Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Street smart

Matra Kulcha. Photo: Vasundhara Chauhan  

I’ve learnt two connected things: the phrase “having smarts” and that cheap lunch on the street can be as delicious and as lovingly prepared — complete with decorative, edible garnishes — as so-called haute cuisine. I was in Mumbai on an exhausting mission: pounding the streets on a flat hunt with my daughter. It was hot, humid and relentlessly sunny.

We rattled in auto-rickshaws from Bandra to Khar to Santa Cruz and back to Bandra. We stood at various trysting points and waited for Cedric or Imran or Ghanshyam to lead us up yet another shabby staircase to yet another unsuitable apartment with purple-tiled walls and vermin in the woodwork. But I have a coping mechanism: I like to always include some element of pleasure in the course of unavoidable travails. At Pali Naka, I embarrassed my daughter by telling Imran to wait because I had spotted vada pao. For months she’d been telling me about her afternoon snack at work so I knew that I had to have it. There seemed to be no known establishment for good vada pao; we had just had to keep our eyes peeled.

There was a boy standing next to a large, dented, round thali-type aluminium tray, spread with fresh newspaper and piled with temptation. Vithal had placed in its centre two plastic jars of chutney, one a coarse red powder and the other a thick green liquid. He had heaped plump golden balls, the vada, on one side; scattered an assortment of brown misshapen onion bhaji with crisp browned corners and poky projections on another; made a little space for a pile of gleaming oily green chillies; and perched a polythene bag of soft white-and-gold pao precariously on the edge. In the time it took me to fish my wallet out of my bag, the plate had been presented with a flourish. He had planted the meal on a square of newspaper so after I finished eating it did double duty as a paper napkin. He had split the pao in half, leaving an edge still attached, slathered on the green chutney, squashed in a vada, sprinkled it with the hot red coconut and garlic chutney, replaced the “lid”, added a green chilli on the side, and we were ready to go.

I had to try the onion bhaji so he offered me the lot. I picked out some of the smaller, crisper pieces and shoved them into the sandwich. I had already paid and when I asked him how much for the extra bhaji he smiled and waved me away. Ten rupees. The bread was soft, fresh, and yeasty, and the vada firm with a thin crisp besan crust outside and soft spiced yellow potato inside. The red chutney, as far I could tell, was made of coarsely crushed garlic, coconut and red chillies. The tart green “spread” that moistened the pao tasted of coriander, green chillies and coconut. One bites into the “sandwich” and meets many layers of taste and texture: soft and warm, firm and savoury, tart and piquant, hot and rough, crisp and crunchy. The green chillies, because they’re fried, are less hot than they would have been raw, and add just the bite I like. I asked for more, he gave me 10 and I ate them. Bhaji may not be standard equipment, but I loved the crunch it added, the sweetness of the onion caramelised by frying, the brittleness of the batter’s crisp edges.

Several times that week vada pao kept appearing under my nose and became my pit-stop refreshment, and each time my consuming interest in the food made me forget to take a photograph. But on my way out, opposite the check-in counter at the airport, lo and behold — my salvation awaited. This was clearly a sanitised version; there was even a QSR-style basket for deep-frying. And the fare was not just as good as any on the streets — it actually had more options. I chose a yellow masala pao, I got my photo and my fix. My “friends” tell me my taste and eating habits are shocking, that I’ll be ill with intestinal infections, that combinations of carb and carb are cheap, unhealthy, and pleb. So be it. To misquote my daughter, look at all the hoots I give.


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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 1:41:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/street-smart/article7164725.ece

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