Random Thoughts

Street Food

One need not be a foodie to look out for food on television. With the national preoccupation with the lousy politicking by the two national parties avidly covered by the numerous news channels and weepy, lachrymose soaps  there is very little choice left for a couch potato like me but to veer round to the channels that can hold the attention. Movies are far too long and not quite the cup of tea. The programmes on food are the ones that want the attention only for a while and are interesting. And, there are a number of them in various channels.

The Indian channels like Times Now and NDTV 24x7 generally have only weekly slots which too can be cancelled for more important and newsworthy shows. NDTV Good Times, Fox Traveller, Travel & Living are some of the ones which schedule a number of half-hour slots where a bit of a ‘whiff’ of the flavours of world cuisine can be had. Food Safari, World Cafe Asia, Twist of Taste, Feast Bazaar, Nigella’s Feast and so on are the ones that are eminently watchable of the programmes. Currently, however, emphasis is on street food with programmes like “Street Food around the World” and “Eat Street”. Currently a “Street Food Festival – Celebration of Flavours” is also being telecast.    
Although street food in India offers such array tastes and flavours yet, unfortunately, it is fraught. So many imponderables are associated with it. One can never be sure of its purity and the quality of its ingredients. Adulteration of food items is common and the cooked food can get contaminated in many ways – by exposure carriers of infection, dust and other contaminants. Even the cooking medium and water that is used could well be contaminated. The cooks of all that is purveyed on the streets of India generally care little for hygiene and added to that is the pervasive insanitation. Occasionally, street food vendors even set up shop with open display of all that they offer surrounded by filth and squalor. Worse, in India bare hands are extensively used in handling and dishing out food items. No one knows whether the hands are properly washed or sterilised.

In India systems are always put in place but they are seldom functional. Food and beverages monitoring establishments have been installed but somehow these outfits always fail the people. All over the country they are kind of moribund and inactive with all kinds of excuses for being dysfunctional. As their presence is not visible people don’t take them seriously. Generally none has faith in the inspectorial staff as they are taken mostly as bunches of corrupt officials. Mercifully, some efforts at checking the food on the street and that dished out through eateries recently commenced in Bhopal. A few checks carried out revealed startling results. After reading the reports not many people would have the gumption to consume any of the stuff available out on the streets or even in some of the run-of-the-mill eateries. Obviously, a lot of work needs to be done by them. Hopefully, they realise that on their commitment to duties depends the good health and wellbeing of a very large number of people who consume street food – some out of sheer necessity and others for pleasure. Besides if they function properly, they would be doing a service to the healthcare system which is being choked to death because of widespread food and water contamination.

Despite all that, however, it is popular. Not only it is cheap, it also provides a means of self-employment to a very substantial section of the people, especially those who are not able to secure employments. Such delectable stuff is on offer on the streets all over the country that one is always tempted to taste it. Whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, a snack or a meal, the stuff is tempting – in appearance, taste and the aroma that it exudes.

No wonder Indian street food has now travelled abroad. London, for example, hosts quite a few joints that serve street food. In “Zaika India ka” hosted on NDTV by the well-known anchor Vinod Dua a large number of young white people were seen tucking in Indian food sitting on London sidewalks in front of joints that dish out spicy Indian stuff. What is more, the snacks of Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala are now crowding the sidewalks of London. Pau bhaji, kathi rolls and masala dosas are progressively becoming firm favourites among Londoners. Kerb at King’s Cross plays host to a number of international flavours where Dosa Deli serves crisp dosas with a wide range of fillings. A joint called Horn Ok Please serves Paani puries and there also are vendors of samosas and chaat. At Tooting High Street even the Bengali snack Jhaal Muri is dished out from Jhaal Muri Express by an Englishman who learnt the art of creating the perfect mix from the street vendors of Kolkata. He hawks around the stuff in his colourful cart concentrating on areas where Indians happen to be the dominant community.

Not exactly street food, but Indian spiced-up items of chicken-tikka-masala, paneer palak, samosas and numerous others have become ubiquitous across the Atlantic in New York City dished out at new breed of Indian restaurants that are neither Michelin-starred nor the no-frills like eateries elsewhere in the city. The best of the “Indian fast food”, however, is available at what is affectionately called “Curry Hill” at Lexington Avenue on the east side of Manhattan. From hole-in-the-wall snack shops south Indian rustle up oversized dosas and peppery rasam right next to north Indian joints doling out hot butter chicken, biryanis, rotis, aloo-papri chaat, keema naan, kati roll and so on. With a mind-boggling array of affordable dishes to choose from offering sharp, hot and fiery tastes from across most of India, Curry hill is a cheap-eaters’ paradise.

The States seem to have emerged as a heaven for street food lovers. “Eat Street”, a programme telecast by Fox Traveller every day, shows the popularity of street food all across USA from San Diego to New York City. Specially designed vehicles parked at vantage points serve the burgeoning clientele burgers with a variety of fillings and an array of sauces. It is a quite a sight to see American men women and children opening their jaws wide to sink their teeth into massive burgers filled with all the goodies The mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, a place made famous by Elvis Presley, was once seen eating off a parked truck and was highly appreciative of whatever he took a big bite of. From Hispanic to Indian, from paella to pies and curried chicken and from nachos, tacos, tortillas, naans and Ethiopian flat bread - everything is available.

Bobby Chinn, a street food presenter, in his programme “World Cafe – Asia” on Fox Traveller takes the viewers through the streets of that capital of Street Food, Bangkok, to the colourful and vibrant night markets of Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other South-East Asian cities where chop sticks keep busy with hordes of people using them to shove in the amazingly rich fare with fantastic aromas and tastes that are available right through the night. Chinn has ventured out to even the Middle East to present some delectable barbecued stuff. Barry Vera, another food anchor of Feast Bazaar, eats his way through Morocco and its amazing cuisine. The Food Market of Marrakesh is mind-blowing with an amazing range of snacks, complete meals and drinks to go with them. Located inside a massive walled court yard in central section of the old city it is a sight to see the food carts wheeled in to convert it in a matter of minutes into a vibrant and thriving Market in the evening that provides visitors culinary delights till late into the night.

Even if it is on the TV, seeing people eat off the streets with such abandon sometimes makes one feel jealous. Assured as they are of the quality of the stuff they consume, they have not a care or worry in the world. One really cannot say that for us in this country despite the highly tempting stuff that one comes across on the Indian streets.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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