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.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.