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All street food vendors make food that is more and more alike

I try and go every year to the Street Food Festival organised on the grounds of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium by the National Association of Street Vendors.

I go for three reasons. The first, and most important, is that the National Association of Street Vendors does great work in standing up for the rights of roadside food vendors, who are the most abused and exploited people in the entire food business.

 

I feel that all of us, who have some involvement in the food business, should do whatever we can to support the vendors, most of whom struggle to feed their families while being shaken down by policemen, municipal authorities and nearly everyone else in a position of authority.

 

   Secondly, anyone who writes about food must pay attention to the food of the Indian street. The kind of chaat that appeals to the middle class constitutes only a tiny part of India’s street food scene. The street food vendors exist not to please you, me and the other readers of Brunch, but to provide daily sustenance to all Indians; to those who can’t go home for lunch, often work too late to eat dinner at home and can’t even afford dhabas. They eat on the streets not because it is fun but because they have no choice.

 

   And finally, I go every year simply because I have a great time. The food is always interesting, some of it is quite terrific and the National Association of Street Vendors turns the grounds of the stadium into a mela with stand-up comics and live music.

 

   Here are some of the trends I noticed this year.

 

Bread Rules: There was a time when street food vendors liked to make their own wheat dough for dishes: the puris for golgappas, samosas, kachoris etc. That now seems to be changing.

 

   More and more of the street food guys are using commercial, pre-packaged, store-bought white bread as their primary staple. I reckon the trend towards bread in street food started in Mumbai where the Goan pao first made it to Mohammed Ali Road and began turning up in keema-pao and various other dishes. It was then adopted by the Gujaratis of the Cotton Exchange for paobhaji and most recently, became the basis of the Marathi hamburger, the Vada Pao.

 

   But what’s popular this year is not pao, which can be difficult to source but sliced bread of the sort that vendors in Mumbai only ever used before for the Bombay Sandwich. Presumably, this is because commercial bread is easy to find all over India.

 

   At stall after stall, run by vendors from all over India, bread turned up again and again. It was the centre of many omelet stalls. Usually they put the bread on the tava as the omelet was cooking so that the egg wrapped itself around the bread. There were endless deep-fried battered sandwiches, too. The bread pakora had, as we shall see, spawned a whole family of knock-offs.

 

Potato+Bread: If there is one thing I loathe it is the starch-on-starch sandwich. So you won’t find me enjoying the Mumbai vada pao or even the Gujarati dabeli, which, in my view, is a disgrace to one of India’s great cuisines.

 

   Clearly, I am in a minority of one in a country where even American fast food chains are forced to serve aloo tikki burgers. And judging by the stalls at the Festival, bread and potato have become like an old happily married couple.

 

   I am an equal opportunity loather so I also loathe the bread pakoras so beloved of Delhi canteens. But like some mutating virus, the bread pakora has turned into a whole series of deep-fried sandwiches. The general principle at many stalls was that no matter what the sandwich contained, it had to be battered and deep-fried.

 

   I hung around some of the stalls to see what was the most popular sandwich. The clear winner was a white bread sandwich with a masala dosa-type potato filling, battered and then deep fried till the edges were crisp.

 

   I would rather have the masala dosa myself but I guess this sandwich is easier to make and more filling.

 

"It is one of the ironies of the Indian street food scene that while the South has given us the three most popular pan-Indian fast food items – dosas, idlis and vadas – there is no real chaat tradition in much of South India."

Amul: All Gujaratis are pleased when our cuisine finds popularity all over India but I am a little ambivalent about the triumph of Amul, arguably the greatest brand to come out of Gujarat.

 

   At counter after counter, Amul products occupied pride of place. At some stalls, they charged extra if the dish was made with Amul butter. At some, the vendors kept a plastic carton of Amul cream by their side and added it to ‘premium’ products. There was also an inexplicable (to me, at least) obsession with grated Amul cheese. It ended up as a garnish on dish after dish.

 

   Some of this may have to do with the Indianisation of pizza. An omelet stall was offering ‘Pizza Omelet’. Intrigued by this unusual combination, I asked the vendor to make me one. (It was his top-priced, highly-premium speciality.) He put the egg mixture in the pan, rolled it around a slice of bread and then as the omelet was nearly ready, added pizza-toppings: sliced tomatoes, peppers and grated cheese. “Dekho. Yeh pizza bangaya!” he told me proudly. Well, okay!

 

Manchurian: I am continually shocked by the ability of ‘Manchurian’ to penetrate the heartland. Stalls from all over the country were serving some version of Manchurian. A vendor from Hyderabad offered ‘Ponna Tea’. And then, almost as an afterthought, he had pasted a piece of paper with a new specialty on the menu: “Hyd. Spl. VEG MANCHURIAN”. A Karnataka stall offered ‘Manglore bhajji, Ragi Roti with chatni, Gobhi Manchurian”.

 

   Since when did Gobhi Manchurian become so popular on the Mangalore streets?

 

   I tried making conversation with some of the stall holders to find out when Manchurian became an integral part of the Indian street food scene. I waited for them to tell me that there was new demand for this previously unknown dish. In fact, they looked at me as though I was mad. Did I not know what Manchurian was? One or two guys even offered to explain to me exactly what it was.

 

   So, I gave up.

 

Chicken: There were fewer non-vegetarian stall overall this year. I don’t know why this should be so but the folks at the National Association of Street Vendors told me that in Delhi, some vendors had been harassed by officials for selling non-vegetarian food. (You don’t need to be a genius to work out to which community many of those who sell kebabs, biryanis and the like belong.)

 

   Of the stalls that did sell non-vegetarian dishes, chicken was the clear favourite. There seemed to be two reasons for this. The first, according to vendors, was that people prefer to eat chicken when they eat out. The second, they said, was that chicken was easier to procure nowadays while meat supplies from butchers had become erratic. Make what you will of that.

 

North-South: It is one of the ironies of the Indian street food scene that while the South has given us the three most popular pan-Indian fast food items – dosas, idlis and vadas – there is no real chaat tradition in much of South India.

 

   One consequence of this is that the street food vendors of say, Kerala bring their curries and biryanis to the street food festival providing an authentic taste of Kerala without recourse to Amul butter, grated cheese or Modern bread.

 

   But the Southern vendors are nearly always at a dis-advantage because their food requires authentic ingredients and sliced bread and cream are not enough. At a Hyderabad chilli pakora stall, the guy who ran it complained to me that though he had scoured Delhi looking for flavourful chillis he simply had not been able to find them.

 

   Kushi Muhammad, who has sold biryani in Calicut for 15 years was downcast by his failure to find the right rice in Delhi. He had brought his masalas with him, he said. But he had assumed that he would get the smaller grained Kerala rice in the nation’s capital. When he couldn’t find any, he was reduced to making his biryani with normal rice (and chicken). I thought it tasted fine but he kept apologising for the inauthenticity.

 

And Finally: Anyone who believes that food trends don’t trickle down should see what street vendors are making. These guys never bothered with cheese, pizza, Manchurian, cream, different qualities of butter etc. till a decade ago.

 

   There is much to admire in their ingenuity. But personally, I was saddened to see that regional variations are being slowly eroded. With each passing year, all street food vendors (especially in North and Western India) make food that is more and more alike.

 

   I don’t blame them. It is a business, after all. But I do mourn the passing of the old regional variations and specialities.
 

 

Posted On: 03 Feb 2018 04:00 PM
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