Try out the new Website!
Try out the new Website!

Street food 101: how Delhi eats

By Asrat Seyoum, New Delhi, India

They say what one eats tells a lot about their character. And if the rich cocktail of flavours that define Indian cuisine reveals something, it is the deep-rooted desire of the people to preserve their unique centuries-old culture and tradition. One need not go far to see this, either. It is right there on the streets -- literally, at every corner.

According to the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), there are close to 100,000 food vendors in New Delhi today. For a casual observer, it is like the entire nation grabs brunch right there on the streets every day. Young or old, rich or poor, bigwig or ordinary, Indians love their street food. A dry and crunchy flatbread on the side of a colourful vegetable stew garnished with a plethora of indigenous spices served on a disposable aluminium foil plate is a common sight on the streets of Delhi.     

Street food is perhaps one of the commonest features across cities. A fast food like the popular hotdog, a signature street dish in various American cities, has managed to cross national boundaries to become an international taste. But in India, the sheer size of the street food sector could be quite staggering for an outsider. From small poorly kept food carts to larger well-established restaurants, all offer a wide variety of Indian cuisine to the army of customers.

The food scene in Delhi embodies the contrast that is India. Small tattered food carts can easily park in front of a five-star hotel and serve their customers from the rich mix of Indian cuisine Meanwhile, well-established entities along the Gali Paranthe Wali cater to customers coming from all corners of India.

According to a number of travel guide websites, Delhi is where one goes to experience the true taste of street foods in India. The Khandani Pakode Wala in the Sarojini Nagar Ring Road Market, the kababs and rolls of the Khan Market, the shawarma at New Friends Market, everything Indian at Dilli Haat are some of the spots foodies who happen to be in Delhi should visit.

However, Delhi’s street food scene is not complete without the famous Gali Paranthe Wali. People like Prakash Karnani, in his mid-fifties, and his family came all the way from Mumbai for one thing: the “famous” Gali Paranthe Wali’s parathas.

He said Gali Paranthe Wali is widely known across India for the fine paratha and a host of other Indian cuisines that goes with it. Prakash, an entrepreneur who owns a chain of garment shops, came to Delhi with his wife and daughter to enjoy the rich paratha world of Delhi. “We had the sugar parathas and we loved it,” said Prakash.

Parathas are basically soft fried flatbreads enhanced by a stuffing of minced meat, eggs and the like. The uniqueness of the paratha is in its nature to go with a wide variety of cooked vegetable and other meat-based dishes. 

The famous parathas of Gali Paranthe Wali are served with a variety of stuffing and side dishes including aloo/potato, mool/radish, peas, cottage cheese, dry fruit and many more. And most of the dishes lean on the vegetable side while featuring a wide variety of cocked meat with the exception of beef, on account of cows being sacred creatures in India.

Gali Paranthe Wali, literally “the flatbread alley,” is located on a narrow street of Chandni Chwok, one of the oldest streets in Delhi. The first paratha shop in Chandni Chwok was opened in the late 19 century, and to date it is one of the well-recognized eateries in India, and beyond. This street offers far more than its signature parathas though. It also hosts quite a few purveyors of an assortment of Indian sweets and ice creams complemented with chewing tobacco: paan.

For customers like Anil Kumar, 22, a college student, Gali Paranthe Wali as well as the prathas there is an integral part of their day-to-day routine. He said he has been coming to the paratha joint for the last five years. Its affordability as well as convenience as a fast food is what attracts youngsters like him.

True to form, the average paratha served with stuffing of aloo/potato or cottage cheese or radish costs Anil only 60 rupees. When served with bitter ground coriander or tomato stuffing, the price goes up to 70 rupees, a price still considered to be within the purchasing power of an average Delhiite.    

A few meters from Chandni Chwok is another food street animating the Delhi food scene: a food street across the Great Jama Masjid. Frequented mostly by the Muslim community, the street food offered by vendors around Jama Masjid is slightly different from that of Gali Paranthe Wali.

The famous biryani, which comes in different forms, is a signature dish for the Jama Masjid area. Umair Main Khan is a fourth-generation food vendor in the Jama Masjid locality. He says his forefathers established the food shop in the 1940s and he carries on the tradition. A typical biryani mixed with meat or chicken goes for 140 rupees a plate on a normal day. Umair’s customer base includes a wide variety of people, and he employs a couple of professional cooks.

Although they are found highly intertwined with the social fabric of Delhi and India at large, the legal status of street food vendors is somewhat murky.

According to the Street Vending Act of 2013, all states in India are required to enact proper rules and regulations governing the business. Prior to that, the government is planning to establish the actual number and status of all street vendors in India via a nation-wide survey. “Until then, there is no way of determining whether street food vendors are legal or illegal entities,” said Wajiha Azeez, an urban planner affiliated with NASVI.

“There will be a biometric survey which will identify the exact number of street food vendors in Delhi,” she said. This move, according to her, is to be followed by proper training and certification for vendors by the concerned authorities. This effort will enable the government to incorporate one of the oldest members of Delhi’s street scene, food vendors, into the formal urban planning architecture.

For the time being, the government of India does not have a mechanism to properly regulate street vendors -- food vendors in particular. But, the problem goes both ways. Some vendors, on their part, complain that they have been forced to grease the palms of security officers to be able to sell food on the street. 

Nevertheless, the lack of a proper regulatory mechanism presents a serious health hazard for customers of street food vendors. Hygiene is a big concern, according to Dr. Ali Saima, a resident at one of the local hospitals in Delhi. “Although they are obliged to wear sterilized gloves, most of them don’t comply,” she explained. And, even when they do wear them, they are very busy to change them periodically.

For many customers of street food vendors in Delhi, the issue of hygiene is not a concern. They argue that street food joints in the city are cleaner than the average restaurant. The same is true for Parakash and his family. The issue of hygiene issue is not a concern.    

Ed.'s Note: This article was written for an Anwar Jamal Kidwai Mass Communication Research Center (AJK MCRC) workshop on "Writing and Reporting for Print and Electronic Media" in India. Nadia Raonimanalina of Madagascar contributed to this story.