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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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This sounds like a feast. I love to eat from venders on the side of the street. Most of the time they have really good food.

But what is the origin of the term 'hamburger'? Means something relating to ham? An Italian ham fanatic ;)


I have visited some high class restaurants in my day but some of the best food you can get comes from the side road stands. I love to try new and different foods especially from road side venders. The food looks really good.


Nice! Happy new year to everyone, and a great 2011!


I love to try new foods!

Shef from Shef's Kitchen

I just burst out laughing when I read the 'loose motions' part. Even as I read, I read those phrases in an Indian accent! Vada Pav is the best! I've taught several Indian Street Foods classes at Whole Foods but have not taught Vada Pav yet. I just have to get it perfect before I do so! Thanks for a great post!

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

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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.

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Hello Rob:

A long time lurker on your blog. Love the wry humour that laces your posts :)

Rcently read and really enjoyed your article on WSJ "Pow-right in the fritter" .

As a fellow hogtowner fan of Indian street food I thought I'd mention this place on Gerrard street.. Bombay Chowpatty. Worth a try.

Maybe it is not saying much : ) but it is some of the best chaat I've had in hogtown.

Plus points: The food's really cheap and fresh. Superb "pani" for pani-puri.

Minus points= tacky ambience, bollywood music : ) and waiters tending to be a bit spacey although polite and courteous.. You have to repeat everything twice : )

The bombay burger, the sev-dahi-batata puri , the ragda pattice and the pani puri were all superb. The vada pav was not bad although a bit dry.

I'd give most of the paneer dishes a miss. The pav bhaji wasn't too impressive either.

Anyway if you're in the neighbourhood and looking for a bite do check it out.

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tahts just simply great..After you eat that fine food, you can read the news. I like keeping things simple like this.thanks for sharing..

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Traveling around the world is one of a great experience. We can encountered different kind of people and learn their culture and most specially taste their specialty.

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James Henry

Wow Vada Pav I just love it. When I was visited India I try it, you don't believe awesome dude. Vada pav with tea. Amazing.....

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