The sidewalk snacks of Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala have descended on London pavements in a big way, says Sheba Promod.
It’s midday, 5º C at best and there’s a frosty bite in the air in central London. Lunch on a day like today needs to be piping hot and soothing, far from the emotions that would be stirred by an insipid pre-packed sandwich. In fact, a hot vada pav or a Bombay sandwich would be the perfect soul-shielding blanket during the cold walk back to the office.
But sadly, we couldn’t be further from the delectable street snacks of Chandni Chowk. Or are we?
World street food is revolutionising the dining scene in London and the sidewalk snacks of Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala are now spilling out onto the pavements of London. Pau bhajis, kati rolls and masala dosas are becoming firm favourites among Londoners in search of a quick fix that’s beyond authentic and also far from the “tikka masala” culture that once dominated the Indian food scene in the UK.
The spirit, vibrancy and innovation within India have long been reflected in the UK through its representation of Indian cuisine, culture and heritage. However, at a time when consumers are holding onto their pennies tightly, street food is proving a much cheaper alternative than the usual restaurant.
In the heart of the city, Kings Cross plays host to Kerb, a hub for an assortment of world flavours.
Those in search of a hot dosa need look no further than Dosa Deli. With a clientele that ranges from the suit-clad, Indian city worker looking for a home-inspired meal to those in search of replicating the tastes once savoured on an Indian voyage, Dosa Deli offers a range of light, crisp dosas stuffed with a range of fillings that vary from the norm. Christian, the owner of Dosa Deli, says, “Street food is currently the trend. Also, people know they are getting a great meal at a low price while becoming part of the community that we have here.”
However, there is a need to adapt to local habits and preferences. For those reluctant to mop up their sambar with their fingertips, forks are called for. In other cases, such tangy accompaniments are served up as a warming soup; perfect in the midst of plummeting temperatures and perhaps fittingly adapted to the suited and booted folk of this city.
Beckoning a few stalls down are the pani puris of Horn Ok Please, also vendors of samosa chaat and moong dal dosas. In a city that is somewhat impersonal, fast and reactive to the strains of working life, vendors such as Sandya Aiyar of HOP are creatively making the soul foods of India accessible and indeed more humanised than they has ever been here.
As I hover on the side of her stall, I am able to see who is making my food, where and how it is made and listen to Sandya’s story; characteristics normally absent within the realms of my usual bricks-and-mortar hang out.
Standing in line, I watch her expertly fry and stuff a dosa, a true feast to the eyes and olfactory senses of any passerby. Stuffed from earlier endeavours, I opt for pani puri. Sandya cracks a small hole within a savoury semolina puri and fills it with an assortment of components in varying measures, textures and tastes: black channa, chaat masala, potato and a tamarind and date chutney, to name a few. As I eat it whole, I can’t help but consider how this much-loved roadside snack opens the doors to the refreshing world of sub-continental street food for the average unsuspecting customer.
A metro ride later, I am on Tooting High Street where it’s hard to miss the quirky and colourful chaat cart that is The Everybody Lovelove Jhal Muri Express. This small and eccentrically named cart is just one of those manned by Angus Denoon; a passionate, free-spirited soul and London’s only jhal muri walla.
Formerly a chef, Angus learnt the art of creating the perfect jhal muri from the vendors of Kolkata. Hawking across the streets of London, he travels to the Indian areas of the city where his chaat is welcomed by the community who, in return, provide him with friendly banter and their own tips on creating the perfect balance of flavours.
Quirkiness aside, the authenticity of his creation is confirmed by his customers, nearly all of whom are Indian. As I tuck into my cone, I am hit with an explosion of flavours and textures: zingy ginger, citrusy coriander, crunchy puffed rice and sev and a tart imli chutney, all surrounded with the much-needed heat of green chilli. Sweet, sour and spicy; a true sanctuary of tastes.
“Everybody loves jhal muri,” says Angus. “We’re fed on a diet of overpriced, fatty snacks but this offers something tasty and nutritious. The Indian communities understand what I am selling but the English are coming around to it slowly; this is a type of Indian food that they rarely get to see.”
And it is refreshing too. A culture that once varied between formal dining and cold packed lunches, with little in between, now finds itself embracing an altogether different style of eating. Perhaps due to a changed pace of life, greater worldly experiences or even the smoking ban in communal places, people are now, more than ever, willing to experiment with flavours that go against the norm, and do so standing up, outside.
The quality of what’s on offer must not be disparaged; al fresco dining in winter needs to be worth the consequential numb fingers, and London, in its own way, is ensuring that it’s certainly worth it.