The pandemic may have emptied the food carts but India remains the land where regional palates define diversity
Amit Khanna | 21 Aug, 2020
We love street food. Every town or city has its own. For months now, most of us have been missing our palate fix at our neighbourhood joint. One of the pleasures (and business for millions) affected by the Covid-19 pandemic has been the absence of food carts, hawkers and other sellers of a variety of yummy foods. Who has not missed lip-smacking chaat, dosa-idli, momos, paratha, chole bhature, kebabs, pav bhaaji, even the humble bhutta (corn) or chana seng (peanut) and the omnipresent Maggi? Millions of people in India from the homeless labourer, hungry schoolkids, itinerant salesmen, officegoers, picnickers, tourists, friends and families on evening outs line up at the cart or stall, some for a cheap bite, others for sheer gastronomic pleasure.
The history of street food goes back several millennia. All ancient cultures have records of street corners, places of worship and wayside stops for travellers having hawkers or small shops selling eatables. In fact, a lot of traditional cuisines have evolved from street food. It is said in India language and taste change every few kilometres. However, many of these popular bites have become pan-India. For example, the south Indian staple dosa and idli with sambhar and coconut chutney can be found all over India on every street corner. Similarly, puri aloo is available at every railway station across the country. Ice-cream carts are ubiquitous in India, even in the rural areas.
We all have our individual favourites. Some of this is linked to nostalgia. It is often said childhood tastes linger on the palate through your life. A bit of a foodie, I have sampled a lot of street food wherever I have travelled. Let’s take a trip across India and see some of the most popular street foods in different cities. Given below are some of my recommendations, though I must add that I have relished some of them years ago. The taste lingers on regardless.
Let’s start with Hyderabad. Hyderabadi cuisine is an eclectic amalgam of Mughlai, Turkish, rustic Andhra taste with hints of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka cuisines. It’s a great foodie city. The area around the famous Charminar offers a variety of stalls and small restaurants selling all kinds of kebabs, and of course, the famous Hyderabad biryani (try the kachche gosht ki biryani) which can be relished in one of the many popular eateries like Paradise and Badshah, besides a number of small stalls in the old city. Another Hyderabadi specialty is haleem—a mash-up of lentils, rice and broken wheat. A unique tradition of Hyderabad are the bandis, including Ram ki bandi in Nympalli, Lakshman ki bandi also in Nympally, Govind bandi in Gulzar Hauz, Masala bandi in Madhopur and Babai bandi in Kompally. Little joints selling Andhra and Telangana cuisine (fiery and fragrant) and popular snacks like dosa, vadas and idlis. Osmania biscuits and Sulemani chai are other Hyderabad favourites. A peculiar Deccani twist to Mughlai food is the hallmark of Hyderabad cuisine, though now a lot of the fiery Andhra (and Telangana) foods are also popular. One can get dosa, idli, sambhar and chaat at various joints. Try Hyderabadi dal and baghare baingan if you like vegetarian stuff. Two distinctive desserts of Hyderabad are khubani ka meetha (stewed apricots in syrup) and double ka meetha, a type of bread pudding.
At Indore, once the seat of the Holkar kingdom, the local food has a lot of Maharashtrian influence. A bit of Rajasthani taste also creeps in. One of India’s largest night market of street food springs up at the Sarafa area in Indore after 7 pm. As the jewellers down their shutters, up come food stalls offering a range of delectable fare. Thousands of locals and tourists throng every night to savour delicacies like garadu (yam) ki chaat, bhutte ki kees, copra patties, jalebi and sabu dana khichdi. Joshi’s dal badas, made famous on several food shows on TV, are still a must have. Indore’s signature breakfast is poha and jalebi. Another unique Indori speciality is doodh chana, where kabuli chana is cooked in milk and served in a tangy, spicy avatar.
Manek Chowk in old Ahmedabad is the equivalent of Indore’s Sarafa. Here, every night, thousands looking for a quick bite or a late-night meal turn up. One can get the usual chaat, pav bhaji, bhelpuri and assorted variety of dosa, including the intriguing ghotala dosa, which has a scrambled egg filling. Manek Chowk is specially known for its sweet sandwiches like chocolate and pineapple sandwiches. You will also get a variety of ice-creams and kulfi and juices.
Other popular food haunts in Ahmedabad can be found in the Law Garden area and the Food Truck Park on the Gandhinagar highway. Incidentally, this food park also has several food trucks offering a range of fast foods. Guajarati cuisine has an interesting mix of sweet and savoury. Since the majority are vegetarian, the street food reflects this. Contrary to popular perception, one can get excellent non-vegetarian food in Ahmedabad. A visit to Bhatiyar Gali in the walled city will get you an array of kababs, tandoori food and biryanis. There is a place where one can sample traditional Bohri food too. Another popular destination for kebabs is Baghdad Fry Centre near St Xavier’s School in Khanpur. Carts selling omelettes and bread are very popular all over the city as are little stalls selling savouries—farshan-like khamman, dhokla, fafada, hundiyo, khandvi, gathiya, kachoris are all time favourite snacks of the Ahmedabadis.
Thiruvananthapuram has a vibrant food culture too. Of course, some popular items like idli, dosa, chaat and sandwiches are now available everywhere. It’s the local specialities which are a must-have. In Thiruvananthapuram, appams, idiyappams and puttu are the popular local snacks. Basically, they are made from steamed rice flour and eaten with ghee, chutney, palm jaggery and stews. Malabari parathas are famous even outside Kerala. These flaky parathas are eaten with fiery curries, including chicken, lamb and beef. One can get various kinds of seafood—from prawns, clams and fish, including mackerel, sardine, pomfret, tuna, salmon and seer fish. The delicately flavoured, coconut-based fish moilee is very popular. Kerala red rice is not only healthy but delicious. Tapioca (sago) is another favourite starch in Thiruvananthapuram and one must eat kappa (a type of tapioca upma) and jawarsi payasam (sago kheer). Banana chips and bajjis (fritters) are a favourite snack with tea. One must also try the distinctive Malabari biriyani, which is sold around the city.
Goa is a foodie’s paradise. Wherever you are in Goa, you are spoilt for choice. Try pao or sannas with curry of your choice. Goan Hindu food is flavoured with the sour kokum and coconut while the Portuguese-influenced vindaloo, cafreal and xacuti are vinegar-based with onions and tomatoes (both brought to India by the Portuguese).
Chorizo (Goan sausages) is a famous delicacy in Goa. Locals enjoy it as a breakfast item or even as a tea-time snack. Eaten with bread, this spicy pork meat preparation is made using a pre-cooked sausage, onions and sometimes potatoes.
In Goa, non-vegetarian delicacies are popular. If you are a meat eater, you have to try the non-vegetarian snacks served at the small local cafés. In places like Vasco, Mapusa, Panaji and Margo, you’ll find a variety of chicken, mutton and beef snacks that are delicious to pick up and eat while you walk around. The most popular non-vegetarian snacks in Goa are croquettes, potato chops and samosas.
Usually, Candolim Market and the street adjoining to it is the one-stop solution for all local food cravings.
Almost all the beaches like Baga, Calangute, Arambulo, Veloso have may food stalls selling all kinds of inexpensive fare from sorpotel and vindaloo to pav bhaji and hamburgers and fish curry rice, dosas and chaat. Coconut water is available all over as is feni, the local cashew-based liquor. Across numerous small shops and stalls, delicious food is to be found aplenty—the Goan fish or prawn curry, shark ambotik, chicken xacuti, pork vindaloo, sorpotel, feijoada, chicken cafreal, sorak, samarachi kodi, khatkhate and bebinca. These are some of the dishes one should try when in Goa.
Chatori Gali is to Bhopal what Chandni Chowk is to Delhi, or Mohammed Ali Road is to Mumbai. If you happen to come to this food heaven, you simply cannot miss the mutton paya soup, lamb slow-boiled in a broth all day long and delicately spiced. In fact, another famous place is Cycle Soupwala in Ashoka Garden that tosses up an array of piping hot vegetable soups. Bhopal has many neighbourhood kebab stalls of which Jameel near Moti Masjid is well known, both for its kebabs as well as mutton stew and biryani. Afghan serves the most delicious fish curry and Ghazals, a mean bater (quail) curry. Around Bhopal’s famous lake, you can savour poha, jalebi, chaat and ice-creams. Bhopal has a unique tradition of baint baazi (impromptu poetry) and Sulemani tea or meethi lassi. A number of food trucks selling anything from chow to burgers, dosas, sandwiches, dahi badas and dosas can be found in the Arera Colony area. Shahi tukda, kulfi and rabri are the popular desserts which you can find aplenty in Kohe Fiza near Taj ul Masjid.
Now Lucknow not only boasts of a long tradition of the famous Awadhi food, it is also one of the great street food cities of India. The chowk in the old city is where the foodies still go for their culinary fix. Here you can drool on Tunday’s kebabs, Idris’ biryani and Rahim’s nihari kulcha or try poori chole/aloo at Prem Misthan Bhandar or an assortment of sweets, including the famous malai paan and parwal ki mithai, at Chotelal Misthan. You also get the best nimish (makhan mali) in the chowk. Another place to head for Mughlai delicacies is Bawarchi Tola in Kaiser Baugh where Haji’s biryani is to die for.
Lucknow is also famous for its chaat and its denizens relish a whole range of the spicy snack. Some of its authentic food destinations include Ram Narain Tiwari Chaatwala at Ganesh Ganj with his special hing-flavoured batashas (pani puri). Shree Kalika Chaat Bhandar near Naaz Cinema in Aminabad serves the best mutter tikiya and papdi chaat. Similarly, Jain Chaat near Novelty Chowk is well known for his chaat too. Mithai is another Lucknow speciality. Malai paan, pedhas, rabri and various kinds of barfis are relished here. Thandai and kulfi are also available, and Prakash Kulfi is the go-to place in Gomti Nagar for kulfis. Of course, you can sample Lucknowi cuisine in one of the many food courts in the several malls in the city. Hazratganj in the heart of Lucknow is a popular haunt for the locals as well as tourists for the sheer variety of food it offers.
Jaipur is another city known for its street food. You get the best chaat near Birla Mandir and Jawahar Circle. Mirchi pakora and pyaaz kachori are two Rajasthani specialities popular all over Jaipur. Rawat Misthan Bhandar opposite Polo Victory Cinema is known for its kachori and samosas. Lassi Wala on MI Road is an institution by itself. Pandits near Birla Mandir is known for its pav bhaji. Dal Baati Choorma, basically tempered arhar dal, had with crushed boondi and baati, a baked ball of bajra and/or wheat with dollops of ghee, is the quintessential Rajasthani delight and can be sampled in a number of local restaurants like Chokhi Dhaani (a mini gourmet village) or at most hotel buffets. Of course, Jaipuris love their sweet too—ghevar, moong dal halwa, pheni (sweet dry rice vermicelli), mohan thal, imarti and various kinds of kheers, rabris and kulfis.
Amritsar ranks among ultimate food destinations in India. A visit to the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine (you have to taste its kada prasad) and a trip to Jallianwala Bagh is a given but no one goes to Amritsar and not taste its yummy food. A number of iconic food joints are a must visit. Have your fill of stuffed kulcha with kaali dal and chole with a glass of lassi at Puran Da Dhaba or Bhrawan Da Dhaba and robust Punjabi vegetarian meal at Keasar Da Dhaba and the traditional fried fish at Makhan Fish. Surjeet Food Plaza on Lawrence Road is known for its tikkas and kebabs. Pal Da Dhaba is the go-to place for keema parathas and paya (kharoda in Punjabi) soup. For those with sweet cravings, kulfi falooda at A One and Prem Nath Kulfi Wala at Hall Bazaar, lassi at Gian’s and Ahuja (Katra Ahluwalia), jalebi at Gurdas Ram and gulab jamun at Sharma Sweets, Lawrence Road, are a must.
Today, Bengaluru may be known for its trendy restaurants, cafés and pubs but for me the association with food in the city dates back to 1972. While filming Dev Anand’s Heera Panna, a few of us decided to explore the gastronomic delights of the city—morning breakfast at Mavalli Tiffin Rooms even if it meant getting up at 6 in the morning to stand in line outside at the legendary MTR—the taste of the soft idlis and crisp dosas, the taste of hot pungent sambhar and coconut chutney still lingers. Another old favourite is Central Tiffin Room (CTR) Shri Sagar in Malleswaram.
Food Street in VV Puram and Eat Street in Koramangala are two favourite Bengaluru food destinations. Here, you will get not only Kannadiga food specialities, including the much-liked Mysore dosa, Mangalore buns (fluffy puris made with banana), idlis, uttappam, neer dosa and bisi bele bhaat (a variant of the khichdi). Go to Mudde Madappa Mess at Gandhi Nagar for some authentic Karnataka cuisine, including raggi mudde. Shivraj Bhaji Cart in Vijayanagar, Basavaraj’s Bhaji Bandi in JP Nagar and Pramod’s Jalebi & Bhaji in Koramangala are a must for kaapi (coffee) and spicy bajjis (pakoras) of chillies, bananas, onions, and of course, aloo bonda and vadas.
Bengaluru is a cosmopolitan city so you will get the usual chaat, bhel, momos, puri aloo and desi Chinese stuff in every corner. There are now many stalls and carts selling kebabs, fried fish, prawn gassi and rice and even tandoori favourites.
Delhi and Mumbai are the street food capitals of India. Let’s take a round of Delhi first. The origin of all Delhi street food goes back to the Walled City, except what the Punjabi refugees brought to the capital after the Partition. Old Delhi has a rich tradition of both vegetarian fare with strong influence from Western UP as well as non-vegetarian food coming from the Mughal tradition. Some elements of rural cuisine from Punjab (sarson ka saag, makki ki roti), Rajasthan (bajra roti, badi and papad).
Chandni Chowk with its meanderings galis (lanes) is a food lovers’ paradise. So go to Parathewali Gali and try its two-hundred-year-old tradition of deep-fried parathas with aloo and kaddu ki sabzi. Nearby, in Dariba, you will still have a large crowd outside the corner Jalebi Wala, which has been around since 1884, or delve further and discover the famed Daulat Ki Chaat (makhan malai) and revri and gazak. You will also come across several hawkers dishing out moong dal pakoris or shakarkandi or dal sev. Across the street, near Central Bank of India, is the now fancy Natraj Dahi Bhalla, whose soft dahi bhalla with an assortment of chutneys and aloo tikki are still as lip-smacking as they were 90 years ago. Next to it is Bishan Swaroop Chaat Wala who sells delicious chaat, including suji (semolina) golgappas and aloo chaat. A further down in Chawri Bazar you will get several other chaat shops, each as famous as the other. One can also try the unique kalmi bade (deep-fried urad dal fritters), kulle (scooped out boiled potatoes filled with chickpeas) and other relishes. Fruit chaat is another Old Delhi favourite. Since the Partition, Chole bhature (and kulcha) are amongst the most popular Delhi street food. You will find these cholewalas outside all schools and colleges, offices and shopping streets. Among the most famous ones are Lotan Chole Wala near Manohar Market, a landmark since the 1920s. Golle di Hatti in Khari Baoli is another go-to place for chole bhature. Another very old destination for the snack as well as chawal chole is Nands at Sadar Bazar. Most days they have sold out their entire stock by the afternoon. Nearby, next to the tonga stand, one must try Sardarji Meat Wala’s meat chawal.
Any writeup on Delhi street food must mention bedmi aloo (urad dal-stuffed puri with spicy potato curry and tangy methi dana chutney). In Chandni Chowk, you will get bedmi aloo in shops which have been around for decades. From Lajpat Rai Market to Fatehpuri, just hop into one of these stalls and get your fill of a typical Delhi breakfast. Top it with a glass of lassi. Shyam Sweets, Ram Swaroop Halwai, Shiv Misthan are a few of the popular ones. Of course, now bedmi aloo is available across most halwais and food courts all over the city. A lesser known variation is nagori halwa or mathi halwa, which can be savoured in many places from Chandni Chowk. Bazar Sitaram is another street where all chaat lovers must visit at least once in their lifetime. From Ajmeri Gate till Chandni Chowk are a host of legendary chaat walas who sell everything from matar kulcha, papdi chaat, golgappas, besan ke chille, aloo chaat. Many shops here are over a hundred years old and are now regularly featured on various food walks and street-food guides. Kuremal ki Kulfi is to die for. You also get the great kulfi at Gianis in Fatehpuri and Dulli Chand and Babubhai, also in the vicinity. There are a couple of hawkers selling kulfi near Moti Cinema. In Lajpat Rai Market, you can still get katlama (a kind of luchchi originally from Lahore) and Japani samosa, a flaky version of the traditional samosa. In fact, the area is teeming with hawkers selling all kinds of chaats, pakoras and other snacks at a very reasonable cost.
If you love your kormas, salans, shorbas, biryani and kebabs, then the area around Jama Masjid is your food heaven. Bhaijaan Kebabs, Babubhai Kebabs and Kallu Miyan on Chitli Qabar serve the best kebabs in town. Maseeta Meerutwale behind Jama Masjid (some say it has shut down) was the original melt-in-the-mouth seekh kebabs in Delhi. In and around Jama Masjid, near the legendary gourmet paradise Karim’s (and the equally delectable Al Jawahar), try sampling a veritable feast. While Haji Sharabti is well known for his nihari kulcha, Aslams Chicken Corner is famous for its chicken dishes. Haji Mohamad at Matia Mahal sells amazing fried chicken. Kallu ki Nihari and Haji Al Noora Bara Hindu Rao are equally famous for their nihari. Rahimatulla Hotel is the go-to joint for the sheermal. Abdul Ghani Kababai and Qureshi Kebab Corner serves the entire range of kebabs—from shami to boti to champ to seekh kebab. There are several biryani places in the area too, including Dil Pasand, Madeena, Frahad Foods, Madiaah, Lakhori and Al Yousuf. Fish fry is another thing which you get in various places, including Fatehpuri and Urdu Bazar. Other popular street food items include paya soup, takatak kebabs (grilled on a tawa), gurde kapure (kidney), kaleji (liver), champ (ribs) and anda bhurji (masala scrambled eggs), all eaten with bread.
There are a few other street food destinations in Delhi, specially Karol Bagh, Paharganj and Nizamuddin where one can get vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Near Lajpat Nagar, one can find amazing Afghan food, including kabuli pulao, yakhni and chopaan kebabs. Kotla Mubarakpur, Mehrauli, Rajouri Garden, Kamla Nagar, Majnu ka Tila (go for thukpa and momos), the Jamia Millia Islamia area and RK Puram (kebabs and biriyani) all have various popular hawkers and stalls for a variety of foods. You will find everything from usual chaat thelas to dosa-Idli, momos, Indian Chinese, pav bhaaji and pakoras, kebabs, biryani, kulfi, ice-cream and sherbets. Delhi has arguably the most cosmopolitan food culture in India and this is represented in its street food too.
Almost as big and diverse is the street food culture in Mumbai. Chowpatty Beach at Marine Drive and Juhu Beach are the tourist favourites for their stalls selling bhelpuri bhaji and chaat. However, the origins of Mumbai street food lie in the original mill areas of Lalbagh, Girgaum, Parel, Dadar, Tardeo and Cotton Green and the wholesale markets like Crawford Market, Mulji Jetha Market, Bhindi Bazar, Bhuleshwar. This is where pav bhaaji, junkha bhakar, vada pav, misal and usal (beans and sprouts in spicy gravy), poha, kanda-batata bhajiya (onion and potato pakoras) originated, as did kala khatta and cutting chai. Streets outside major railway stations of the famed Mumbai local trains have always featured hundreds of hawkers, carts and stalls of street food. Over time, Hill Road (Bandra), Ghatkopar, Matunga, Lokhandwala and Mulund became local centres of street food. Sion is still the hub of Sindhi food, though Ulhasnagar near Thane is now the place for all things Sindhi.
One popular Mumbai creation is the humble sandwich, quite unlike sandwiches anywhere in the world where between two factory-made white bread slices, suitably buttered, slices of tomato, onion, cucumber and beetroot are lined up with the option of having cheese added .This is usually served with dollops of tomato ketchup. Vada pav is now legendary as Mumbai’s quintessential street food. Mashed potatoes with a generous mix of coriander leaves, chillies and turmeric is rolled into balls dipped in besan (chickpea flour) batter and deep fried, then put inside a pav (local bread of Portuguese origin) with dollops of garlic and mint chutneys. Mumbaikars have their own favourite vada pav stalls. Pav bhaaji is simply a mishmash of different vegetables, including potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peas, cauliflower, capsicum shallow-fried on a large tawa and mashed to a pulp with heaps of butter, eaten with a pav. Dabeli, a Gujarati variation of batata vada, is also quite popular nowadays.
For lovers of kebabs and curries, biryanis and botis, some favoured destinations include Bhindi Bazar, Minara Masjid, Crawford Market, Nagpada and Byculla where every few yards, the smell of grilled kebabs and pungent curries will waft through the air amidst chaotic traffic. Saat Handi and Bara Handi at Lohar Chawl, Keema Pav at various Irani cafés (or the eternal favourites maska pav, khari and tea), chicken fry, boti, khiri (udder), kaleji, tikka, seekh and fried shami kebabs, bheja fry can be had at one of the many stalls in the old city and elsewhere. Bade Miyan, behind Taj Mahal Hotel, is an old favourite. In and around Makhdoom Shah Dargah in Mahim are also many food stalls which sell delectable fare. One speciality is spicy boiled chana served in bowls. Bandra, specially near the Masjid, and in the bylanes of Bandra and Khar are several hawkers who have been selling kebabs and bread for ages. Mumbai, surprisingly, has the largest variety of biryanis in India—from the chillia biryani (coastal Muslim cuisine) to Bohri biryani, Irani berry pulao and biryani to Awadhi, Calcutta, Hyderabadi and Sindhi. In Sion Koliwada, not only do you get the famed koliwada fish fry but a range of wholesome Punjabi cuisine. Similarly, in Matunga, you can get authentic Tamilian and Udupi food while Ghatkopar will serve you all types of street food with a Gujarati twist. In Dadar, specially near Kabootarkhana, one can savour many delightful snacks, specially the traditional Maharashtrian fare. In and around the old fishing villages scattered around the Mumbai coastline, you can sample not only some amazing variations of seafood (bangda, bombil, halva, rawas, jhinga, tisariya, kekra) but in pockets like Bandra, Mazgaon and Versova, get a taste of the East Indian (actually, they are locals who converted to Christianity in the 18th century) food cooked with their famous bottle masala. That’s one community who make delicious pork recipes in Mumbai. Of course, now in the far northern suburbs of Malad, Borivili and Dahisar, there many new food streets which have emerged in recent years.
India is a food heaven with its diversity and a million different dishes. Over millennia, our tastebuds have evolved with influences from invaders and settlers. Each region with its staple has contributed to this culinary evolution. I have randomly picked cities and foods here leaving out many important cities and culinary delights. Anyone who has gone to places like Pune, Varanasi, Cuttack, Patna, Shillong, Mengaluru, Chennai, Ludhiana, Surat, Agra, Meerut, Shimla and Ranchi will vouch for their street food. Something in these Covid times where even a decent home-cooked meal is a luxury for millions. Happy tasting!