They say a thousand ships were launched to discover a trade route from Europe to India, only to discover the Americas instead. Why were every king and his commander obsessed with blazing a trail to the Subcontinent? For the exotic spices that only India has produced for most of recorded history.
Street vendors offer some of the best opportunities for visitors to India to sample those spices, which can produce an aromatic nirvana for your tastebuds. Just make sure you go to a place that’s very popular. How do you know if it’s popular? Look for a crowd of locals. We Indians love our street food and we frequent the places we love. Even those who hate driving or traveling will travel many miles for a very special Gol Gappa or Pani Puri.
I’m going to focus on three items out of the tens available. You can find them nearly anywhere in the country and as long as you tell the server not to put any raw veggies in them you will be safe to enjoy them. Wash your hands before eating because the desi (Indian) food just doesn’t taste the same with forks and spoons.
Dosa: This is a south Indian delicacy that comes in many forms. It’s recently become available on mainstream restaurant menus, even in the U.S., but unless you’ve sampled it from a streetside joint, you have not tried the real thing. Made of rice batter and lentils, Dosa is a thin pancake of sorts fermented overnight. You can get a stuffed Dosa, filled with potatoes and tomatoes and many other things, or you can get a plain Dosa, a simple wrapper with no filling. You dip it in the soupy sambhar that comes with it, or, if you’re willing to experiment, take it with the various chutneys that accompany it. My personal favorite is Rava Dosa, which is made of wheat flour and is crispier than the rice one.
Pav Bhaji: Though Pav Bhaji is less illustrious than its more famous cousin, Vada Pav, it’s the staple on the streets of Mumbai and more widely available in all parts of India. Pav is a small bun or small loaf of bread that is cut in two and heated on a hot plate with a bit of butter. On the same hot plate you will find Bhaji in the form of a hill of potatoes mixed with seasonal veggies like capsicum, tomatoes, peas, etc., simmering slowly and continuously. When you order, the cook will take a small portion of the mountain and pound the mixture into a yummy paste. He’ll add some butter on top of it along with lime juice, and even before you get your plate in hand your salivary glands will be working overtime so ask for an extra napkin. Ladies and gentlemen, your Pav Bhaji is ready to take you on a gastronomic journey that only Indian street food can offer.
Kulfi: First made with ice hauled from the Himalayas, this dessert was invented to provide some cool relief to the Mughal Emperors during the Middle Ages. Kulfi, the mother of all ice creams, is made by sprinkling milk with pounded dry fruits and nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios), then garnished with mild spices and saffron and loads of sugar. The milk is heated until it becomes condensed and then poured into small, slim, conical containers, with a stick added to hold the Kulfi when it’s ready. The containers are frozen and the Kulfi is kept in the containers until it’s served.
Once you touch the Kulfi with your tongue a volcano of flavors from the saffron, dry fruits and spices erupts in your mouth. The cold does not allow you to swallow it, and the taste does not allow you to spit it.
Like I said: tastebud nirvana!