A street food tour in India
Chris recounts his mouthwatering street food tour in Delhi:
I first tasted Indian food at, of all places, New York. The Big Apple has a strong Indian émigré community, and as a result, many Indian restaurants up and down the streets of Queens and Staten Island. I began a culinary journey into a new world with a hot and triangular samosa priced at $2.99. The crispy exterior thrilled me, and the gently spiced potato filling inside was simply heavenly. I was disappointed to learn that this was only a “light” version of the real thing (which comes at a fraction of the price, and with an assortment of chutneys). Regardless, it sent me on a culinary quest to India.
Well, the first place I visited in India was Ladakh. As magical as my trip was, the northernmost parts of India are not exactly known for delicacies bursting with the flavors of million different spices. The cold weather and extremely rural lifestyles do not allow that. There’s no such thing as a street food vendor around here. However, I did enjoy some momos filled with ground yak meat at a tourist restaurant over there, which are Tibetan dumplings similar to Japanese gyoza. My real Indian culinary experience started with a stopover in Delhi.
Pretty much everything in India is mind-bogglingly diverse, and the cuisine is no exception. In the northern Himalayan regions of the subcontinent, cuisine is quite basic, rarely spiced and is mostly based on yak products. The north central regions of India, breads, like the famous naan, are prominent, often offered with a variety of thick, coconut-milk based curries. In southern India, rice is the staple food served with an assortment of highly spiced curries and chutneys. The beloved masala dosa—a very large and crispy pancake made from a rice and lentil batter—is from South India. The delicious street food of India, likewise, is as varied. The street food you get in Chennai is not the same as in Mumbai. Delhi, as a center for commerce and trade in India, is actually good place to taste many of these different types of dishes.
The most genuine street food in India is sold by roadside vendors and small shops where everything is prepared on the spot. These dishes are quite notorious for dubious hygiene standards. Tourists worried about food safety can try versions of street food at restaurants and hotels, but, in my humble opinion, they are really not the same. You can certainly eat plenty of street food in India and not get sick (like I did), as long as you follow several simple safety tips.
Safety tips for trying street food in India:
- Eat food that is served hot as they are less likely to be contaminated
- Eat where the locals do and avoid the vendors locals avoid
- It’s best to avoid meat and vegetables unless they are cooked hot
- Don’t drink water at roadside stalls or anything that has been doused in it
- Don’t buy pre-cooked food that has been on display for long
- For lassi drinks and fruit juice, seek reputed vendors
- Only sample hot beverages
- Take your own cup if possible for drinks
- Use your own judgment, and avoid vendors who use dirty utensils
Never be afraid to try street food in India. Now that I’ve gotten the food safety rules out of the way, here are my favorite street food dishes from India:
Pani Puri/ Golgappe
Originally from Mumbai, this is Indian street food at its best. This is the reason tired office workers rush to the nearest food vendor at 5 p.m. each day. A Pani Puri is a deep fried and crispy shallow puff (like a papadam for those of you who know what that is). They come with this tamarind water, which you pour into the puff before biting into it. Ingenious, and delicious. These puffs are small enough to be eaten whole, otherwise you get tamarind water everywhere. I tried it and now I terribly miss it.
Vada is a savory lentil or gram patty from the hot states of South India. They are delicious on their own, even though I found them to be a bit dry and hard. In Delhi, I found this amazing street food variation of vada where they were soaked in sour buffalo milk yoghurt and dressed in spicy and sweet herbs and chutneys. Simply put, they felt like heaven in my mouth.
India is not the first place that comes to mind when you want to try a grilled sandwich. But I’m not talking about just any grilled sandwich. The one I found at this tiny restaurant in Delhi was grilled to perfection, with a spicy potato patty in between and topped with a colorful array of chutneys. It was a grilled sandwich I couldn’t have even dreamt of.
Chaat is a general term in India for snacks served on the street. Fruit chaat, as the name suggests, are carved to emulate their savory counterparts. Instead of a flour-based patty as usual, a melon slice with a groove cut into it serves as the base. Then the groove is stuffed with chickpeas, pomegranate and other mouthwatering exotic fruit. Mine was served garnished with herbs and pepper. It’s truly amazing, don’t leave India without trying fruit chaat. Also remember, try fresh fruits only at reputable restaurants.
This is a simple bread-and-curry fast food from the state of Maharashtra, but don’t let the looks deceive you. Pav Bhaji is served with a mini loaf of homemade bread that tasted so much better than the processed bread we get at supermarkets. The bread is accompanied by a thick, reddish curry gravy cooked on a flat griddle. Soak the bread in the gravy and it’s everything one needs after a long day touring Delhi.
Culinary tours in India don’t stop with one city. I really really want to plan my next trip to South India to try the crazy famous street food there.