Mumbaikars, your street food fix is still some time away

Updated: Jul 19, 2020, 07:48 IST | Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

Craving the raste ki pani puri? Even as your keep sanitisers, gloves and face shields ready, stall owners say they'll wait till the streets are safe again

Arun Ram Joshi of Ram and Shyam chaat stall in Santacruz has been paying his staff to continue to stay back in Mumbai, but is determined not to open shop until it's safe to. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Arun Ram Joshi of Ram and Shyam chaat stall in Santacruz has been paying his staff to continue to stay back in Mumbai, but is determined not to open shop until it's safe to. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Food SwingsLong after Elco Pani Puri in Bandra lost its taste charm on my palate, pani puri with ragda at Vile Parle Station's Khao Galli became a favourite. A friend and I have nursed heartbreaks with the spicy pani's heartburn, and gossiped about all things under the sun during our walk to the spot. We have been living in mortal fear ever since the Coronavirus outbreak in March. I wonder how lovers of street food will once again return to the stalls that line the gullies of Mumbai and the corners of Purani Dilli with not a care for hygiene?

The pandemic has brought its own woos. Last month, the Bombay High Court told the Maharashtra state government to frame a policy to enable street vendors to earn a living during the lockdown. The BMC has sought time to reply to this, while Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) has designed a policy for them to operate outside of containment zones.

Anchal Bhalla, who runs an Indian cooking studio in Delhi, at Shyam Sweets
Anchal Bhalla, who runs an Indian cooking studio in Delhi, at Shyam Sweets

The house arrest took me back in history. Memories of gorging food on streets and conversations that traced its history.

When Delhi-based historian Rana Safvi was translating dastan-e-gadar, by Zahir Dehlvi, which chronicles the fading glory of the Mughal court and the Revolt of 1857, she came across references of soldiers from Meerut in a bazaar eating puri sabzi. "This was in the halwai shops, not on the street. The culture of street food, sitting on the street and hawking, started after 1857 after the royal kitchens were dismantled. The imperial cooks or khansamas had nowhere to go. There is a documentation of the ghummi kebabi who sold seekh kebab on the road in Shahajahanabad (Old Delhi). Even Kareem's (legendary kebab joint). The jalebiwala at Chandni Chowk used to take pheri on his head and roam the streets until he had enough to open a shop. Over time, Chandni Chowk's Parathe Wali Galli opened. Hygiene is a concern with street food. Whoever wants to continue selling will have to evolve," she says.

Rakesh Kumar sells daulat ki chaat in the bylanes of Purani Dilli
Rakesh Kumar sells daulat ki chaat in the bylanes of Purani Dilli

In Mumbai, they say street food started with Pancham Puri Wala in the 1800s, who sold the simple puri-kadu sabzi and aloo puri around the banyan tree near the BEST garden at CST. "This is where criminals were hanged," claims archaeologist Kurush Dalal. "The crime of the accused would be announced in a dramatic set up with people thronging the spot like it was a mela. This is where the first hawker of the city is believed to have sold his food. While we can't prove that Pancham started the trend, the records of the hangings in the area are available in records," he quips.

Back then, the city's residents found comfort in chana, sing, chana chor garam sold on the streets. Then came the bhel walas of Rajasthan and UP. The menu expanded to dahi puri and ragda pattice. "The mobile thela with the damaru-shaped stand [was ubiquitous with the bhelwala]. Then, with the popularity of cheese came the sandwich trend of the 1980s. The seekh kebab walas fanning their grills and boiled egg stalls set up outside desi daaru bars sprung up. The vada pav has been around since the 1970s, with the bread serving not only as a filling exterior, but also a pouch to comfortably hold the steaming vada," he adds.

Chawri Bazaar lane
Chawri Bazaar lane

My first visit to Purani Dilli reminded me of Dawa Bazaar at Princess Street in Mumbai. I had spent many an hour walking here since this is where my father's office was located. Old Delhi's Chawri Bazaar resembles the neighbourhood, with the overhead clutter of wires looking like an art installation, the carts playing statue with not an inch to move, while the action unfolds on the footpath—stalls sell chai and people walk in a matrix. I was flooded with Old Bombay nostalgia as I walked through the 'dhakkam dhakki'.

I next visited the place with Anchal Bhalla of Tastesutra, who runs Indian cooking studio for tourists and locals in Delhi.

Nimboo paratha with aloo sabzi and kadu sabzi at Shop no. 34 in Parathewali Galli
Nimboo paratha with aloo sabzi and kadu sabzi at Shop no. 34 in Parathewali Galli

Our first breakfast stop was for nihari at Kareem's. We watched the pista and badam sheermal being made at Meerut ka mashoor stall opposite Gate no 1 at Jama Masjid. The sweet naan is dipped in sugar syrup. The meandering lanes took us to Shyam Sweets for matar and pyaaz kachori served with watery aloo sabzi. The bedmi puri stuffed with urad dal was devoured with suji halwa.

At Parathe Wali Galli, Bhalla ordered "sab ka ek". My favourites were nimboo achar and papad parathas. They are hyped, and over fried, but memorable. I later visited Ashok Chaat for their papdi bhalla and aloo masala chaat. Established in 1948 by Sagar Jaiswal's ancestors, this is for the first time since inception that the shop is shut. "The market is open on alternate days, but food stalls are likely to stay shut till September. Will the customers return? It is a worry," he says.

Arun Ram Joshi of Ram and Shyam chaat stall in Santacruz says, while he is paying his staff to continue to stay back in Mumbai, he is determined not to open shop until it's safe to. "My grandfather came here from Lalsot, Jaipur, and started selling chaat in 1959. Dadaji introduced the kori chutney, the geeli meethi chutney and lasoon chutney. Over time, all dishes adapted to the Mumbai palate—a balance of spicy, sweet and sour," he says. A dabeli wala in Vile Parle confessed that they had started selling, but with caution. "Work is slow, we are watching our expenses."

My mother has made pani puri thrice during the lockdown. But I have put my faith in divine timing so that I can trudge again for a mouthful of goodness.

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