We grew up on home food. Solely and exclusively. There was no other choice for us, but we didn’t mind at all because Mother was a gifted culinary artist, with a seemingly endless supply of recipes and an inexhaustible amount of energy to create masterpieces in the kitchen.
Besides, most of our childhood years were spent in the back of beyond, where there were no real markets to explore — just a couple of shops that catered to the daily needs of the hamlets we lived in.
Our introduction to street food, therefore, came when we were in our teens, when Father was posted to New Delhi. At first, it was a second choice, something we would “settle” for, even if it was not what we really craved, which was more from Mother’s magic ladle. But by then, Mother was quite likely growing weary of the challenge presented by our ever-increasing appetites and she probably thought a change would be good for her more than for us.
Meals and taste buds
Thus we tasted many North Indian specialities like gol guppas / pani puri, aloo tikki (potato cutlets), piping hot samosas and jalebis tantalisingly fried right in front of us, and we were introduced to channa batura — all from hole-in-the-wall street shops or street carts. Not all of these treats appealed to my taste buds, but some of them became my favourite foods: something I would thereafter choose to eat at any time over a three-course meal in a restaurant!
And it all hit that same spot: the special stimulation of the taste buds that came with food that captures a place because it belongs to it.
There was no getting away from it. There was a special inimitable taste to these treats, part real and part thrill, that could never be replicated in our home! In fact, even if we took some of it home because we couldn’t get through all of it in one go, that unique flavour seemed to dissipate — and it never tasted quite the same as it did when we were out there on the street!
Sadly, after over a decade of indulging in street food whenever we had the chance, we went back to living in way-out places, and once again there was little opportunity to indulge our taste for the street foods we had first sampled.
Love for snacks
However, we did find local specialities during the course of our travel to and from home: batata vadas (roughly mashed potatoes fried in batter) that were the signature snacks at railway stations in my home state; paneer (cottage cheese) sandwiches in Ambala, dripping with butter and calories and absolutely unparalleled in taste; momos (dumplings) and soup and spicy chutney in Shillong — and we realised that the essence of a village or town or city can be best appreciated if one samples its local/street offerings.
Thus, when we finally made our first trips abroad, we gave restaurants a miss and sought out food in local markets, bus stations, train stations and food carts in parks or on the roadside — and we rarely went wrong.
We did our “research” before we left our homeland and we sometimes tramped long distances to make sure we found the foods and the food sellers we had read about: gorging on meat or mushroom pierogies in Krakow, spinach, cheese and meat burek in Ljubljana, ravioli from little market stalls in Rome, ice cream chimneys in Prague, gibanica and politza cake in Slovenia, roasted chestnuts in Istanbul …
Some of these did not qualify as complete meals — but we made them so, sating our senses with the aromas and the tastes.
What delighted us most of all, I think, was the magical feeling that comes with strolling down an unfamiliar street munching a local delicacy, all the while drawing in the flavours of the atmosphere to make each indulgence an experience in itself!
— Cheryl Rao is a writer based in India