Pav bhaji with parmesan, ragda patties and risotto; it is all happening as street food gets all posh. ARUNDHATI HAZRA tracks the trend
Onion bajjis rubbing shoulders with a blue cheese salad? Raj kachoris and samosa chaat on the same menu as a crab meat risotto and a quiche lorraine? Street food festivals at five-star hotels? A few years ago, these would have been as incongruous as iPhones in Pride and Prejudice, but no longer. Fine-dining restaurants have woken up to the potential and popularity of Indian street food and are incorporating them into their menus, often with innovative twists.
The blend of flavours in Indian street food — sweet and sour and spicy and tangy, all often in one dish — and the variety of textures — crunchy pakoras, fluffy dhoklas etc are representative of the colourful chaos that is India. In street food havens like Chowpatty and Chandni Chowk, it is possible to make a full meal out of street food, moving from shop to shop, feasting on chaat, kachori, pav bhaji and ragda patties, ending with some piping hot jalebis.
It is this experience that hotels aim to recreate through street food festivals and by incorporating live counters in their buffets. Foodies are flocking to these by the dozen.
“No amount of Lebanese and Italian food can compensate for the bhelpuri and khandvi that have soaked into not only our palates but our DNA too,” says food writer Marryam H Reshii. “After eating non-Indian cuisines for decades, we crave the ‘old days’ hence the burgeoning interest in street food. It is for that reason that five star hotels are including chaat counters in their buffet set ups, but more importantly, hiring cooks from local catering companies for their banquet operations as opposed to graduates from catering colleges.”
Concerns of health and hygiene are causing many Indians to gravitate toward street food festivals in restaurants. According to food blogger Kalyan Karmakar, “For the middle and upper class, there is a certain forbidden romance to street food, but many are worried about the hygiene conditions and the quality of ingredients at the roadside stalls. A five-star environment makes it more comfortable for such people.”
For hotels, street food festivals are also an opportunity to showcase the rich Indian food tradition to their foreign guests. Vivek Sharma, food and beverage manager at Cafe Mozaic at Vivanta by Taj, Bangalore, which hosts a weekly street food buffet, Khao Galli, says, “Our foreign guests love the festive atmosphere, the experience of their food made right in front of them, someone explaining to them how to eat a pani puri. For them, it is the perfect way to sample the Indian street food they have heard so much about, but are apprehensive to eat literally on the streets.”
Street food festivals in fine dining restaurants are not just about food, but also about live entertainment that adds to the dining experience. “Street food festivals are like melas,” says Sharma, “and a lot of companies use them as a team bonding event. So we try to create an atmosphere of entertainment and fun that enhances the food. We have live music, tarot card readings, caricature artists and a magician who performs tricks at each table, which is quite a popular attraction.”
Software engineer Dhivya Sriram concurs. “Health concerns do not permit me to indulge in street food often, so when I do, I would prefer to eat it in clean surroundings, where the food has been prepared with quality ingredients. Many restaurants now have chaat counters in their buffet spreads, which is a boon for people like me.”
Some restaurants are going further, adding a Western twist to street food staples. While Indo-Chinese fusion like Chinese bhel and Schezwan vada pav are found in fast-food restaurants across the country, top chefs at fine dining establishments are bolder with their experimentation. So, you can dig into prawn papdi chaat at the Park Hotel, Kolkata, and get high on vodka pani puri shots at the Masala Library in Mumbai. Chef Manish Mehrotra, winner of the television show Foodistan, has won rave reviews for the parmesan tokri chaat and tuna bhel ceviche that he dishes out at Delhi’s Indian Accent.
In the last decade, teriyaki and tagliatelle and mezze and creme brulee have taken precedence over butter chicken naan and boti kebab, but a love for all things chatpata is etched in our DNA.
So, despite the proliferation of Italian and Mexican and Mediterranean restaurants, the Indian palate still yearns for the burst of colours and flavours in Indian street food, and posh restaurants are stepping in to give Indian foodies the food that is closest to their hearts.