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A taste of India's street food

A visitor and his guide in Delhi ignore the tourist's taboo against street food to snack on dosa, uttapam and KFC's Zing Kong Box. It's all quite delectable.

May 20, 2012|By Peter Mandel, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A street stand in Delhi is retocked with vegetables. Despite attempts at regulation, stalls selling street food are everywhere.
A street stand in Delhi is retocked with vegetables. Despite attempts at… (Peter Mandel )

DELHI, INDIA — Delhi, India, is closed today.

My guide, a solemn man named C.K. Gupta, is deeply apologetic. It is, he informs me, not a holiday, but a peaceful protest. "Too high prices in the shops." It is 2010, and I am in Delhi on vacation. It is my first time here.

Receiving this piece of early-morning information, I am all set for empty sidewalks. The occasional whining ambulance. Maybe a bus.

But when we leave my rented car near the Defence Colony, it is impossible to move. Trying to walk, I am blocked by the backs of shirts and jackets and saris. An undertow that I do not understand is keeping me in place.

My guide tugs me into a doorway. I am panting. Sweating. "What," I ask, "is going on?"

"Crowded," explains Gupta.

I can see that, I say. "But you said Delhi was closed."

Gupta compresses his face. His eyes are economized into coin slots. "It is closed," he says. "But people have errands. They are hungry. Come with me."

Gupta has me climb the stairs to a restaurant. South Indian Eating Paradise, says the sign. It so happens that Delhi is in northern India. But, for Gupta, this is not a problem.

Our early lunch turns out not to be as filling as I'd thought. "Listen," I say. "I hate to admit this, but I'm still a little hungry."

Gupta examines me.

An analytical man, he watches more than he talks. "Ah," was all he'd said yesterday morning when I'd been lost. Out of a stripe of shadow, Gupta appeared.

"I do not need any help," I had announced. "Ah," replied Gupta, watching, watching. "Ah." He then unfurled his map.

"How about a snack outside?" I suggest. "You could find a vendor. Same south Indian food, let's say, but simpler."

"Tourists do not try this," he says. "Even at a clean place, well, I cannot risk it."

The risk is mine, I say. Let's go.

Street food here, I have read, is a regional thing. Stalls in Delhi and Mumbai will have different techniques and tastes. A few years back, in 2007, there was a push to enforce new sanitation standards and set up "vending zones" with electricity and running water.

But, despite attempts at regulation, this is India. There are makeshift stands wherever you turn. The street-sellers sell on.

"We call this [street] food chaat," says Gupta, lecturing while I drive. He tells me about a typical sidewalk snack called pani puri, a deep-fried shell made from wheat or other flour, full of boiled potato and tamarind juice. Some of the foods, he adds, will give us tastes of yogurt. Chickpeas, "maybe mint" and peanuts.

Fine, I say. All fine.

I park the car at the edge of Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk neighborhood. We take a ride on a bicycle rickshaw for a while (it's welded to the back of an Indian-made Hero-brand bike) and then we get out and try to walk. Streets are miniature and twisted.

After a while, he finds a courtyard — it's partly a driveway for some bikes — that has folding chairs. A card table is topped with a plastic, patterned cover. There is a man with a beard, metal pans and a portable stove.

"Here, you can get more than bite-sized," says Gupta, ordering a masala dosa. For me, he selects the same regional dish I'd tried at the restaurant: uttapam with tomato and onion.

Uttapam, I say. "Sounds like a prescription."

"Probably no one gets sick here," assures Gupta.

So far on my India trip, I have been splurging. The deals are good. My hotel, the Leela Kempinski Gurgaon, has a name that's hard to say. But it's enormous and shiny, with on-site restaurants that are like horns of plenty spilling meats and fruits and cheeses from around the world.

But when our snack is delivered, I realize I am in a different Delhi. The food is served on metal plates, and each of the platters — including chutneys in cups — costs less than 80 rupees, about $1.50. Prices may be high in the stores, but not here.

My uttapam looks the same as it did at lunch: a cross between a pita and pancake. Its toppings seem to be trapped inside. Gupta pours on Day-Glo green and orange relishes without checking first. "Hey," I say.

But when I bite, there's nothing. No fire. Nothing except an onion-y, tomato-y, cilantro taste that makes me want to have more. I do.

"Does this stand have a name?" I ask. Gupta questions the owner, who mulls over my obviously Western looks, then shakes his head. "He says no," translates Gupta. "I think he's worried you might be inspector."

Uttapam tastes like the world's purest pizza. After I'm done, I try a bite of Gupta's masala dosa. It's scrolled up like a crepe. Biting into its quick-fried outer pancake, I get a surprise: a molten core of lentils.

I wave my fork at Gupta. It is missing a prong. Gupta waves his back.

His eyes are following my progress. I add a dab of relish myself — a pink one that makes my food look almost preppy, mixed with the green.

"Now," says Gupta, motioning that I should finish. We move on.

In front of us is an ocean. It's rolling, bobbing, rippling with people. There are islands of stalls. "Tea and coffee selling," explains Gupta.

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