The Masala Kart street food festival showcased the best of Indian roadside flavours by cooks from across the country

Ah. That familiar scent of blistering coconut oil. Then, we were wrapped in the fragrance of hot vadais. Three steps more, and the air was sweet with the subtle fragrance of cardamom, as freshly fried gulab jamuns were immersed in hot, sticky sugar syrup. In the background, there was the sound of local drummers vying with the clatter of a kothu paratha in progress.

The Masala Kart street food festival at Island Grounds proved that nothing draws Chennaiites like street food. At the Andhra bajji stall, an old man swapped stories with the cook from Vijayawada, telling him about how his mother used to make the same bajjis. A bespectacled woman charged past excitedly, squealing, “Look pav bhajji! We have to eat it. Now.” A child with gloriously sticky fingers silently worked his way through a tub of creamy rasmalai. We sneaked into the makeshift kitchen to chat with the friendly cooks, who had come from across the country. They showed us how the space had been divided according to the State they were from. In the Andhra stall, a grinder was whirring contentedly, churning moong dal for vadais. Across a table, acting as a partition, the cooks from Tamil Nadu prepared their dosa batter. Beyond that the Karnataka cooks lined up buckets of sambar.

Although India has always had brilliant street food cooks, unfortunately festivals tend to either be chaotic, messy affairs or glitzy five star events, with prices to match. Organisers ‘Red Chariots,’ had created an intelligent product by sourcing the best roadside cooks from across the country and put them all together in one place. Inevitably, with a project this big there are challenges. The biggest is dealing with the crowds, a problem they tackled with lots of polite manpower, and thoughtful organisation. There was a row of booths from which to buy tickets outside, and plenty of well-marked stalls offering water, food coupons and information. However, strangely, the only complete list of foods available was on a single board, printed sideways so the only way you could read it was by tilting your head to the left like a confused parrot.

A word of caution. If you’re very fussy about hygiene, this might not have been a place for you. The exhibition space was reasonably neat, and most cooks were equipped with hats, aprons and gloves. However, fighting the inevitable onslaught of flies is always a challenge with outdoor dining. We chose to eat at the stalls where the food was moving fast, and was hence freshly cooked and served. Or where the cooked food was carefully covered in cling wrap. Next time, the organisers should definitely work on getting the entire Island Grounds area cleaned. It’s not pleasant to look beyond the barricaded boundaries and see litter.

More on the dishes

Each stall had a helpful explanation about the food served. Given the fact that the cooks are all well known in the localities they are from, they should have also included a paragraph on each cook. While brochures or flyers aren’t an ideal solution, given how people tend to litter, listing the foods, the cooks and their stories on the Masala Kart website or an App would make it possible for people to plan their visit in advance. Some planning is essential with 130 varieties of street food on offer. Portions were generous; most of the time, which meant you couldn’t really try more than one or two items unless you were in a group. And they don’t pack. (Given the crowds they were dealing with, that would have been a logistical nightmare!)

We walked past the ‘set dosa’ stand, where a cook poured batter into fat spongy dosas. Past steaming bisebela baath from Karnataka. We watched a cook shape batter into thin, large circles, while another liberally sprinkled them with fistfuls of spice powder at the podi dosa stall. Further down there was a stall selling boiled eggs that was batter fried, sliced and topped with onions, peanuts and coriander. At the Kerala stall there was chicken being fried to a crisp.

We tried the mutton kothu paratha, a satisfying tangle of flavours: curry leaves, mutton and an occasional cardamom pod. The rich haleem from Hyderabad was served with a dollop of ghee, crisp cashewnuts and crunchy fried onions. From Kolkata, we tried a delicately constructed chicken kati roll, liberally speckled with green chillies. And tiny minced chicken cutlets, dusted with chaat masala.

After much thought we settled on three desserts. A plump, steamy gulab jamun. The addictive Andhra putharekulu, with the texture of thin folded paper. Deliciously flaky puran poli straight off the tava, topped with a dollop of golden ghee. So good I sneaked one more poli into my handbag to eat on the way home.

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