street food india romy gill

British-Indian chef, cookery teacher and restaurant owner, Romy Gill MBE, tracks the growing popularity of  Indian street food from London to LA…

From the smallest of towns to the largest of cities, street food is an integral part of everyday life across India. Throughout the country, you’ll find thousands upon thousands of traders, each pitching up on the pavements of busy roads, tempting passersby with hot and cold dishes that are designed to appeal to each of the senses.

The cuisine of India is wildly different depending on which state you visit – and the street food scene is no different. A visit to Mumbai isn’t complete without sampling vada pav: a well-loved fried potato patty served in a bun with a variety of condiments. For those in Kolkata, the egg roll is a staple part of the diet, made by wrapping a fried egg inside a paratha and serving with a chutney or dipping sauce. There’s also the jhaal muri: a popular puffed rice and vegetable snack, with a similar version known as bhelpuri found on Mumbai’s beaches. In Punjab, in northern India, you’ll often see stalls serving chole bhature: a spicy chickpea curry mopped up with puffed, deep-fried flat breads.

To visitors to India, the country’s street-food scene is somewhat of a novelty: a new experience that offers a wealth of authentic local treats at very low prices. It’s not just the flavours and the smells that appeal but the theatre of it all: watching the speed and accuracy with which the vendors work is truly mind-blowing if you’ve not seen it before.

To those who live in India, however, street food has two purposes. For the working classes, street food vendors are the primary form of sustenance for those who need to eat while out – too poor to eat at the dhabas (roadside restaurants) they instead dine at the low-cost, predominantly vegetarian street food stalls. For the middle classes, street food is more about snacking.

Yet elsewhere across the globe, street food is on the rise too. We’re seeing street-food festivals spring up in a huge number of countries, along with permanent pitches for traders in cities around the world – whether these are single pitches or entire areas of a city dedicated to street food traders. And while burritos, pizzas, barbecue stalls and other cuisines are proving popular, Indian food – and Indian fusion food – is making a name for itself in a wide variety of countries.

The spread of Indian street food

Through a combination of increasing numbers of overseas visitors to India, the number of travel and cookery programmes highlighting India’s diverse street-food scene, and a growing willingness to try something new when it comes to food, dishes such as those mentioned above are making their way across other continents. Today, traditional dishes that are as commonplace to Indians as fish and chips to the Brits or croque monsieur to the French are not only offered by street-food vendors around the world, but also served in fine-dining restaurants – sometimes in their original form, sometimes reinvented – creating something that’s a world away from the original.

Where to enjoy Indian street food around the world

In both London and Leeds, Rola Wala (literally “the man who rolls”) serves naan rolls filled with combinations from the veggie beetroot channa dal to the meaty Bengali-spiced beef. Hop along the channel to Paris (bearing in mind that Indian food has taken a while to get going in France) and you’ll meet Épices et Love with their Franco-Indian fusion dosa and chapati wraps. In the US, Indian street food has seen a huge boom with the likes of Bollywood Bites in Los Angeles, traditional Indian food with a modern twist at Spice Box in Indianapolis and New York’s The Desi Food Truck, which offers street food dishes from all over the Indian subcontinent.

Bringing Indian street food off the streets

These affordable roadside dishes are not only being introduced around the world in their traditional sense – many classic Indian street foods can now also be found in more upscale dining establishments, adapted for the fine dining market and often modernised or fused with flavours and techniques from elsewhere in the world.

In Cardiff, for example, you’ll find a korma samosa as part of a dessert plate, while in Brooklyn, New York, the traditional pav bhaji (essentially a potato patty in a bun) has been transformed into the ‘sloppy pav’ – a sloppy Joe/pav bhaji mashup which the restaurant describes as follows:

“This is essentially a ragout of boiled, mashed and slow simmered vegetables with a tantalising array of spices to be lapped up with crusty pan-fried bread. They will be dished out with a side of masala potato or lotus chips, and for added flavour you can choose from a variety of chutneys such as tangerine, pear and fenugreek, or apricot.”

While a far cry from the traditional Indian dish on which it is based, the sloppy pav demonstrates three things. Firstly, it shows just how widely such previously unknown Indian street foods are travelling around the world. Secondly, the response to the dish shows that customers are willing to try new things – whether authentic or not.

And thirdly, it shows just how much evolution and innovation there is in the world of food and drink. Show such dishes to a Mumbai labourer and they’ll no doubt think it’s unrecognisable from the real thing (and will surely wince at the price!) But this is part of what is so magical about the world of food and drink: wherever you are in the world, you’ll always find something new and exciting to enjoy.

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