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The future of Indian street food is safe

During the pandemic and the lockdown, our hearts went out to the migrant workers who were suddenly rendered jobless and had to walk home.

There was another group of people who suffered greatly but never quite got the public attention or sympathy they deserved.


Street vendors are at the very bottom of the food pyramid. They barely make enough money each day to feed their families, and they are constantly harassed and shaken down by the police and municipal authorities. They live a precarious existence, and though some of them have now become well-established with a dedicated clientele, the vast majority of India’s street food vendors are not in this sector for love. They do it because, in an economy where employment options are limited, they have no choice.


   But because it is a competitive business, they quickly learn that unless their food is of good quality, they will perish.


   So, even though we like to say that the reason India has some of the world’s best street food is because of a glorious tradition, it may be more accurate to say that it is also because of necessity. The vendors need to feed their children.


   Each year the National Association of Street Vendors (NASVI) organises a street-food festival in Delhi. It links up with local vendor organisations all over India and hundreds of vendors travel to Delhi to show off their food. It is, for me at least, the foodie event of the year, and as time has gone on, I have become more and more involved in it. And my friend Sameer Sain (whose views on the contribution of vendors to Indian food are as passionate as mine) has put his own money into helping the festival and financing awards for the best vendors.


   Though I present the awards every year, they are judged by some of India’s best chefs, ranging from Manish Mehrotra to Ritu Dalmia. This year the judges included Anahita Dhondy Bhandari and Sahil Mehta.


   The festival halted during the Covid pandemic and though NASVI did its best to help vendors, most of them suffered terribly because their stalls were shut during the lockdown. Even when restaurants re-opened for delivery, the vendors were not allowed to deliver. And a certain illiterate prejudice spread. People began to believe that Covid was spread through food and vendors were shunned or treated as sources of infection.


   This year, when the festival resumed, the vendors finally arrived in Delhi, apprehensive about how they would be received. Would people flock to the festival as they had in previous years? Or would they still treat street food with suspicion? To make matters worse, pollution in Delhi was at a high and as the event was held outdoors, there was concern that people might stay away.


"There were crowds outside a stall selling chicken with sticky rice from Manipur. And the other North Eastern stalls were also big hits." 

   As it turned out, the festival was jam-packed, though both Sangeeta Singh of NASVI (who organises the festival) and I noticed a change. Whereas earlier the crowds had consisted mainly of families, now there were many young couples (without children) who seemed to treat a visit to the festival as a date-like outing!


   And the average age of visitors was much lower. Sangeeta worried that older people had stayed away because of fears about the safety of street food, but I was quite pleased that young people should be so keen to come. It demonstrated to me that the future of Indian street food is secure and not threatened by the increasing affluence of our society.


   The vendors themselves were much more worried about hygiene than before, given the criticism that had been heaped on them during the pandemic. The water was always clean, many of them used plastic gloves and so on.


   As for the food, I did not notice too many new trends in the dishes. In previous years, I have watched as bottled sauces, white bread, eggs and cheese have steadily infiltrated traditional dishes. But this time, I didn’t find very much that was new.


   What did interest me though was how much public tastes (at least, the tastes of the Delhi crowd) were changing. The top grosser was a stall that sold roller ice-cream/kulfi. If you have never come across this before, it is ice-cream/kulfi on a large roller (like a giant Kleenex roll), from which the vendor shaves off slices. At a time when the industrial ice-cream sector is exploding, I thought it was significant that this street-food operation was the most popular stall.


   Then, there were other surprises. Rakesh Sharma who made a simple Rajasthani thali, ran the second most popular stall. Why a Rajasthani thali? What made that so popular? Search me.


   Less surprising was the success of a stall that served Daulat ki Chaat, a UP dessert that has an Old Delhi version. The quality was spectacular, so either people flocked to it for its taste or it was just that while the fame of Daulat Ki Chaat has spread, it is still relatively hard to find.


   I was not surprised by the huge revenues earned by a stall that served Bihari Litti Mutton and Litti Chokha. Bihar gets a raw deal in the food scene, but when people try its food they nearly always like it. The Jharkhand stalls also did well.


   The big surprise was the popularity of stalls serving food from the North East. There were crowds outside a stall selling chicken with sticky rice from Manipur. And the other North Eastern stalls were also big hits. Was it novelty value? Or are we finally discovering the food of our North Eastern states?


   Mumbai did relatively badly. This could be due to the quality of the individual stalls, but the big hit from Maharashtra was a vendor from Nagpur. Delhi went crazy for misal, channa and poha. It was almost as though they had never seen these dishes before.


   Of course, everything that was popular was not the best. My favourite stall, and the one the judges gave the overall top prize to, was a guy called Paramjit, who made a churchur naan that was to die for, and served it with chhole. But the Punjab stall that got the crowds was a guy who made kulhar pizza. No surprises there, I guess. Naans were just too boring for most visitors.


   Opinions about food are subjective, so I won’t complain too much. But it was good to see the vendors happy again. The long nightmare of the lockdown is over and their children are well-fed and laughing and playing happily.



Posted On: 24 Mar 2023 11:43 AM
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