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« Chai ho! The pleasures and perils of dining in India | Main | Makin' whoopie: Red velvet whoopie pies with Italian brown butter and bacon buttercream »

November 30, 2009

Chai ho! The pleasures and perils of dining in India, part II


Yes, after slightly more than two months in India, I finally took the plunge and ate full on street food.  I'm talking stall on the street, a stainless steel urn of water and a communal cup, a pot with watery chutney, and dodgy looking customers (including one angry looking guy with a large scar beneath one eye that gives him permanent stank eye).  The kitchen for this streetside cuisine was in an alley behind the stall where, just around a corner and out of sight, a couple of men fry snacks morning, noon, and night.

But what snacks.
I'm in love with Mumbai's classic streetfood: vada pav.  Add some chillies and spice to boiled and mashed potatoes (already a pretty good start, eh?), form it into patties, then dust the patties in spiced chick pea flour before frying them until golden, brown, and delicious.  Take said delectable fritter and sandwich it in a small, soft bun slathered in a loose, garlicky, green or red chutney.  Wrap in newspaper and serve to students, street urchins and foolish tourists.



Vada pav (usually pronounced "wada pow" here) is Mumbai's answer to the street dog with a vegetarian twist.  The street version costs a hefty Rs. 6, or just 13 US cents, so I splurged on two.  There are versions that are a lot less "street," of course.  For Rs. 9, you can get the fast food version at Jumbo King, Mumbai's answer to McDonald's (well, aside from all the damn McDonald's), and for a whopping Rs. 60, there's one of Mumbai's best vegetarian restaurants, Swati Snacks, which serves a safe, top notch sandwich slathered in red chutney and served with a side of fiery masala.


The New York Times even published an article full of largely misguided information about vada pav and Mumbai street food:
Having tried the Times recommended Jumbo King, I heartily endorse the sentiments of the driver who tried to dissuade me from eating there: "Jumbo King is not vada pav, it's vada 'bun.'"  All of which is to say that Jumbo King serves their vada pav on a hamburger bun and otherwise sullies the great, greasy name of the vada pav in much the same way that McDonald's insults the good name of the burger.

Anyways, after standing around for about ten minutes waiting for one of the kitchen hands to replenish his supply of vadas, the vadawallah began to mechanically slice buns and slather generous spoonful of garlic chutney -- a fantastically flavourful thin green soup of water, cilantro, and garlic -- onto each one before adding piping hot fritters.  It was soooo worth the wait.  The bun is, for lack of a better term, soft and squooshy, and the vada is a little crisp on the outside but creamy and spicy inside.  The chutney adds volumes of flavour and, let's be honest here, some necessary moisture to the dish.  If I weren't trying to maintain my Bowflex body, I'd happily eat vada pav for pretty much every meal. 


Within minutes, the vendor was cleaned out of vadas, leaving a small crowd to wait for the next batch of piping hot fritters.  In the meantime, I escaped in my getaway vehicle with three newspaper-wrapped vada pavs for me and my wheelman.

You've probably already figured out that the pav (ie. bun) and vada (ie. fritter) aren't likely vectors for foodborne illness, which leads to me believe that vadawallahs include garlic chutney as a way to make sure that this meal, like all others in Mumbai, is an intestinal roll of the dice.  Unlike North American bottled chutneys, Indian chutneys are served fresh, so they're made with far less, if any, sugar and far more water, and water is always a risky proposition.
So what the hell was I doing eating that watery chutney after my previous experiences with chutney?  Trusting my driver, of course.  He's a local who took me to his favourite vadawallah, and he assured me that the food is "hygienic."  "Hygienic" is the word Indians use to describe safe, sanitary restaurants.  "Loose motions" is the term they use to describe the output of eating at unsanitary restaurants.

Luckily, my driver knew what he was talking about.



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Michael Natkin

Yeah, man. I only got to spend 2 weeks in India, mostly in the Delhi area, and it was hard to suck up the courage to eat street food even though it all looked so delicious. An Indian friend took me to a pani puri (aka golgoppa) vendor, that was the only one I tried and it was great, though not necessarily dramatically better than the pani puri at many restaurants. I love eating in India though... the food at the Adobe cafeteria even was infinitely better and more varied than 99% of the Indian food you get in the US.

Gentle Whisperer

I've been a lurker on your blog for quite a while, but as Mumbai dweller, I had to step in and agree with your view of the vada pav.

Quinessential Mumbai street food. It somehow manages to epotomise exactly what Mumbai is to me.

And your right about the Jumbo King vada bun, hygenic and sanitary it might be, but authentic it's not.

It's perhaps a little too divorced, a little too antiseptic from the surroundings to actually be real.

After all, what would the vada pav be without the huge vats of perpetually smoking oil, the light as a cloud 'pav' and the watery chutney with the overlying flavour of the dust and dirt and sound.

If you go looking for vada pav however, I'm suer you'll find everyone has a different favourite stall for it.

Mumbai, as one of my favourite books goes, is the vada pav eaters' city.

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Fascinating article! I will see India before I die!
fyi, I brought back some goodies from Beirut that I am giving away and thought I would let you know!

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You just can't beat street foods. Nothing beats the taste of a decent home recipe.


What an adventure. There is something primal yet comforting about eating street food outdoors.


Looks like the blogger has suffered a horrible and untimely death eating street food in India :p


My dear: Did you succumb in the bizarre Vada Pav incident of 2009? Did police say that the case was better left unsolved? Where are you man...I miss the posts.


Great post! We are heading to Mumbai in a couple of weeks, so would love to hear WHERE was your favorite Pav walla,


This looks wonderful!. great presentation, great post.Thanks for sharing your ideas.


Great post! Thanks for sharing! I love the Google painting!


I would love to try this meal. I like adventure and this sounds like a fun thing to do on a pretty day. I can picture my self grabbing a bit to eat and sitting down and watching all the people waiting for the next batch to come out.


I am glad that you broke down and enjoyed some of that great food. You never know what wonderful meal you will come up with when you try something new.


I am glad that your meal was to your liking. I know how hard it is to eat out someplace that you are not comfortable. It does look great or maybe, I am hungry.


I would have taken food with me. I do not think that I could eat out on the street but, I guess if, I got hungry enough I could. It does look good.


I do not know why people think that it is hard to find something to eat in a different country. I like to try all different kinds of food, therefore it is never hard for me.


I think that when you get hungry, you can find something to eat. It looks like you found the best thing. I would love to have some right now. Happy eating.


I do not get to travel very often but, if I did, this would be something that I would try. I would not be looking for vegetables because I would want something that would stick to my bones and this looks like it would. I hope you enjoyed it.

Gin Thee Tanon

Other than the death of this blogger due to food poisoning, there is nothing wrong with street food (depending on country). I have eaten street food almost every day over the last 10 months - no problem. I have however been poisoned twice - IN CANADA. In Bangkok, most locals eat at street levels, since restaurants are mostly a foreign concept. Now of course there are the addition of food courts (much better than in the west), which are also good - but slightly more expensive. Singapore has many hawker stands (outdoor food courts) where you can buy food as well. Whether food is cooked in a kitchen, in the back yard or small outdoor restaurants at street level (street food) - there is no difference. I have even become somewhat of a fan of deep fried bugs :o


After you eat that fine food, you can read the news. I like keeping things simple like this.


This looks like someplace that I would eat at if, I did not know what was good in the area. I like to try new things anyways.


Yum! This reminds me of home. I can almost smell how good it taste.


I know that some people do not like to eat like this but, I do. I love to try new things and some of the best food that I have ever eaten is from street venders. It is like going to the fair.


I do not like to travel because I hate to spend money on food that I can not eat. This on the other hand looks great. It almost looks like you are at the fair or something.

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