An Ode to Street Food

Ajay Goel
11 min readOct 7, 2023

A complex dance of yin and yang unfolds before my eyes. The Bhel-Puri wala tosses a handful of crisp peanuts in a large bowl of muri and offsets it with chopped onions and finely shredded chilies. To add texture and color, he then added shards of papdi, diced tomato, and sprinklings of sev to the mixing bowl. The sweet tamarind sauce then executes flawless pas de deux with hot green chutney. He passed me the mix on a plate, and the concoction crunched and then exploded in my mouth–sublime. Considered a simple dish, someone less accomplished could well end up with a soggy mess, had there been the slightest deviation in the ingredients, or their sequencing.

I was on a city walk with friends, sampling the street food of Jaipur.

The guy sat in a hole-in-the-wall, working hard while bantering with customers, producing plate after plate of magic, cheap and good. I don’t know about you, but the act of consistently whipping up massive quantities of super tasty bites for 12 hours straight on a sidewalk, without giving your patrons food poisoning, should rate as one of the great culinary feats of our times.

“Season food with the proper amount of salt at the proper moment; choose the optimal medium of fat to convey the flavor of your ingredients; balance and animate those ingredients with acid; apply the right type and quantity of heat for the proper amount of time — do all this and you will turn out vibrant and beautiful food, with or without a recipe.”
So says Samin Nosrat, the author of “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”. The advice holds both for a Michelin Star chef or the busy roadside food vendor.

Those sights and smells in that crowded lane were evoking forgotten recollections…

In childhood, visiting a restaurant was a rarity, reserved for special occasions. Ordering food was a tussle of conflicting emotions, as the eyes danced from temptations on the left side of the menu to the oppressive restraint marked on the right. The formality of using a fork and knife was an extra exercise in dexterity. Feasts were never complete without someone commenting on how food was so much better in their own kitchen. Finally, they settled the bill with brave smiles and pretended nonchalance.

The food at home, on the other hand, was nutritious, wholesale, and unexciting — especially when considering the lauki-tori meals.

So, between the familiar comfort of one’s home and the ill-fitting pretense of a restaurant, lay the street — Buddha’s middle path to salvation.

Growing up in North India, street food induced visceral lust. I have countless memories of Chana Matar/ Kulcha, paani batasha, ragda pattis, paav bhaji, and my favorite–crisp brown sizzling aloo tikki. Every scrap was licked off, and we coaxed extra masala out of an exasperated vendor. Once your insides were on fire, there were quenching options like Kulfis, Barf Ka Gola, Banta soda, jaljeera, and, of course, sugarcane juice. Often, these were the negotiated inducements, with parents, for a market visit.

Poor men’s meals, rich men’s indulgence. Street food is an impish, sinful delight for the palate. Free from the restraint of serious cuisine, it revels in experiments, at times, without a hoot for wholesomeness. Its gastric defiance appeals to our base instincts. It draws us out of our civilized pretenses, and we cannot but respond.

It’s a quick and cheap meal on the go. A multi-sensory experience, and not just for the taste buds, they are delicious, decadent calorie bombs. Photo Credit — Vivek.

The cuisine varies with the region, along with the weather. Confucian belief in balance, the yin and yang play out in its cooking. It matches soft succulents with crunchy elements and the tastes can range from sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, or salty. The dishes can be a riot of contrasting colors or a study in minimalism–shades of green (countless vegetables and herbs), Cherry Red (chilies/meat), lemon yellow (Pepper), chalky White (rice noodles/chicken), etc.

Through my travels over the years, I guarantee that when it comes to street food, Asia leads the medal tally. Thailand and Vietnam are the Al Dorado of street food, and the sub-continent is not far behind. Within India, I would venture to suggest that Kolkata wears the crown for such gastronomic delights. If you’re up for the bet, I recommend you visit the city during Durga Puja, when the wealthy and the impoverished alike avoid cooking and the whole city transforms into a bustling street food festival.

Europe has its baguettes, sourdoughs, and focaccias, but that doesn’t cut the mustard. Fish & Chips in the UK are a mere apology. New York, the sizzling melting pot of immigrants, holds its own for the variety. Any desi visitor to the Big Apple will surely know of ‘NY Dosas’ and the ‘Halal Guys’. There are countless family-owned street vendors–Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Israeli, Ethiopian, Turkish, and more, but it’s hard to say what is truly Americano among them.

Street food scores big over the fast food served by McDonald's, KFC, Domino, Sub-Way, etc. For one, street food uses fresh ingredients, has immense variety depending on the region and season, and recipes are unique to the creator. Fast food companies focus on efficiency, hygiene, and homogeneity of experience. In pursuing taste, they use bad fats, refined sugars, excessive sodium, and empty calories. In my opinion- Fast Food and street food are as different as chalk and cheese.

In Bangkok, you can watch a woman with a street cart crushing chilis and lime rinds with a mortar and pestle, and then she’ll add fermented fish paste and palm sugar while preparing a green papaya salad with flavors that pop. The fragrance around the shack is an appetizer in itself. Or in India, a dark old man in white veshti, hanging over a large dark tava, spreading out white dough turning paper-thin dosas, as if in an act of meditation. Compare it to the sterile efficiency of high-calorie potato chips bubbling in stainless steel oil vats at the McDonald’s kitchen.

Or take the condiments — chutneys, or sauces served with Asian street food. They serve every dish with a distinct ‘Dipping Sauce’ — a mix of Fish Sauce, Soy Sauce, vinegar, sugar, cucumber slices, bits of red chilies, or chutney made with green herbs mixed with spices, chilies, and whatnot. Each establishment boasts of its special recipe and the dipping sauce is a vast improvement over the one-note options such as Ketch-ups, Olive Oils, or Soy Sauces, served elsewhere in the world.

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Wherever you go in the world, the food on the street is the identity of the people. One often hears versions of stories of the dishes’ origins that contain clues to the culture, race, and religion of the place.

Pad Thai — The current darling of the western restaurants in search of foreign delicacies, began as a humble stir-fried rice noodle recipe in the slums of China. Then in the 1940s Siam went through a nationalistic phase, changed its name to Thailand, and created this dish as its new national identity. It was a smart and successful government campaign, and Pad Thai was born.

Two best-known Vietnamese offerings–‘Bahn mi’ and Egg coffee are legacies of its French occupation. Locals concocted the eponymous Egg Coffee in 1946 when they substituted whipped egg yolk for more expensive fresh cream, used by the French in their cappuccino. ‘Bahn mi’ is merely a successful adaptation of the French baguette.

In India, the trade routes (and later invasions) from Central Asia had a major impact on the food. Tandoor oven arrived from Iran and along came differently baked breads/naan etc — Kulcha was an Indian improvisation. Kebabs –simple chunks of meat cooked in coal pits in Central Asia & Middle East, entered the same way. But local imagination and spices lent it variety — Shami, Galuti, Burra, Chelo, Kalmi are now firmly Indian.

Jalebi was brought by Persian traders in the Middle Ages; the original Arabic word is ‘zalabiya’. Ghujia, the traditional sweet prepared at Holi, traces its origin to Turkish Baklava. Others suggest it was the Samosa that inspired the Gujiya. But then Samosa itself arrived from Central Asia. For traders and warriors, these mince-filled triangles were easy to carry during the day, and cook at the nightly campfires when they broke bread. India added vegetarian fillings.

Mughal influence on North Indian cuisine is unique, and so are the associated stories. Here we can thank the legends of Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The lady is reported to have created Biriyani, as one sumptuous meal, to feed the undernourished soldiers at a barrack near her palace. The dish originates from the Persian word ‘birian’, which means ‘fried before cooking’, and predates the empress — you can make what you like of the story. Ah yes, a more verifiable fact about Biriyani is that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah took it to Calcutta, upon his banishment from Awadh after the 1857 revolt. Since the purse strings were tight, he introduced eggs and potatoes in place of meat, and that tradition continues to date there.

Mumtaz’s husband, the mighty Shahjahan, supposedly caused the invention of the ubiquitous Chutney. The story is that he was suffering from ill health, after shifting to Delhi and drinking Yamuna’s water. Thus, the hakim put him on a strict diet. But knowing the emperor’s predilection, the doctor instructed the cooks to prepare something that was spicy, full of flavors, but easy to digest. Chutney was thus born. Again, considering the wide range of chutneys across India, using a combination of herbs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, yogurt, etc., I think this tale too is a courtier’s whimsy. Some stories are a bit hard to swallow, haha.

Chaat (etymology — Hindi — ‘to lick’), the truly Indian street food, is the United Nations of fruits, vegetables and spices. It gave India its fifth taste — Chatpata — by combining the other four — salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Many essential ingredients of chaat are also not native. Aloo /shakarkand (potato/sweet potato) and tamatar (tomato) all arrived from South America in the 17th century through the British. Bhindi (Okra) is from Ethiopia, phool gobhi (Cauliflower) from Cyprus, and patta gobhi (Cabbage) from Europe.

Street food translates culture into the language of the palate continuously. As a city takes in new migrants, street food gradually alters its character to reflect the influences of its newcomers.

Take Pav Bhaji -it originated in nineteenth-century Mumbai as a midnight dinner for factory workers. Vendors, one story claims, would mash up the day’s leftover veggies, add some spices, and sell the resulting curry to workers heading home from the night shift. Mumbai’s Vada Pao is even younger vintage. Ashok Vaidya invented it in the 1970s, outside the busy Dadar station. It proved an ideal snack, on the go, for hordes of rushing commuters. His magic sauce was the fiery red chutney that had coconut, peanuts, chilies, garlic, and tamarind pulp.

Street food is like the local dialect, free from strict grammar and formality of language. It’s willing to experiment, adapt, and embrace a new idiom. A case in point is Sambhar — the essential accompaniment to age-old dosa and idlis, but was only created in the 18th century. It came about in a kitchen of Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu), by a happy accident, when Maratha ruler Sambhaji occupied the territory. He had an immense liking for a Maratha dish –Amti, which used Kokum (a tangy fruit), grown in coastal Maharashtra, a few hundred miles away. Once, out of stock of Kokum, he experimented with tamarind pulp, and the results were even better. The dish with tuvar dal, vegetables, spices, and tamarind pulp, thus got its name from Sambhaji.

It is a testament to both the city as it was and as it is becoming. Chole Bhature was invented by one Peshori Lal Lamba, a partition refugee (who later set up Kwality restaurant in Delhi), and thus started the challenge of Punjabi cuisine in an erstwhile Mughalai Delhi.

Street food is freewheeling, without a care of the copyright laws, yet it is authentic in its whimsical ways. Soya chaap may not convey much to a stranger, but it satiates vegetarians’ craving for a reshmi kabab. Afghani Momo confuses the hell out of both — the Afghans and the Chinese but tastes heavenly.

This food remains humble and honest in its way. It does not pay for propping its customer ratings on social media and knows the value of word of mouth. In many cases, the vendors build their reputations over generations. It is egalitarian in approach and hard working in its ethos.

Example - Jay Fai. The most celebrated street food chef in the world, who achieved a Michelin star in 2018. Even in her 75s, we can see Jay Fai in midtown Bangkok, cooking her famous crab omelets while wearing protective glasses. Raised in a slum as the daughter of an opium addict, last heard, she wanted to give the Michelin star back. She says it’s brought her unwanted gawkers with cameras who aren’t interested in her cuisine.

Or take ‘Bun Cha Huong Lien’ in Hanoi — one of the hundreds of cheap, delicious street food restaurants scattered across the city. Its specialty is a local classic, bún chả–a mix of grilled fatty pork in a plastic bowl of sweet, clear broth, with rice noodles, leafy greens, and fresh herbs. It gained its notoriety when once Obama shot a breeze here with Bourdain; Media hoopla ensued and Trip Advisor ratings have since gone off the charts. Yet today, the only remnant of that celebrity moment is a fading A4-sized picture in the side hall. The prison canteen-like décor maintains its original design with stainless steel tables, small stools, and white tiles, and the atmosphere is still busy, reasonable, and authentic.

Sometimes, this food from chaotic streets migrates to more respected AC restaurants and high-end menus. Pizza used to be street food in Naples for the port workers who found sustenance in the salt and oil on the flatbread. The story holds that to honor Queen Margherita of Savoy, who visited Naples in the late 19th century, a local chef baked pizza, using tomato, mozzarella, and basil-the three colors of Italy’s national flag. He called it ‘Pizza Margarita’- the flattery worked, and Pizza achieved stardom in sophisticated circles. Right now, Gaggan Anand, the much adored (and colorful) Michelin Chef, is experimenting to take street tricks into his high-end international cuisine. After all, he grew up in the streets of Calcutta.

Street Kulfi meeting Gaggan’s whimsy

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Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?” Anthony Bourdain.

Discovering a new place through its street food now remains firmly on our travel agenda. Going thousands of miles for a vacation and then eating the standard breakfast at the Hilton or a Taj seems like a missed opportunity.

The trick is to avoid the tourist traps and the infamous ‘Delhi Belly’ at a new place. In India, I use bottled water and refrain from iced drinks or fruit salads; anything else is par for the course.

Fortunately, Social Media, Food Apps, and guided Food Walks have made it easy to dip into these delights.

The old thumb rule for strangers in a new city is to go where the most local crowds are. Prefer locals to locale.

Would love to hear your favorite food story in the comments…. until then…wish you a hearty Burp!

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Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.