Where I grew up, the dividing line between heroin and bhelpuri was very thin. Both substances were seen as illicit, terminally dangerous, addictive, and fell into the ranks of the strictly verboten.
I never did chase the dragon, because I found bhelpuri first. Like many middle-class Indian children, I’d grown up with dire warnings about street food. It would give you jaundice, cholera, typhoid and worse—incurable acne. The hawkers whose carts displayed tempting chuskis—virulently coloured fruit syrups, piles of ice shavings—and nimbu sodas in those bottles with the marble in the necks secretly added drugs to their wares, just to hook innocent children on the stuff for life. Anything with ice was easily disposed of—according to urban legend, kulfis, chuskis and any ice cream not from a Kwality cart was made of ice sourced from the morgue. Bhelpuri, golgappas, aaloo tikkis, paranthas, chaat were made with contaminated ingredients—and, people hinted, all sorts of bodily fluids made their way into those innocuous leaf plates. Momos and kababs peddled on the streets? They were made of dog meat, we were told, and this conjured up visions of insane momo makers armed with cleavers, sneaking up on poor Tommy or Raja.
With that sort of advertising, who could resist? My first experiment with “street food” involved those hideous ice creams, the ones that used to come in plastic tubes and that left sticky orange marks all over your uniform. I waited to die, and when I unaccountably survived without so much as an upset tummy, I became more daring. Jhal muri—puffed rice spiked with fiery mustard oil—on the streets of Calcutta; the sweet-sour riches of golgappas in the markets of Delhi; vada pav from hawkers’ stands in Bombay; kakori kababs in Lucknow’s Chowk. It was the most innocent and most sensuously satisfying of teenage rebellions—and yes, I do mean that. Sometimes the perfect momo really is better than sex.
What we in cities ate as a delightful snack, a break from monotony, was meant to be cheap, nutritious meals for workers on the run.
As you graduate from being a consumer to becoming, much to your surprise, a foodie, street food becomes the most complex of puzzles. Who was the first person to think of frying little discs of suji, stuffing them with potatoes and chana, and dunking them in three kinds of chutneys? How did the dosa remain by and large savoury, rarely moving towards the sweetness of a French crepe? (You can get chocolate dosas, I believe, but most of us sensibly stick with the glories of the paper, the masala and the Mysore masala.) When did chowmein become a dish as Indian as chhola bhatura or fruit chaat? Why did we embrace the hamburger and its variant, the McAloo burger, but not the hot dog? Is the inexorable spread of popcorn (butter, caramel, plain) going to kill off chana jor garam?
I spent more time than any reasonable human being should trying to puzzle out these questions, and to this day, I have very few answers. But it was not a fruitless quest: I have, like most Indians, a wealth of taste memories, carefully and jealously hoarded.
It was only when I began travelling around the country that the real truth of street food dawned on me: what we in the metros ate as a delightful snack, a break from the monotonous routine of daal-chaawal cooking, was actually meant to be cheap, nutritious meals for the worker on the run, the migrant labourer, those who couldn’t afford a McDonald’s burger or a Domino’s pizza.
On the roads of Bihar, we queued up along with labourers for sattu mixed in water, and discovered it was excellent fuel—that combination of dalia and baked gram provided enough energy for a hard day. I never took to churpi-yak cheese—in Sikkim or Ladakh (it tasted like used, hardened chewing gum to me) but fell in love with ema dashi (chillies with yak cheese) and a jellied chestnut preparation the local teenage girls were inordinately fond of.
Travelling in Andhra Pradesh fostered an addiction for bajjis and pakoras; the argument over whether the Andhra version of ‘jhal muri’ was superior or inferior to its Bengali counterpart sustained us all the way into Tamil Nadu, where I gorged on tender set dosas and miniature idlis. Could Bade Miyan’s baida rotis in Bombay compare with the kababs of Old Delhi? And which was better, anyway, the delicate flavours of Lakhnawi kababs, or the more robust but intricate tastes of the Hyderabadi versions? From Goa’s fried mussels on the beach to the mind-blowing shrikhand and dhoklas in Ahmedabad, I’m learning that every corner of this country can be taken on the tongue.
Many years after that first, astonishing bhelpuri—the crisp puffed rice, that explosion of tamarind, the slow taunting bite of the chillies, the soothing blandness of potatoes—I come across a description that sounds very familiar, on the menu of a five-star hotel restaurant: “An inspired melange of puffed rice and tender dices of potato, draped in a velvety date-tamarind sauce, lightly graced with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and fresh green chillies—or for the health-conscious, try our version with sprouts.”
This was just wrong on so many levels. (Anyone who would put sprouts into a helpless, inoffensive bhelpuri deserves to be flogged to death with celery sticks.) And though we’re used to eating chaat at weddings and even formal dinners, there is something jarring about eating street food—any kind of street food—in a five-star hotel.
I have the same reaction to eating street food that has unaccountably merged with fast food, in a bad marriage where no one checked the horoscopes. Maggi Noodle chaat, sold at different locations in Delhi, is a bastard freak, true to neither the fun of the original Maggi Noodles, nor to the delicate inventiveness of chaat.
In a parallel development, chowmein has become the scourge of our generation, the poor man’s nutrition-deficient fast food. Genuine streetfood chowmein was tasty and filled with vegetables; the impostor being sold to labourers across the country is msg held together with flour and soy sauce. And the epidemic of boiled American corn, with a few Indian spices chucked on top to make it palatable, is the ultimate swizzle: you could be eating Styrofoam pellets with chaat masala, not know the difference, and have the same, dubious nutritional benefits. Beware of street food mutants: they occupy the no man’s land between fast and street food, and have nothing to contribute to our lives except their empty calories.
It’s like this. I have good memories of street food (the adequate vadas, the reasonably good chhola-bhatura), and then I have great memories of street food. I’ve had some good eating experiences in specialty restaurants, food courts, even five-star hotels. But the great memories come from the “street” in “street food”.
It’s the way the Bombay crowds will open up and eddy past you if you’re eating vada-pav, making just enough space for you to eat with your elbows out. It’s the rain on the beaches of Goa contrasting with the heat from freshly caught and fried clams. It’s the grime that settles over the city of Ahmedabad and lightly coats everything, even the softies. It’s the hint of dirt under the fingernails of the phuchka-wala behind Calcutta’s Loreto College, the way the vendor of a simple yam chaat will taste a bit before offering you the plate, the casual way in which the rumali roti man will flip the roti with his sweaty but clean fingers. Take the germs, street food says, take the dirt, the sweat, the pollution from passing cars, because what we do with the dust and grime of everyday life is to make it palatable, irresistible, unforgettable.
(The author has edited A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food)