Fast food without the fries

In India and Pakistan, street vendors whip up exotic dishes and offer a lively social hangout

The routine at Joydev's railway-station stall in Bombay goes like this. Say "ragda-kachori," and swift hands behind the food stall crush a kachori (fried-dough ball) with one hand and pour steaming ragda (spicy gravy) over it with the other. Regulars have already placed money on the counter by now - six rupees (or 13 US cents). In four to eight seconds, the entire transaction has been completed.

On the Indian subcontinent, the slogan "billions and billions served" better describes street stalls than McDonald's. And there's no faster food to be had than at Joydev's - or the thousands of other vendors that line the streets and depots of India's and Pakistan's big cities.

Indian roadside cuisine isn't only about speed and convenience. Across the subcontinent, food stalls take on the local spices and patterns of life, feeding people from every social strata. People stop at the stalls before work to catch a meal wrapped in yesterday's newspaper, hang out with friends late at night, or just enjoy an afternoon chai with a colleague.

While busy railway stalls have a smooth setup, complete with workers in khaki uniforms and Nehru caps, less trafficked stalls are usually more modest. Some are merely one-person operations using a wooden table with rickshaw wheels, basic cooking tools, and a colorful canopy.

In America, many natives of India and Pakistan remember this part of their heritage, and the more determined re-create them in their kitchens. Restaurants in the US have also begun offering some of the roadside dishes.

At his Boston bistro, Bhindi Bazaar, executive chef Samir Majmudar serves many dishes inspired by the street food he grew up with. Chaat Papri, for example - chickpeas and potatoes tossed in savory spices, yogurt, and tamarind sauce - is wildly popular on the street in India as well as at Bhindi Bazaar. It originated in Ragistan, where residents are strict vegetarians. Some of Mr. Majmudar's patrons were introduced to this dish in cities near there.

But Majmudar warns that street stalls are less sanitary than they used to be. He suggests that tourists dine instead at restaurants in India that feature street-food dishes. On a recent trip to Bombay, he attended a wedding where street food was served in what he calls the "hygienic confines of a five-star hotel."

"When street food is done properly," he says, "it's the most delicious food you can imagine."

Like many Indians living in the US, Majmudar has fond memories of street cooks who made dishes with the right proportion of spices, perfected over a lifetime. Even after 30 years in the food industry and with four successful restaurants, he is still inspired by their example.

But impossible to replicate in America are the local experiences connected with eating this food.

"People gather around street-food vendors," says Majmudar. "It's a social meeting place."

Payal Parekh, a student in Boston, remembers late nights hanging out with friends near the stalls in her grandparents' hometown. She and her friends would sip masala milk, a popular drink in the alcohol-free state of Gujarat. The lukewarm milk contains saffron, cardamom, and ground pistachio or almond.

When Ms. Parekh worked in rural India, she and her colleagues ate at the same highway stall each day before heading into villages. They drank chai and ate fafra, a mixture of chickpeas and flour shaped into long tubes, deep-fried, and served with cilantro chutney or chili peppers.

"The fafrawallah looked forward to our visits and was always getting us to bring little things for him from the city [like toiletries]," Parekh says. "[One] reason for going to the vendors is because of the relationship you have."

In contrast to the serenity of rural road stalls, some vendors walk the streets of Pakistani cities with boom boxes. They play only one song, recalls MIT student Bilal Zuberi. It is from a 1970s film, and the lyrics refer to "gol-gappa," a dish that consists of hollow fried-dough balls to which one pokes a hole, adds chickpeas, a spoonful of tangy broth, and then eats it whole. (See photo for chef Majmudar's variation on this dish.)

Mr. Zuberi still remembers the words to the song, which translate as follows:

Here comes the gol-gappa seller/ He brings gol-gappa to us/ He sings in every street, making people smile as he walks/ Look, look, here he comes!

Some Indians, who have lived in the US for many years, decide not to eat from roadside stalls when they return. Like chef Majmudar, however, they still find ways to eat street food. Omar Khalidi, a longtime resident of Massachusetts, for example, reconnects with the food in the homes of his hosts.

He recalls with delight being served unripe mango chutney on a visit to Agra last summer.

"It was a taste that I had nearly forgotten," Mr. Khalidi says. "It was always connected with school closures. In late April, the schools would close all over India, and the unripe mangoes would be all over the markets.

"To retaste something that you were so familiar with," he adds, "it is like something long lost that you have regained."

Monitor staff writer Jennifer Wolcott also contributed to this report from Boston.

Mango Chutney

Street-food dishes are complicated to make and lengthy to publish, so we chose to feature this simple recipe from 'World Vegetarian' (Clarkson Potter), by Madhur Jaffrey. A leading authority on Indian cooking, she has written seven cookbooks, including the classic 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking.'

Mango Chutney is a popular accompaniment to many Indian dishes.

3 small or 2 large sour green mangoes (about 1 pound)
2 to 2-1/2 teaspoons salt
2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1-1/2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup golden raisins (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne

Peel the mangoes and cut them into slices. Cut the slices into 3/4-inch dice. Put them into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt, toss to mix, and set aside for 24 hours. Drain and pat dry, and then spread out on paper towels.

Put the garlic and ginger in a food processor or blender. Add just enough of the vinegar to purée into a fine paste.

In a stainless steel or porcelain-lined pan, combine the remaining vinegar, the sugar, raisins, turmeric, cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt, and the ginger-garlic paste. Stir and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, on medium heat for 15 minutes, or until very slightly thickened. Add the mango pieces and bring the chutney to a simmer again, stirring as you do so. Simmer gently, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the mango pieces look translucent and the chutney has thickened some more. Taste and add salt more if needed. Put into a clean glass or ceramic jar while still hot and allow to cool. Cover tightly with a noncorrosive lid. Keep refrigerated. The chutney may be eaten as soon as it is made, although it mellows as it sits.

Makes about 3-1/2 cups. Keeps for about a week.

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