A Guide to Indian Street Food
Street food is one of the unique features of Asian countries that is an expression of the culture in color, texture and spices. It is an integral part of the Indian culture and changes according to the geography and climate of each state. There are however some staples that should not be missed and a few pointers to aid your pursuit of the best street food experience.
Follow the locals
Locals have tried and tested the various street food options and have determined their favorites. Frequenting places that locals enjoy usually guarantees quality, cleanliness, and authentic flavor. A busy vendor also assures quick turnover and fresh ingredients.
When in doubt, ask for suggestions
Popular menu items are usually a good starting point and Indians, as a norm, are a very hospitable people and eager to aid guests and visitors. So, don’t hesitate to ask vendors, servers, or friendly patrons for suggestions.
Remember that you can control the heat
If you are just beginning your spice journey, remember that you can always request a reduced amount of red chili powder that is sprinkled on most dishes as a garnish. Reducing the amount of sauce like the famous mint or red sauce—or eliminating them altogether—helps as well, since sauces contain a large proportion of ground chilies, both red and green.
Five Famous Indian Street Foods
The quintessential street food dish that is a staple for locals and visitors alike is India’s answer to the hamburger! It consists of a curried potato mix that is dipped in a chickpea batter and deep fried. This golf ball sized fritter is also called a vada. It is then sandwiched in a white bun, called a pav, with a golden crusty top and a soft, spongy center that is served in a cone made of recycled paper, accompanied by deep fried green chilies. Mint or tamarind sauce is sometimes spread on the inside of the bun to enhance the flavor. If you are daring, take bites of the deep fried chilies with bites of your vada pav!
Chaat is a delicious concoction that hails from the northern part of India and is made of deep fried flour crisps, chickpeas, and yogurt and is garnished with chopped onions, fresh cilantro, spicy mint sauce and sweet tamarind sauce. There are several variations of this basic dish and all of them are equally satisfying.
3. Pani Puri
Your street food sojourn would not be complete without a plate of pani puri. Pani which literally translates to water, is actually water with ground green chilies, cilantro, fresh mint, and other spices. While puris are ping-pong ball sized, circles of dough that puff up when they are deep fried. The server punches a hole in the puri and fills it with potatoes, pani and sweet tamarind sauce and serves one filled puri at a time. This is because it must be eaten immediately after it is prepared otherwise it would turn soggy and likely disintegrate. Eating pani puri on the street side on a warm Indian evening is a unique experience. It is best enjoyed with a few friends that stand in a semicircle around the sever who prepares the puris as you watch. Each person is served one at a time, giving you enough time to chew and enjoy until it’s your turn again! There are usually six puris in a serving and the server must keep count amid the chaos, laughter, and dripping pani.
4. Pav Bhaji
Bhaji, which literally translates to vegetable, is a mélange of many vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and eggplant cooked with a signature blend of spices and mashed to order usually on a huge, piping hot griddle called a tava. This is garnished with a dollop of melting butter, chopped onions, cilantro, and a wedge of lime. It is served with a pav, or soft bun, that is sliced in half and toasted on a griddle with a generous amount of salted butter and red chili powder. The aroma of hot butter and spices will have you drooling before your pav bhaji is even served. Before you begin to devour this delicacy, don’t forget to the squeeze the fresh lime juice on the vegetables—the acid creates a delightful contrast to the spices, titillating the palette.
Lastly, pakodas (also known as pakoras) are deep fried fritters that can be made with a huge selection of ingredients like onions, potatoes, bell-peppers, cauliflower, and chilies. These are usually served with sweet, milky Indian spiced tea and are a delicious mid-day snack or light evening meal.
Avoid Getting Sick
There are numerous other dishes that have their own local flair and are interwoven with the culture of the state and city. My recommendation is to be adventurous while keep a few things in mind to stay healthy.
Avoid Water (unless bottled or purified)
Water carries many bugs that may result in a common affliction called “Delhi Belly.” This refers to stomach ailments contracted by tourists due to unhygienic drinking water. So steer clear of water, juice, shakes, and especially ice cubes!
Skip Raw fruit and vegetables
Raw fruit and vegetables are delicious on their own, however they are often washed in contaminated water before being used in preparations. Look for outdoor markets to buy fresh produce and experiment on your own (see my previous article, “Tips for Navigating Asian Food Markets“).
Stay away from meat products
The source of meat in street food preparations is not of guaranteed quality and is best avoided. If you are keen on trying meat based dishes, do so in popular restaurants.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gia Coelho was born in India and now lives outside of Washington, DC. Her passions include culinary adventures, writing and painting acrylics on canvas. She also enjoys creating colorful, Zentangle art that she sells on her Etsy site: www.etsy.com/shop/giacoelho
What’s your favorite kind of Indian street food? Share your recommendations or stories in the comment section below.