India’s Street Food Scene
One of India’s undoubted strengths is the nation’s iconic foods. As Westerners travelling India by motorbike, we found the street food to be amazing! Sure, you have to be smart when choosing the vendor – pick someone who is busy, where people are eating and the oil is sizzling hot, the food fresh and the vibe is good. We never had any tummy problem notorious to visits to the region.
It was our choice to stick to vegetarian foods, which is the standard to most of India. Restaurants are identified as normal and non-veg. Remember in India – Indian food is just food! But with the nation consisting of 29 states, most of which have their own unique food style, while others have adapted some European foods to cater to local tastes, the range of food is so much more than those found at your local Indian restaurant. Our lack of meat choice was due to the potential for spoilage, both of the meat and our digestive systems.
We were engaged in a Royal Enfield motorcycle journey around the north of the massive nation of India and could not take the risk that spoiled meat might offer. However, our choice seemed not to impair our eating experiences in any way.
For street food, meals are generally snack sized – both in size and cost. On many occasions my son and I ate a number of street meals for the total equivalent of less than $3 Australian – for both of us.
Generally, the food is not chili hot. On many occasions we are asked if we wanted the addition of a chili or if we preferred the food to be spicy. Our acceptance was greeted with a happy nod of approval, though it was never as hot as you will find in some countries, such as Thailand.
Here are a few dishes we tried. Just to be specific, these are foods sold on the street, not a list of the additional excellent dishes we found in restaurants. Also, some of the names eluded us, so I was able to source more correct names thanks to the following web sites:
David’s Been Here
If you are interested in more descriptive examples of India’s excellent street foods, Google You Tube for news on some truly inspiring Indian street foods. Here are a few helpful examples:
We tried street food in most places, especially Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and in the rural areas. In Jaipur, sweating, middle aged Europeans looked on in horror as we ate at the street vendors, but I believe half of the street food experience is attitude. We weren’t silly about it, but if you are paranoid about getting sick, you probably will.
Here are some examples of superb foods by local name. Some images are ours, while others we have borrowed from the sites attributed to the image:
Potato balls, fried and squashed and then with added sauces, spices and chick peas.
This food is amazingly simple, delicious and satisfying. Our Rishikesh vendor kept on adding more sauce and accompaniments until we had to beg him to stop.
Incredible food – like a big rice bubble filled with crushed nut mix, chick peas or veg and then dipped into mint sauce and mild chilli.
Served in your foil bowl one at a time until you are done – meaning you end up with 5 or 6 – the vendor will prepare and dip for you to pop into your mouth with a juicy explosion of flavour.
Can be potato or chapatti crushed and then doused with sweet and sour sauces, chick peas, and more.
Potato – known as Aloo – is integral to the Indian vegetarian diet.
Like a big vege patty on a bun fried in ghee. Yep – it’s as deliciously decadent as it sounds.
A bun with mix of fried noodles, pomegranate seeds, spicy nuts – in a blend that is amazing. Pomegranate is a common ingredient that adds a pop of juicy flavour.
A large, green chili, covered in lentil dahl and then deep fried is some real comfort food when especially hungry.
This fellow in Jodhpur was delighted in our interest. Wow!!
Like an Indian crepe – though fried with the appearance of a pizza. Dosas are made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils and then served with a variety of toppings including cheese. This is a street food must in Mumbai and Southern India.
This iconic bowl of chickpeas and spices with breads or chapatti we enjoyed on the streets of Jaipur.
Mix of pre-fried puffed rice, noodles, freshly diced onions, coriander and fresh tomato, and spices, tossed together and served in an old newspaper cone. Despite the appearance, these are often flamboyantly prepared and are amazingly delicious and light.
Indian ice cream in a small, classic mold has a range of amazing flavours and a slightly gritty texture. We tried camel milk kulfi – which was slightly salty and delightful.
Another food served with the ubiquitous ghee-fried bread bun, this time with a sauce of chick peas, lentils and tomato. Sauces vary by location and also by vendor.
Samosas are popular. These triangular crusty shells stuffed with potato and peas and then deep fried are often much larger than normally encountered in the West.
Fritters with lots of taste – they are everywhere! Battered and deep fried sandwiches are also popoular, but not our favourite.
Indian’s answer to fried rice. We ate vegetable biryani, though chicken and mutton (goat) are also popular.
Kheer is a rich and creamy rice pudding that is made with a milk and sugar base and includes either rice, tapioca, broken wheat, or vermicelli noodles. It can be flavored with cardamom, raisins, saffron, pistachios, and more. Yum!
This is impossible to avoid. Chai, or Masuman Chai, is Indian tea prepared by heating water, adding tea and ginger, and then turning up the heat to a rolling boil. The end result is a boiling hot but refreshing tea served in tiny cups and is intensely flavourful and unique to India!
Bedmi Poori is a hollow and fried lentil-stuffed flatbread that is often eaten with Aloo Sabzi. This traditional breakfast bread is made from a dough of soaked lentils, masala, and flour. Bedmi Poori, Aloo Sabzi, and the sweet Nagori Halwa are often eaten together.
Aloo Sabzi is a delicious, light curry made from potatoes, tomato paste, and a mixture of spices that pairs well with Indian flatbreads like pooris, parathas and rotis. It is packed with signature Indian flavors and is sensational when eaten with Bedmi Poori.
Lassi is a traditional yogurt drink that comes in many flavors and varieties. It is essential while trying Indian street food, as many local dishes contain a fiery heat that slowly builds as you eat. The casein (milk protein) in the lassi counteracts the spice and helps cool your mouth down, so it’s both flavorful and functional!
For superb lassis, often served in disposable clay pots, try Jaipur, or the infamous Blue Lassi in Varanasi.
Last but not least is the dessert sensation of Gulab Jamun. While India produces a huge range of delicious sweets, Gulab Jamun is a milk-solid based sweet and the most famous. It is often available from street vendors.
As we travelled India by motorbike, we often didn’t have a lot of choice as to where to eat. We found most roadside restaurants were terrific, with the food fresh and, of particular emphasis to westerners, safe.
It might take a little courage at first, so try some of the main urban centres, especially Mumbai, which has a vibrant street food scene. As travellers, sampling India’s street food was a major part of our enjoyment of this amazingly diverse land.
Rob Shackleford is author of Traveller Inceptio, published by British publisher, Austin Macauley.
Kyle Shackleford is musician Milo Hunter Band and a Chef.