Vasundhara Chauhan

Gourmet Files - That special flavour

Street food is in a category all its own; no matter how much you try to replicate it at home, it won't taste the same.

Yesterday was a picnic. I had to accompany a friend to the magistrate's, to register her will. Not a pleasant programme, hanging about, being made to wait, verify documents and stand around in malodorous environs, being forced to reflect on mortality and – alas – one's advancing years. We had set off at the crack of dawn, and before noon I was ready for some refreshment. We were in the tout's chambers in a narrow gali with open drains, jostling for standing room with photocopying machines and hordes of other hopefuls. No one responded when my friend asked if there was a coffee bar around.

But I know my Delhi, and trotted off to the main road. I looked up and down the road and all I could see was the Qutub Minar. The pavement, such as there was, was crowded with notaries public, lawyers and such who had set up shop in situ. Traffic was an endless line of peak hour DTC buses exhaling fumes, despite the greenness of their fuel. But coffee there was none. I asked an officious lady in salwar kameez and trainers if there was a bread pakora vendor around and immediately the whole bunch of “lawyers” started pointing; two got up and led us to a gap in a wall in the shade of a keekar tree.

Pakoda time

There, behind a barred window, was a whole factory manufacturing fast food: pakoras of all descriptions. We obviously looked different, because the man behind the till pulled out a glass plate, wiped it with a cloth that shall not be described and, within a few seconds, I had my change and a plate with two golden bread pakoras. There was a nice pool of thick bright green chutney spreading and soaking the lower bread pakora, but my friend would not let me touch it; we had to ask for a fresh plate. I've never made a bread pakora at home, but I'm sure that if I did, it would be okay. This was something else, though.

We knew they were hot but started regardless. The outside was crisp, with the edges slightly chewy and the inside soft and steamy, with a potato filling sandwiched between the besan-battered slices of fresh white bread. The potatoes were turmeric yellow, a few green peas shone here and there, but fortunately they hadn't messed around with it – there were no raisins, cashews, paneer or garam masala to blur the simple goodness. One was not enough, and I do not regret the next.

All the time I was aware of highbrow disapproval: “a bread pakora? surrounded by pollution and other filth?” but I know that no homemade bread pakora could taste like this – even if I were to kidnap the chef, take him home and provide all the ingredients he needed, something important would be missing. The re-used oil, so dark and viscous that it could have come out of my car, and the flavour of airborne hydrocarbons provided gratis by the traffic. Which is what puts street food in a different league from its homemade version.

Irresistible samosas

There is a shop that sells only samosas. Even though it's on Panchkuin Road, just on the fringes of Connaught Place, it takes some smart navigation to reach, then one has to park quite far and sprint through lanes of relentless traffic. The shop is tiny, spilling out at least 20 waiting people and the unmistakable and irresistible smell of maida deep frying. If you're late, the samosas are finished, but if you're lucky…

The rush is frantic but the staff is efficient. By the time you've got your order, another queue has already formed behind you, and you have to be very careful with your package when you exit. There's a large bag with three smaller ones in it. One of samosas, one of pickle, and one of kabuli chana. The pickle is the kind that they probably make every day because it doesn't keep: of slit green chillies stuffed with masala.

The samosas are larger than average, with a thin, thin casing. Again, they've cracked the recipe and haven't embellished it with kaju-kishmish. Lightly sautéed boiled potatoes spiced with crisply fried cumin in a flaky shell. The edges are pastry-like, brittle and yet firm, just right for dipping in the kabuli chanas in their thick, gently spiced gravy.

Chaat competition

And chaat. Forget home kitchens; can even branded chain outlets compete? I've been there with vacationing NRI friends desperately missing the chatpata taste of chaat. The setup is impressive — the man behind the counter wears disposable plastic gloves, the golgappas are sealed in polythene, and the jaljeera is made from purified mineral water, possibly from Himalayan springs. Tart green chutney and the sweet red sonth come in little sealed plastic cups with peel-off tops.

I'm sure the spicing has been researched and perfected, and yet for some reason it just doesn't taste the same as good old Bhim Sain's golgappas in Bengali Market. Part of the pleasure is, of course, the constant addition of a pinch of kala masala or a splash of hari chutney and sonth, the leaking-down-the wrist of the dahi and sauces through the seams of the pattal.

Standing on the kerb trying to eat fast enough to be ready for the next golgappa isn't just a lark; it allows a real, tangible ingredient to mingle with every mouthful. It must be the diesel in the air.

null
Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 7, 2020 4:18:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/Gourmet-Files-That-special-flavour/article13739374.ece

Next Story