I was standing outside my house in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, when Raju Bhai walked up. On his head, as always, was his pani puri khomcha and on his left shoulder a wooden stand. His pani puris, what we called gupchup, were delicious but that wasn’t the only reason I admired Raju Bhai. He also had enviable knife skills. Before serving pani puris, he would teach me how to dice onions.

To a great extent, I have learned cooking from small dhaba owners and street vendors like Raju Bhai. Each time I visit the Chindian noodle or samosa-jalebi seller near my home, I learn how to make sweet batter or stuffing or something unexpected. Besides delicious food, they create permanent memories and flavours that reside on the palate forever.

I always loved street food but my respect for it grew when I moved from Ramgarh to Delhi. In the lanes of Malviya Nagar and Purani Dilli – two places that offer a range of street food, from Mughlai and Afghan to Bihari, Punjabi and Kashmiri – I became a student of it. I began to see patterns. I saw that urbanisation and migration had left inexorable imprints on food in the megacity. In Purani Dilli, Lucknow’s Nimish or Makhan Malai was being prepared by a migrant from Bihar or Madhya Pradesh. In Chittaranjan Park, the Ghugni served by a Bengali migrant used the same yellow matar that was used in Chhole Kulche by another migrant in another part of the city.

Credit: Sadaf Hussain.

Another common thread I found was history. A lot of the street food we enjoy today in Delhi can be traced back to the time Shahjahanabad was built. Muslims, Baniyas, Jats, Gujjars and others were settling in the walled city, and erecting stalls to serve their traditional food. The result was a panoply of cuisines. The term “street food” – “ready-to-eat food and beverages sold and sometimes prepared on the streets” – may have been first agreed upon in 1986 at the FAO Regional Workshop on Street Food in Asia. However, according to Chef Davinder Kumar, Vice President F&B Production, Le Meridian in New Delhi and President Indian Culinary Forum:

The roots of street food can take us way back into history. It is believed that as the first distribution point of street food, small fried fish were sold on the streets in ancient Greece. Street food was widely consumed by poor urban residents of ancient Rome whose tenement homes did not have ovens or hearths. In ancient China, where street foods generally catered to the poor, wealthy residents would send servants to buy street foods and bring meals back for their masters to eat in their homes. Urbanisation and street food go hand-in-hand. Historically, in places such as ancient Rome, street food was purchased because urban poor did not have kitchens in their homes.  

In an article in the Hindustan Times, columnist Vir Sanghvi writes: “In most cities, street food originated as a way for poor people to feed themselves or as a means of providing sustenance to those who worked odd hours.” This is why it is so easy to find street food outside offices and factories.

Fruits of creativity

The rich often have a bias against street food – they think it something cheap meant for blue-collar workers or that it is a class of foods classified as chaat. Neither could be further from the truth. Just take a trip to Purani Dilli. You’d be surprised to see how many people with different sartorial styles and bank balances queue up to gorge on scrumptious parathas, kebabs, butter chicken, biryani. In fact, several old institutions of Delhi – Karim’s, Moti Mahal, Aslam Butter Chicken, Old Famous Jalebi Wala, Hira Lal Chaat Bhandar, Kuremal Kulfi, Roshan Kulfi Wala, and many others – started out as street vendors. Today, people from all over the world queue up at these places.

I find street food refreshingly creative. In Old Delhi, Kuremal Mohan Lal Kulfi Wale cores fruit and pipes in kulfi to create an all-natural ice cream. In Old Delhi too, you can find a blend of Rooh Afza, milk and watermelon called mohabbat ka sharbat (love potion). Street foods like these have inspired numerous chefs, including Anahita Dhondy, Vineet Bhatia, Vikas Khanna, Atul Kochar and Saransh Goila. A while back, I asked Kalyan Karmakar, author of The Travelling Belly, why restaurants in India serve “elevated street food”. He said these dishes do not travel in the globalised world, but well-travelled diners with urbane palates demand these flavours, which pushes restaurants to curate them. I agree with his hypothesis.

I asked Kalyan to suggest a city for a fantastic culinary experience. His reply: it has to be Kolkata. He made me understand the flavours of the city by listing the people who have made the beautiful city their home – from the Chinese and Armenian to Muslims and British. Every culture brought its own recipes, which, in my opinion, can now be collectively termed Bengali Zayka (Flavours of Calcutta).

The main rule for eating Indian street food is to unlearn fancy food etiquette. Touch and feel the food, become aware of how it smells and feels, thank the creator, create a bond with them, and then use your hands again to feel the soul of the food.

Sadaf Hussain is the author of Daastan-e-Dastarkhan and a consultant chef based in Delhi. He was one of the top MasterChef India contestants in 2016.

This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.