Eating “on the Street”

parrota and coffee 

I hear a lot of advice given about precautions one should take when visiting India. Most of that seems directed at protecting one from what Indians would call “loose motions.” It almost always involves abstinence, a concept that will never be incorporated into my behavioral vocabulary.

One piece of advice almost universally offered is this: don’t eat food on the streets.

“On the streets” is shorthand for the variety of informal eating opportunities to be found on the footpaths (Indian English for sidewalks) of cities and towns, and under the shade trees of the village marketplaces. Often these are pushcart vendors, though sometimes they are micro-establishments found, quite literally, in holes in the walls and stands of a semi-permanent nature.

Let’s take one issue off the table immediately: hygiene. I do not pretend for a second that most of these places comport with any sensible meaning of the word, or that they would pass scrutiny by any public health official in any country where food service establishments are subject to such regulation. These places would certainly be considered “dirty” by anyone who cares about such things. (But then, only a small minority of restaurants in India, of any sort, would meet the needs of western germophobes.)

parrota biryani

Let me also say this: I do not have an impervious stomach. In fact, I have gotten food poisoning from an otherwise wonderful meal at Aqua in San Francisco, one of my favorite restaurants in the world, where one can scarcely get out the door for less than $100 per person, before you add in the wine. But I hasten to add that would not keep me from eating there again – in a second – if anyone cares to treat me!

The question to ask — at Aqua or at a pushcart selling chaat — is whether the experience is worth the risk.

Let’s begin by assessing the risk. For travelers from abroad, the bugs in the water and food here are different than those in the water and food from where they hail. This is not “bad”, per se, just different. Our bodies will quite rapidly collect the local microbes and grow accustomed to them. Then there is the bad shit: bacterial contaminants like e coli and others, which no one wants in their comestibles, ever.

fruit groundnuts

If, after a short period of adjustment, you are not eating food from street vendors, you are needlessly depriving yourself of some of the most easily accessible wonders of India.

And in Pondicherry, where I live, they are nearly a necessity. The rule in India is: come for the food, stay for the spiritualism, sightseeing, service work, or whatever else floats your boat. Varying by region, the food in India is uniformly delicious and uniformly abundant. Conjure in your mind any-block-of-any-street-of-any-city in the country, and you will imagine a street vendor, whose cart sits in front of a small bhojanalaya, which sits downstairs from a proper restaurant. Food is everywhere, part of the all-fronts assault on the senses that is India. In Pondy, by comparison, a guy could practically starve to death.

Oh sure, there are a handful of Chettinadu joints and iddli/dosa spots; but they are generally underwhelming. There’s the beautiful, serene dining room of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which serves up wholesome food so lacking in flavor I would expect many potential devotees have given up spiritualism for good after just one meal. And, because we were a former French colony, there are a number of overpriced, under-hospitable places serving poorly prepared continental cuisine. But as Indian towns go, it is quite barren of eating opportunities. Except for “on the street.”

biryani parcels chai

One typical place we favor is run by three young guys, serving biryani by day and parrotas by night. At another, fried veg snacks (onion samosas, pakoras, and mixed-dal patties) are available throughout the afternoon and evening. A brilliant woman on Anna Salai fries absolutely amazing fish and shrimp at dinner-time. We have our favorite coffee, tea, and juice stalls. Good quality fruit is sold on many street corners, as well as by the individual vendors in the markets. The guys down the street from us sell awesome potato and yam chips.

Yoo-Mi, our friend Mouhsine, and I ate at our current favorite two nights ago: the guys who sell ambrosial mutton soup and freshly fried samosas from a pushcart setup in front of a “broken” house, just around the corner from the mosque. We pigged-out. Mouhsine and I had two bowls of soup each, Yoo-Mi slurped down one, and together we polished off nine good-sized samosas. The tab came to a whopping Rs. 123 (something south of $2.75), which Mouhsine generously stepped in to pay. “You can take me to dinner someplace nice in San Francisco,” he grinned.

One common thread in the recommendations about what visitors to India should and should not to eat: they usually come from people who do not live in India. I always brush off precautionary suggestions, reminding the well-meaning advice-givers that I am not visiting India, I live here.

mutton soup fried fish
The best-of-the-best: mutton soup with samosas and fried fish and shrimp

3 Responses to “Eating “on the Street””

  1. 1 Muzzy 19 December 2006 at 2:02 am

    Dude, when u r in Mumbai go to Mohammed Ali Road for the best “footpath” Mughlai food. It’s the best there is.

    There is a rekri (push cart) vendor behind the Gateway of India called Bade Miyan that serves the best kabab and tikkas. U will find some of the Mumbai’s most effulent & wealthy ppl eating there, keeping plates on their cars bonnets & dikkies as there is no place to sit.

    Most of the office-goers in South Mumbai eat around th Flora Fountain area. Food there isn inexpensive, quick and tasty

    All can be washed down with some real orange juice or coconut water & topped by a lovely paan.

    God, miss my stint there.

    Have been away from that place for about 7 years but make it a point to visit each time I’m in Mumbai.

    Thanks for reminding me.

  2. 2 mbjesq 19 December 2006 at 3:09 am

    Eating on the streets of Mumbai is a book in itself!

    I know Bademiyan well, and it is truly great! But there are two kebab places “on the street” I like even better. One is not far from there in Kala Ghoda. I can’t recall the name, but it is on the north side of what is or was a synagogue. The other is among the line of dhabas on the west side of Bandra Station.

    We plan to be in Bombay in late January for further work on our Friends Without Borders project. If I have the time, I’ll do a post on my favorite street chaat. Trying unsuccessfully to recall names and exact locations at 3:00 am from Pondicherry is a pleasant exercise for me, but not particularly helpful for anyone else.

    Glad you liked the post.

  3. 3 pegasus 21 December 2006 at 12:16 am

    the best chaat is always prepared at the hawkers…. rather than in a clean posh restaurant.

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