Perhaps India’s most democratic food culture is that of its street food. Whether it’s chomping on alu-anda or double anda-chicken rolls at Kusum Rolls on Kolkata’s Park Street, eating kebabs off steel plates perched on the hood of your car outside Bademiya in Colaba, Mumbai, gorging on pani puri and gulkhand with ice cream at Thindi Beedi in Bengaluru, or tearing into Moolchand Parathas and digging into mutton curry at Kake Da Hotel in Delhi. But the idea that the world would appreciate it seemed far-fetched. Visitors to India hesitate to explore it, fearing the infamous Delhi Belly. Abroad, the curry house interpretation has been ubiquitous.
But things are changing. Last month, Chai Pani was declared America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards. “It’s hard to process that a chaat house selling Indian street food could have won outstanding restaurant,” says Meherwan Irani, founder, chef and CEO of Chai Pani Restaurant Group in the US, in a Zoom interview.
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Earlier this year, Manav Tuli, chef de cuisine of Chaat in Hong Kong, won his first Michelin star. When he began to conceptualise the restaurant for the opulent Rosewood Hong Kong hotel in 2020, the brief was to showcase north Indian food. Today Chaat offers kebabs and even tandoori lobster, commonly found in the shacks off Goan beaches. There are even patti samosas in jackfruit and lamb versions, biryanis, and a smoky Champaran mutton.
A growing number of Indian chefs in recent years have taken to street food. Take Dheeraj Singh, founder and head chef of Indian Street Food & Co., who helms six restaurants and four food trucks in Stockholm and plans to open another restaurant in Oslo soon. He has won the Nordic Championship awards under various categories from 2017-19. Indian Street Food & Co. has concepts like “On the Go” Roadside Curries—meal choices of rice, dal, chicken/veggies and naan. Singh also offers kathi rolls with varied fillings, served with a raw food mixture of fresh vegetables that he says ties in with the raw food scene in Sweden. Dinner menus at his restaurants are more relaxed, with elaborate street food meals like the Old Delhi Seekh Kebabs, Lucknowi Nihari, Aloo Tikki Papdi Chaat and Mutton Ragda.
“The Swedes are well-travelled, and, being close to Britain, they know what to expect from Indian food. Their understanding has grown each year, allowing Indian dishes with more complex tastes to be introduced, even if classics are still requested,” adds Singh. So while his food trucks, started in 2014, still offer Masala Gotland potatoes or Tawa chicken-filled dosas, you can get deconstructed samosas (among his best-sellers) or an Indian taco with fillings of chicken seekh or tandoori soya kebabs at his restaurants. Pani puri sits alongside butter chicken with Basmati rice, Chicken Chettinad and Kerala prawn curry.
Maneet Chauhan, award-winning chef, author, television personality and founding partner and president, Morph Hospitality Group, in Nashville, US, agrees, adding, “The American audience appreciates the essence of chaat, the play of flavours and textures now, just like Indians do.”
“We are all putting our interpretations to Indian food and trying to get away from the curry houses that people grew up with,” says Irani. “The more organisations like James Beard or Michelin recognise that Indian food is diverse than what is around, the more perceptions will shift.”
The experience of Indian street food, however, goes beyond the mélange of flavours and textures. The sights and sounds are an inextricable part of it. Chefs recognise this and have adopted different approaches to fill this gap. Some take the nostalgia route, introducing the tastes of their childhood. Others work with local ingredients and descriptors, bringing in a relatability factor. Yet others use food stories to contextualise dishes.
At Chaat, Tuli brings out a biryani handi covered with a decorative puff pastry studded with a range of seeds—kalonji (black cumin), fennel, watermelon and more. As this stunning shell is cracked open, he tells one of the many stories surrounding the biryani: of how Queen Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory the Taj Mahal was created, asked the army cooks to whip up a one-pot meal of rice, meat and spices to nourish the soldiers. The Taj Mahal reference creates an “instant connect”.
At Chai Pani, all the pictures on the walls are of the chaatwallahs from Irani’s childhood. This taste of nostalgia helps customers connect with the real India, he says. Even the piped music is energetic, the kind you will hear on streets in India. His menu offers the classic bhelpuri, sweet potato chaat, matchstick okra fries (a signature) and sev potato dahi puri (inspired by Pune’s Ramakrishna restaurant). He has the Sloppy Jai, a Parsi-style keema pav modelled on the Sloppy Joe, pav bhaji and a range of rolls in chicken, paneer tikka and crispy masala fish.
What does the Indian seeking out a piece of home in foreign lands think of all this? Some may miss the hit of spice—but there are compensations. At Chauhan’s Chaatable, you will find Maggi on the menu. “Adding it was almost a tongue-in-cheek move because you get it street-side everywhere in India, and everyone brings in their twist on it,” says Chauhan.
“I have Mumbaikars tell me that our vada pav, inspired by Garden’s vada pav on Taboot street in Pune, is hands down the most authentic they have had. The pani puri, based on the one at Elco Market in Mumbai, is always in demand. People ask me how I get it to taste even better than in India, if that is possible,” says Irani, acknowledging the advantage of access to the best ingredients.
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Today, this piece of a complex culinary mosaic is opening new doors. Singh is planning a chaat menu that can be paired with cocktails for his soon-to-open restaurant in Oslo, while Irani hopes to open more Chai Panis. Tuli is exploring new tasting menus to give guests a chance to try more dishes on each visit. Chauhan simply says, stay tuned.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.