Pani Puri To Pyaare Kebabs, Top Chefs Share The Street Food They Miss The Most

With the COVID-19 pandemic peaking in India, street food vendors have taken a huge hit. And their fans miss them sorely.
Representative image
Representative image

If the chaat wala is always your first stop when you land in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar to shop or you’re one of those people who’ll never wait in an auto queue in Mumbai without a vada pav or bhajiya pav in your hands, the last few months of surviving the coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for you. You have probably wondered many times in the past few months how drab life is without that extra teekha paani puri, or having endless chats over a glass of cutting chai. And now that it’s the monsoons, you probably sorely miss digging into a hot plate of bhajiyas or watch a beguni the size of your hand sizzle in a huge pot of oil.

While sourdough and banana cakes flooded our social media timelines, there’s no denying that we sorely missed our papdi chaats, pani puris and egg rolls. Some of us tried making them at home, but there’s really nothing like standing in front of a stall, the traffic screeching around you, and drowning in a mouthful of heaven, right?

While we have been wallowing in our cravings, trying to replace our favourite street food with things we can access, street food vendors have taken a huge hit during this pandemic. In this piece on Juggernaut, food writer Vidya Balachander pointed out how street food sellers are struggling to get their businesses back on track.

It’s not just us who have been wondering when we can get back to our favourite vendors. India’s top chefs too have been missing their favourite street food joints. Here chefs from across the country tell us what they missed the most in the past few months.

Pani puri

Sanjana Patel, executive chef and co-founder at La Folie, may love the precision of French pastries, and bread, but she also enjoys her street food. “When we started La Folie Lab [in Bandra], one of my pit stops would be at Elco Arcade to eat the pani puri and ragda pattice,” says the pastry queen. “My grandmum was very addicted to snacky things like a chaat. Whenever she went to Bandra, she would visit Elco, parcel some chaat and bring it home to us,” she says.

Patel remained a fan and regular visitor – visiting at least once a week – through the years. Her staple order was ragda pattice – extra meetha with extra cumin powder and this would usually end up being her evening meals, her ‘cheat meal’.

Similarly, Rahul Akerkar’s cheat meal is pani puri and bhel puri from a street stall at Breach Candy, which he has patronised from childhood. Street food is a ‘very regular’ indulgence for the chef, restaurateur and founder of Qualia Hospitality; earlier, he would eat out two to three times a week. His preferred order was pani puri but with less spice. “I have grown up eating this. It captures the sweet-sour profile of food really well, and satisfies all my cravings,” he says. “I think of it as healthy junk food.”

Prateek Sadhu loves pani puri. “I am hooked to it because it’s so balanced, with the perfect amount of acidity to match the sweetness,” says the executive chef and co-founder, Masque, Mumbai. His regular ‘guy’ is Jacky Bhel Puriwala, widely accepted to be Juhu’s most famous chaat spot. says. Sadhu has tried replicating it at home but ‘failed miserably’.

Though most phuchka lovers will swear by how different it is from pani puri, chef Joymalya Banerjee who runs famous modern Bengali restaurant Bohemian in Kolkata, found himself in a similar situation. Though he loves experimenting with flavours and creating unique spice blends in the kitchen all the time, Banerjee’s love for Kolkata phuchka is well-known, and his favourite one is near Ballygunge Petrol Pump in south Kolkata. When asked about the street food he missed the most, he promptly said, “Phuchka is the sexiest street food in the world to me. It’s all about textures, the sharp contrast in flavours when it comes to the taste, the consistency with which your favourite phuchka guy serves it to you, and ooh, the experience! It is like a little explosion in your mouth, and is truly, to die for!”

Thattu dosa

Regi Mathew, the culinary director and partner at the home-style Kerala eatery, Kappa Chakka Kandhari, often travels to the state. There, he has most of his meals at thattukadas, roadside eateries. “My favourite is thattu dosa, the thick fluffy Keralite dosa with a watery red chutney poured on top. I usually eat it with an omelette made with shallots, pepper and curry leaves,” he says. Though not eaten together, IMathew likes ordering both items and pairing them up.

He enjoys this meal because it is light, cooked and served hot, and is hygienic. And, if feeling hungry, he can always order a liver fry, chicken fry, mutton fry or other sides. He has prepared this at home but he misses “standing in queue watching the hot dosa prepared in front of you, and then eating off a banana leaf”.

Bhurji pao

Masala Anda Bhurji of egg bhurji or Spicy scrambled eggs with bread or pav or paav slices and salade, anda bhurji paav
Masala Anda Bhurji of egg bhurji or Spicy scrambled eggs with bread or pav or paav slices and salade, anda bhurji paav

The lockdown kitchen may have discovered Turkish eggs and poached eggs but for many, the omelette and bhurji still hold sway.

Himanshu Saini, corporate chef at the modern Indian restaurant, Trèsind Mumbai, misses eating street food a lot, especially bun maska and bhurji pao. He has fond memories of eating bhurji pao outside Churchgate Station. “It was special because after finishing work late, my friends and I would all go there to satisfy our midnight hunger and craving for eggs,” he says. Saini has attempted making bhurji pao at home but ‘it doesn’t taste the same’. “The experience of eating it then and there in open air makes a huge difference.”

It was three years back that chef Hemant Oberoi got his first taste of ‘the best’ omelette pao and bhurji pao available in BKC. When setting up his restaurant, Hemant Oberoi, he and his team sourced out a vada pav stall and an omelette/bhurji pao stall nearby. “It became our staple food in those days, especially for breakfast, paired with some Coke,” he says. “That bhurji was really good and had a different consistency.”

Once the restaurant opened, Oberoi continued eating bhurji pao. “I have tried at home too but as you know, every hand differs when it comes to cooking. At home, we are extra careful about oil or chillies. These guys only care about making it tasty so that people enjoy it,” he adds.

Halwa paratha

Before the lockdown, Pawan Bisht had a routine in Delhi. After work, he would visit Old Delhi or Nizamuddin with friends, to eat. At Nizamuddin, the usual order was halwa paratha. “There’s one person who sells this combination of big, deep fried paratha with a sweet sooji halwa topped with tutti frutti. The first time I ate it, I was sceptical but one bite and I got convinced,” says the corporate chef of One8 (by Virat Kohli). Bisht has been eating this ever since he moved to Delhi 12 years back. In Old Delhi, he would eat buff kebab and butter chicken tikka, heavy on the butter and cream, with roomali roti, onion and green chutney.

Dosa

Masala Dosa is made by stuffing by a dosa with lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions and spices. This can be served with chutney and sambar. This can be eaten for breakfast.
Masala Dosa is made by stuffing by a dosa with lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions and spices. This can be served with chutney and sambar. This can be eaten for breakfast.

Dosa is my go-to comfort food,” says Irfan Pabaney, chef and country head, SodaBottle OpenerWala. “It is crispy, light, and there are so many variations, even if it is something as simple as a cheese and onion mixture.” He isn’t fond of the variations or the ’Chinese dosa’, preferring a plain dosa with no sambhar and two types of chutney. Pabaney frequents Narayan’s Dosa, at Hughes Road.

As a student at Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic, Michael Swamy would take breaks and walk down the road to eat at the street carts near BD Petit Parsee hospital. Swamy, chef and food stylist, known for his work on popularising East Indian food, has frequented the place as an adult too, to eat sada dosa and cheese dosa. If visiting South Bombay, he would intentionally drive down to Breach Candy to eat Anna’s dosa. “It’s one of the best in the city.” His preferred order: extra kadak dosa with chilli powder and chaat masala and lots of onions.

“You can make it at home but this has the taste of nostalgia.”

Momos

Nepalese traditional dumpling momos served with tomato chatni and fresh salad in restaurant
Nepalese traditional dumpling momos served with tomato chatni and fresh salad in restaurant

Chef Kavan Kuttappa considers himself a momo connoisseur. The Head of Creative Culinary, pH4 Food and Beverages (which owns TOIT and The Permit Room) eats them for dinner a couple of times a week. Or rather, he used to. “I had three favourite spots in Bengaluru, two of them were near my restaurants,” he says.

The third place was somewhere in between and was essentially a married couple from Assam who set up a table outside a mall. “Everybody had their own USP: the wrappers, the filling, the chutneys. I miss eating hot momos on the street,” he says. Recently one of these places – they sell mushroom, paneer, chicken, and even whole-wheat options – opened for business so he managed to get his ‘fix’.

Grilled chicken

Hotel Empire grilled chicken:

If given a choice, Sabyasachi Gorai or Chef Saby will always pick street food over a restaurant. The President of Young Chefs Forum misses the street food from Bengaluru the most. His favourite is the grilled chicken, a creation by Hotel Empire that’s now a common street snack. “You will find this in every corner in the city. A whole chicken, slathered with a bright red masala and roasting on a grill. They serve this with a creamy mayonnaise-like dip, and a spicy salad or onions and cucumber. If you want extra heat, they will dust the chicken with dry masala at the end,” he says. “It’s hot, and you definitely need three beers to wash it down.”

He would eat this almost once a week, on days when he didn’t want to eat roti or anything with a gravy.

Dahi bara Aloo dum

Sanchit Sahu, the sous chef at Rooh, New Delhi grew up in Cuttack, a city he believes is the food capital of Orissa. The dish he remembers the most from home is dahi bara aloo dum – a beautiful combination of flavours, textures and temperatures. “There’s a vada, light and fluffy, soaked in whey tempered with mustard, curry leaves, dried chillies and amchur, alongside a spicy aloo dum.

The plate also has onions and thick homemade sev,” he says. “It’s umami in a place.” The vada can also be soaked in a tamarind water mixture, or dried raw mango flavoured water. These days, people add ghugni (a white/yellow pea curry) too. His favourite vendor is Raghu, who used to sit by the banks of Mahanadi river every afternoon. Sahu would go there on the dot of four so he could be the first customer.

He misses dahi bara aloo dum because it’s a taste of home. “I’ve eaten it throughout my childhood. It’s so famous that people will drive down to Cuttack just to eat it,” he says.

Pyaare Kebab

The Momo Queen of Kolkata, as she is affectionately called, Doma Wang runs the iconic Blue Poppy restaurant for north eastern delicacies in Kolkata. She loves her dumplings with a passion, but misses the great street food scene and the crowds of Bright Street in central Kolkata which is where her second restaurant, Shim Shim, is located. “The street food I miss the most during this time has to be the Pyaare Kebabs. There are these young boys who make really delectable, soft, juicy logs of pyaare kebabs in the evenings, and they serve it with a coriander chutney which is really addictive. We used to eat them every evening, and so, I really miss it now and miss seeing those boys and their smile. I also miss phuchkas a lot, my other guilty pleasure.” Pyaare Kebab is similar to Seekh Kebab, where minced meat, primarily beef or chicken, is seasoned and wrapped around thick iron skewers and grilled over open fire in certain parts of Kolkata.

Kochuri

Chef Auroni Mookerjee of the swank Sienna cafe which serves modern European cuisine would go for an early-morning fresh produce marketing at the Maniktala market in north Kolkata every morning to pick up fresh and seasonal produce. And after a successful haul, he would walk over to Geetika in Sukia Street for a plate filled with piping hot kachoris, redolent with the heady smell of hing and ghee, paired with a ladle of a runny potato curry that would be poured beside these kachoris. “I miss the smell of the fresh kachoris in the morning after a market run, and I miss going to the pice hotels, too, for the cheap and phenomenal thalis, with fabulous fish curries that would change according to the season and the market.” Pice hotels in Kolkata are places which, at one point, served a whole meal for 1 pice, or a single paisa, and are still a favourite of many for a cheap, wholesome meal.

(Kolkata inputs by food writer Poorna Banerjee)