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Chaat pe Charcha

Close your eyes. No wait, first read this, then, close your eyes and imagine…

Crowds gathered on a street corner. Each with one hand held out — reaching for the next offering. Even as the other hand swipes residue from their lips. Their mouths drooling in anticipation of the burst of flavours from the next ‘water ball’. Even as the tongue still savours that last bite!

Yes, I’m talking about the pani puri, or golgappa, or phuchka (no food wars here, we promote inclusivity!) That said, though, let’s not be partial, it could be any street food offering, even a warm potato chaat on a monsoon evening romantically synchronized with the light pitter-patter of rain as a backdrop if stereotyping had its way! And rightly so, because romance is exactly the relationship we Indians have with our street food.

A relationship that I intend to explore in this series on my blog. Over the next few weeks, we will talk about food, about Indian Street food, in particular, we will break it down in various ways, explore the stories behind it and dive into what makes our beloved street foods so sought after. Hopefully, by the time I am done, we will all be collectively drooling!

So what are Street Foods?

Street foods are a category of dishes typically sold at roadside carts, made using basic, easily available ingredients that bring together various permutations and combinations of textures and flavours. Designed to be filling, they are also priced very affordably. Over time, street foods have come to be identified with the country (Banh mi from Vietnam), region (Pita wraps from the Middle East), city (Kebabs of Delhi), even neighbourhoods (Malleshwaram egg rice). In a sense, they symbolize a city’s culture, and become a part of their socio-cultural history.

Street food broadly is our go-to food to satiate our cravings while also serving as an escape from ghar ka khana, when there’s lauki or tinde for dinner. The chatwalas and thela walas feed the masses of a region and keep the blood in the cities’ veins running with their affordable and delectable food. They create dishes with what is best availably grown closest, creating variegated but similar dishes across the nation.

The Evolution of Street Foods

Tracing the evolution of street foods cannot be pinpointed to a singular event. There are many origin theories substantiating and uncovering them.

Some street foods were born out of convenience because the inhabitants of fast cities required energy on-the-go to earn their daily bread. We have often seen someone brisk walking with a vada pav clutched in one hand and an office briefcase in another. Yet another reason for convenience was because emperors of some regions didn’t want their hands to get dirty while eating, which led to the preference of kathi rolls by the Nizams of Calcutta.

One of my favourites is the story of how street food evolved at Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi during the 1600s) and its location near the Yamuna river, meant that the only water available was of a non-potable quality, causing inhabitants in proximity to suffer from frequent illness and diseases to its consumption. Emperor Shahjahan’s Hakims or medical advisors then advised that the citizens start consuming spices (masalas) along with ghee. They also went on to advise that these would help cut down the toxicity of the river. But this combination mustn’t be consumed in large quantities, otherwise people would tend to fall ill. One way to get the masses to consume small concentrated amounts of spices and ghee was through chaats.

Another theory claims that when the Mughals, and subsequently the British colonizers left, the khaansamas, rakabdars, bawarchis, and hakims didn’t have a royal empire to feed and were left unemployed. Consequently, they took to the streets and started cooking what they knew and their legacies live on to this day too like the Karim’s of Old Delhi, started by Haji Karimuddin who served Bahadur Shah Zafar.

What makes Street Foods So popular?

Street Foods are high on flavour!

As a whole, street foods are designed to satisfy tummies at affordable prices. The chatwalas and thela walas create dishes from simple, fresh ingredients, right in front of their customers, dishes bursting with flavour, usually sprinkled with oodles of “hamara secret masala” designed to satisfy the palette, from the first nibble to the last lick and make us addicts and fans! And the secret here is not in any particular Masala. But of a more elusive concept, the packaged food has invested millions to research but been unable to replicate.

Many chefs and flavour experts have concluded that the satisfaction we experience with most Indian street food is thanks to the concept of ‘Chatpata’, that combination of sour, salty, spicy, and sweet that can make a grown adult drool. In fact, Chef Gaggan Anand has famously summed it up saying “Chatpata is umami for India.”

But what exactly is chatpata? Does it mean different things in different regions? What is the story behind specific street foods, how do they evolve as they progress through different regions? These questions and more are what I aim to address through this series.

I’ve chosen to group street foods into families (like Aloo family, Puri family, Pav family, etc) based on the primary ingredient. I will then explore these families, from the historical, evolutionary, culinary, and technical perspectives. I also aim to break them down to understand the similarities and differences in their flavours and textures. I will share my learnings on these pages, but I do hope to keep learning with all of you in this journey!

On that note, look forward to devouring some pani puri/ golgappa/ phuchka, in my next post!

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