originated from Gujarat and sevpuri from Bombay. These have now spread all across India and available at street corners everywhere.
All the fried, savory, tangy food is enough to get you thirsty and you have a couple of choices. You can either go for tender coconut water or for sugarcane juice. I have already written an ode to the coconut and so for this post, I will focus on the sugarcane juice. Entire sugarcanes are crushed between two rollers that are either mechanized or manually operated. The vendor makes several passes of the sugarcane to extract as much juice as possible. You do have a choice of requesting crushed ginger in your juice along with a squeeze of lime. Juice with ice costs less than just the pure juice. The end result is a frothy, milky juice that is delicious! When I was growing up, the sugarcane roller was hand operated and if there was a swarm of flies buzzing around the vendor, we were forbidden from drinking the juice. I remember when I had jaundice, I was on a strict diet that pretty much forbade me from eating anything that was tasty or delicious. An exception was sugarcane juice that is considered good for jaundice! Coming back to the tender coconut, it is the safest bet when you are travelling in India.
We are at the end of our walk and if you still have room in your stomach, we could stop by at the ice-cream/kulfi stall. There are a variety of ice creams sold but your best bet would be to go for kulfi, creamy Indian ice cream that is flavored with cardamom and optionally garnished with dry fruits. When I was growing up, the moulds, surrounded by ice were stored in earthen pots – matkas and were either sold cubed or on a stick. Kulfis are denser and creamier than ice creams and are a great way to end the evening!
Missing today was the guava man and the “bhutta” man. Guavas are in season in summer and are eaten just like the totapuri mangoes – along with salt and chilli powder. The “bhutta” man sells corn either roasted or boiled. The roasted corn is very popular. Ears of corn are placed on glowing embers that are fanned to control the heat. When the corn has roasted, the vendor squeezes lime juice and applies a liberal coat of spicy cilantro chutney or just salt and chilli powder and returns the ear to the embers. A spicy aroma fills the air accompanied by crackling sounds as the now moist corn comes in contact with the coal. The stem of the corn forms a convenient handle to eat the resulting hot, spicy ear of corn.
I hope you enjoyed our walk around Coles Park. There are many such parks and street corners across India where you can eat a variety of delicious street food. My parents frowned upon street food when we were growing up since they were not always hygienic and there was always the threat of waterborne diseases. We would avoid places that looked unhygienic, dirty or had swarms of flies and would stick to a few trusted vendors or eat at small establishments that had chaat on their menu. Almost every town and city in India has a popular street corner where different vendors congregate in the evenings. If you are travelling in India and would like to savor its street food and are in doubt – there is the Lonely Planet guide to Indian street food!