Sunday, July 24, 2005

Stomach this

In countries where order and sanity prevails, young people get their dose of thrills by bungee jumping and mountain biking. In India, the most popular - and easily accessible - adventure a young person can seek out is street food.

Yes, even as Macs, Domninos and Subways sprout up everywhere, the Kailash Parbats and Brijwasis expand their reach and completely new outlets like 'Wraps n Rolls' enter our food courts, street food continues to flourish. Especially in a city like Mumbai.

If anything, there's more of it now than there used to be. And it's also cooler to eat off the streets than to be a sissy and say, "Sorry I don't have that stuff".

I used to be that kind of person - it was the way we were brought up. Carry tiffin with you, eat at a place with a table, if you really must.

Even on the annual trips to Juhu beach when hicktown cousins came a-visiting, we'd drag along a picnic basket full of aloo-puri. The max you were allowed to buy at the beach was a bhutta.

Though I am now 'converted', the fear still lingers... However I see no such inhibitions with the majority of the college junta of today!

Khaate raho
Why is street food so popular? Well I guess because of two factors:
a) It's cheap and it's everywhere: If you can whip up a decent bhelpuri rest assured you will make a living in Mumbai city. Even after paying off the BMC and cops for standing under a tree somewhere.

And you can sell your bhel for 7 bucks vs the 15 rupees it will cost in an Udipi, or 20 bucks in a mall.

Besides, the 'wallahs' are at every street corner and outside every college. Just seeing the little crowd of people standing there waiting for their food fix makes you hungry!

b) It's unique: Unlike the mass produced mastication material churned out by chains and even Udipi restaurants, street food vendors often have the X factor.

And those that do become 'famous' for particular concoctions. Like the dosawallah outside Sophia college, the sandwichwallah outside National college and so on and so forth.

The famous guys actually command pretty good prices. I'd like to visit their homes and check out what cars they drive!

Dirty secrets
Coming back to the adventure bit. Well, 99% of this street food is made and served in the most unhygienic and filthy conditions. Guess it gets that raw and edgy 'flavour' partly from E coli.

The trick to eating street food is to never stare too closely at the vendor's grimy nails or the water in which the plates are washed.

JAM magazine once did a story on the 'dirtiest secrets' in street food and guess what. There are some big time bhel wallahs who mash potatos with their knees...

And yet, people who eat this food are not dropping like flies. Of course, at any given time there are hepatitis and amoebiosis cases going around but on the whole, the regulars seem to have developed an acceptable level of immunity.

From time to time - like during the jaundice epidemic last year - the BMC will come out with 'rules'. For example, all vendors were asked to wear plastic gloves. And no cooking per se was to be allowed - only assembly of food such as sandwiches, bhel etc.

But neither rule is being followed. Chinese carts are still around. And the gloves were quickly discarded because
a) No one came to fine those who didn't wear 'em
b) Customers didn't seem to care either!

It's the second bit that's actually more disconcerting...

The future of street food

I think street food is definitely something which is desirable. All of south east Asia and even a country as advanced as Japan is fond of its street food.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) is working with local governments to upgrade street food standards. Visit Bangkok - a country not all that ahead of India - and the hygiene levels are amazing. Didn't just happen by magic though - it took effort . The problems were very similar, but they've been successfully tackled.

But it seems to me that changing attitudes will be difficult as long as the majority of vendors live in pretty miserable housing and sanitation conditions. When hygiene isn't a part of their lives anyways - how can it be reflected in their food?

And so, the adventure continues...


  1. My boss took me to a 4 way intersection at Radio City Music hall when we were in NYC for some production work, and there they were: Indian food vendors.
    Granted they weren't selling bhelpuri, since no one in new york has heard of it, and it hasn't made its way into the yuppie magazines and the "cool" magazines or what have you, but they had the best Chicken and Rice I have ever had.
    I spent an entire NYC evening talking about New Delhi Bhelpuri vendors in South Extension with a girl.

  2. Hi Rashmi,

    Nice post.

    Reminded me of an old blog post I made...though I copied it cheaply from a forwarded mail...

    Hooray For Us

    Hope you will like it.


  3. nice one... but wht i was wonderin all thru was shud v detest street-food eaters or should we lap it up because itz cheap? I cldnt figure out wht xctly was to be portrayed.
    Made an interesting read!

  4. You know what forget the hygiene part-once you are out of mumbai you will definitely long for the street food in Mumbai-Like I am now doing sitting here in Chennai

  5. I think any reasonbly educated person will be used to unhygenic and poisonous food. They would have developed enough immunity to the poison dished out in the messes of various colleges. The street food is mostly better than the food in most colleges since the street vendors have to depend on customers returning to them which is not the case with ppl employed in a govt college or some mess contractor there since he would anyway get paid and the college would anyway charge the fees for the mess from anybody who stays in the hostel. It is the illiterate masses who will have problems when they move from their home cooked food in the villages to the cities.

  6. Right ... This is what contributes to our higher immunity levels. In fact this is a kind of risky medicine one should take to avoid common ailments!!

  7. Yeah sometimes it makes me wonder why the street food, despite being so unhygenic, doesnt affect our health. On the other hand, someone not used to such conditions, eating off the street(!!) for the first time would get sick while the others who were eating the same stuff are all fine.

    Guess it is the attitude towards such stuff that makes the difference!

  8. You should probably follow the Mumbai food trails:


  9. Give me back my anonymousity!

    Anyway, even things like crossing the road or travelling by Mumbai local trains are adventures. in fact, almost anything in India is an adventure - because nothing is safe.

    I swear to work around this and somehow become anonymous...

  10. Nice post.BTW now immunisation is available against Hepatitis A and monthly preventive dose of Secnidazole will protect you from amoebiasis.Besides your cook/bai at home can give you infection as well.remember they stay in same slum!!
    Enjoy most tasty food in town.

  11. I remember in my college they'd introduced the concept of plastic gloves for those working in the canteen and kitchens.

    Thereafter, we were treated to the spectacle of watching a guy wearing plastic gloves serving food, and using the very same gloved hand to scratch his head and other necessary places.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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