We shall begin with a not-so-savoury piece of news. A people’s movement is brewing in Bihar. So what’s new, did you ask? Well, this time the ‘people’ concerned are not fighting for their right over farmlands or forests. They are demanding their own space in the streets of Bihar’s cities, where they can carry on with their business. They are the street vendors, a majority of them selling food. And they have threatened to go on hunger strike if the government fails to pass the State Street Vendor’s Policy in the current session of the Legislative Assembly. Lets hope Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is listening. Because if road food vendors go hungry, so will about 50 per cent of the urban population.
Yes, street chefs have an enormous customer base. Not only in Bihar, but in every nook, cranny and neighbourhood of India. Lets take Varanasi, one of the country’s oldest cities, as an example. It is located in Uttar Pradesh, hailed as the heartland of India’s street food tradition. A recent study reveals that more than 42 per cent of adults, and at least 61 per cent students (of 14-21 years old), living here, make at least one meal out of the potato cutlets, gol gappas, samosas, rabri, jalebis, and juices— cooked and sold in the streets.
The ‘treat’ map
So we have the facts sorted, and it is clear that these makeshift kitchens by the roadside mean serious business. Their contribution in a city’s kitty is not to be sniffed at. But trying to measure their value on this scale alone will be like mixing rich, savoury spices in a curry, and then missing out that vital pinch of salt. The range of fast food in the Indian streets mirror the country’s vastly diverse local cultures and palate. They also trace back the climatic profile and the staple crops that have been traditionally grown in different regions.
They serve the history and economy of our nation in a multi-flavoured buffet.
Now lets take a trip down the culinary lanes of India. The kawa and kebabs of Kashmir, the oily channa kulcha or bhaturas of Punjab, kachoris of rajasthan, to chaats and kathi rolls of UP, dabeli and dhokla of Gujarat, to vada pav of Maharashtra. From the mashal moori of West Bengal to South India’s steaming idlis, medu vadas, dosas, uthappams and girmit. All diverse and yet mouthwateringly unique.
The Chaat story
The homestead of banias (retailers and money lenders or traders) Uttar Pradesh whipped up chaat, the most sought-after street food of all. The word chaat comes from the Hindi verb chaatna, or to lick. This was a mix invented and enjoyed by the traders who had a sedentary, inactive lifestyle. To pass the long hours of the day they would munch on savouries like fried flour dumplings and puffed rice. To make the bites more interesting they added spices like jaggery, ginger and tamarind chutney, till the mouthwatering concoction was literally licked clean off the plates. Chaat is normally a fiery blend of four flavours – sweet, sour, pungent and spicy.
Well that’s how the dish originated, but how did it reach the streets ?
It happened way back in medieval India, when chaatwallahs (vendors) came into the lanes and bylanes in the afternoons to sell their tasty tidbits to the womenfolk, confined at home. Latest news and views were swapped between tangy bites of goodies. Later, when the women began to step out of their homes to do their own shopping, they continued to patronize the chaatwallahs, who by then had marked out a space for themselves on the busy markets streets.
"Chaats reflect the deepest culinary realities of any city. So in Kolkata where Bengalis love food that is a mixture of sweet and sour with a hint of chili – the chaats tend to be sweet unlike in Delhi. Also they are cheap which means most people can afford them. People driving big cars stop beside the cyclewallahs to munch on them. So in some ways it’s a very democratic food,"
Mumbai created all kinds of fusion chaats, but it is most famous for its vada pav, a bun stuffed with vada, a fritter that can be made of gram flour, lentil or potato. The bustling textile market in Mumbai only allowed short lunch breaks to its traders, or food that could be eaten while on the move. So neighbourhood street vendors came up with this perfect solution.
Good to eat. Good for health?
They may be cheap but they are also wholesome and nutritious. A study in Kolkata found that an average meal contained about 30 grams of protein, 15 grams of fat and 180 grams of carbohydrates. Yet another study done in Varanasi found the Calorie value per cost of a serving to be pretty high. Almost 2500 Kcal per one Euro.
The national-local goodies
Street savouries are fast shedding their regional avtars and going national. Dosa and idli have taken North India by storm. And now it has invaded the streets of Gujarat, which are flooded with countless local nibblings anyway. Same is true of the North-East Indian momos, which are now being steamed up in every corner of the country.
The ravishing rotund
In Delhi, they call it gol gappa. In UP and Bihar, it is known as batasha, in MP it is sold as fulki, Mumbaikars call it paani poori, while its Kolkata avtar is called phhuchka. The fried base of this mouth-watering delicacy is same throughout the country.
But its stuffings vary widely, depending on what is available locally, and what appeals to the taste of the locals. In UP and Delhi its filled with chick peas, in Gujarat and Maharashtra and West Bengal it is served with mashed potatoes coupled with boiled bean sprouts.
The Indian streets offer an amazing range of beverages ranging from a glass of lassi, with the thickness and the froth of one’s choice, to tea of all flavours–lemon tea without milk or sugar, green tea, masala tea, mint tea, milk-tea and regular tea poured out of a battered aluminum kettle. One can have hot milk served in a conical earthen pot called a kullad or a variety of fruit juices and milk shakes. Then there is the wildly popular tender coconut and sugar cane juice spiced up with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of ginger juice!
Just as you like it
India always had a very unique way of doing business. Clinically clean stores and impersonal air conditioned shops have never had a role to play in this. Crowded market places, buzzing with sharp and witty ‘shop talk’ between hawkers and buyers—the mood that still prevails in Delhi’s Chandi Chowk or Ahmedabad’s Manek Chowk- is the hallmark of Indian commerce. And food venders add a special aroma to this chaos. But these roadside foodies are not merely carrying forward the local culinary tradition. They are constantly innovating and reinventing their fares in this hugely competitive segment. They not only provide instant food, they do so at throwaway prices,
"They sustain the lower and weaker section of the society," says Amit Parkash Singh Manager of The Mobile Store chain in Mumbai.
Platter of problems
They may toil from dawn to dusk and feed millions of people, but they still remain abysmally poor. Yes, the average daily earning of a street vendor is around Rs 60. And they operate without even the basic infrastructure— regular water supply, storage or garbage disposal systems— that are needed to run a business. No wonder they are permanently branded as ‘unhygienic’ by the upmarket food pundits. So are street food items not fit for the finicky? Interestingly, the Varanasi study found the nutritive value of the street fares ‘fairly satisfactory’. They passed muster in appearance, quality, taste and smell, too. The calorie value per cost was also found to be quite high. But study reported a high risk of contamination due to unclean water, prolonged storage and dirty utensils. Can the vendors help themselves? Not likely. Especially since the authorities seem to be blind to their plight. In 2007, the Supreme Court banned the preparation of food in public areas in the capital. The vendors now have to prepare their food at home and then sell them pre-packaged.
"It’s more fun to see the food being made in front of me, and I can insure its freshness and cleanliness “
says Nidhi Adlakha, a journalist. But the vendors can do little to provide Nidhi that dose of fun.
Space is at a premium in any urban area, especially in big cities. The unlicensed vendors who set up business by the roadside are onstantly coming in the way of traffic and pedestrians. Result? They are the regularly targetted by the custodians of law and order, and are forced to move almost on a daily basis
So what’s the solution?
The rebelling roadies in Bihar are asking for properly demarcated ‘hawking zones’ and licenses to fend off the raging police folk. Their counterparts in every other state would be echoing their demand. In fact, the list must also include better coordination with the local municipal bodies to ensure provision for clean water and waste disposal facilities. Rohan Sahai, a final year law student from Kolkata adds, “The unorganised sectors needs representation of their interests, lack of which results in encroachment of public spaces, as an assertion of their right. So removing the hawkers would be simply attacking the effect and not the cause”.
Rohan is not the only supporter of the street chefs. Kolkata’s Ritodhi is convinced that the “street food culture needs to be preserved. It feeds people in all income groups and is a reflection of the cultural melting pot that constitute a typical Indian city. It is an affordable means of livelihood for a huge population of urban migrants. And doesn’t it provide us a non-carbon intensive food experience?”, she reasons. Add to this the tangy flavour of ‘India’ and you have a truly luscious feast. Who can resist it?