Soldiers of Mughal King Zahiruddin Muhammad Babar, who conquered Delhi in 1526AD, were keen to return to Kabul because they missed street food. Records of that era say Babar, himself a food connoisseur, kept them happy by arranging it — and established a dynasty that ruled for three centuries.
This anecdote may be real or apocryphal. Little is known about how people in olden times ate if they did not have a kitchen or were travelling. It is known, however, that they bathed and prayed before touching food. Old records talk of a preference for fruits, since who cooked and what mattered.
British sociologist Henrike Donner writes about Indians’ “marked distinction between food that could be eaten outside, especially by women”, and the food prepared and eaten at home, with some non-Indian food being too “strange” or tied too closely to non-vegetarian preparation methods to be made at home.
It is possible that each invasion from the northwest introduced different types of food. Babur’s advent was one such event. India has since imbibed a lot of culinary culture from beyond its western frontiers broadly identified as “Mughlai” food.
It is today integral to what is consumed mainly in India’s north, but its popularity has no real barriers. Contemporary variations from Turkey, Lebanon and other places have added to the fare.
Street food is the preferred thing for many Indians, who are vegetarians and do not cook it at home, but enjoy non-vegetarian food outside. They are jokingly blamed for the high prices of meat/fish/foul dishes.
Such hubs are located in the old quarters of a city. Street food is available there late into the evenings. It is priced reasonably and is roaring business for the vendors.
Day-time street food is different. It caters to the office-goers and to school and college kids. An hour before the lunch break and an hour after — it is brisk business.
Street food during festivals like Deepavali or Holi is common across India. Special food, particularly sweets, are readied days in advance. Much of the Iftar during Ramadan comes in the form of street food that attracts non-Muslim foodies as well.
Along with long years of this “Look-West”, Indian traders and travellers also “Looked East”.
Chinese food, essentially Cantonese since people from that region had set up shop in India, is popular. Its local variations, difficult to recognise or identify by the Chinese, all spiced up, can be had at any street corner in an Indian city.
They add to a wide variety of indigenous street food from different regions — cooked, uncooked, vegetarian, non-vegetarian, salty and sour, sweets of a vast variety, go with non-alcoholic beverages that suite the weather.
Food stalls and wayside kiosks abound, as anywhere else. Street food is not just for a meal, but also to excite taste buds after a meal. Late evening and even post-midnight, people throng at street corners and entire bazaars dedicated to food. And it is good business.
As India gets rapidly urbanised and women go out to work, having to eat out makes street food welcome. Undoubtedly, the lady of the house, even if she goes out to work, takes time off for preparing packed meals since street food is frowned upon as “unhealthy”.
Now, with glamour attached to food, many luxury restaurants and boutique hotels have renovated their menus, adding the street food flavour. It is becoming a favourite among travellers who may have hygiene concerns about what is sold on the street.
Hygiene can be an issue if the street food is not regulated and businesses are not provided necessary facilities. Last month, India’s Health Minister J.P. Nadda launched the “Clean Street Food” project to sensitise producers and vendors about health and hygiene to raise food safety standards.
The project is the baby of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Globalisation has changed the flavour of street food.
In 2002, Coca Cola reported that China, India and Nigeria were some of its fastest growing markets; markets where the company’s expansion efforts included training and equipping mobile street vendors to sell its products.
The thrust in the recent years has been and to share, and learn a thing or two from others about how to make street food popular.
Organised under the umbrella of the National Association of Street Food Vendors of India (NASVI), Indian vendors, some of them in this father-to-son business for generations, are exploring local and foreign markets. A large NASVI team made a beeline to Singapore last year. They are now preparing for Manila, the Philippines, to participate in the World Street Food Congress.
Last year, the Philippines organised Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM), a global gastronomy event.
Manila will again be the venue for the World Street Food Congress where street food managers, hawkers and vendors from India will display their wares.
India is taking the cue from many Southeast Asian nations to promote food tourism through festivals and global events, such as the World Food Congress. Travel companies, chefs and street vendors from across the world take part in such festivals. Among them is George Town in Penang, with streets lined with food stalls.
Taipei’s streets teem with vendors serving tantalising noodle soups, dumplings and steamed buns. Bangkok, too, has a vibrant street food culture. The organisation’s diary for participation and marketing lists Taipei, Hanoi, Penang, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Manila, Seoul, Gukuoda (Japan), Singapore and Xian (China).
At George Town in Penang, the variety of items to be displayed includes assam laksa, hokkein mee and rojak. These are among the world’s best food destinations.
Delhi is lagging behind Southeast Asia, admits Arvind Singh, coordinator of NASVI. The sharing helps in improving services, packaging, marketing, hygiene, presentation and etiquette, says Rajan Johri, who runs a firm exclusively to train people in these areas.
Mahendra Ved is NST’s New Delhi correspondent, the newly-elected president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ magazine