Indian Spice Market - S. Harrison

Eating on the streets of India – Don’t tell Mom!

Published On March 8, 2011 | By Sandy | Asia, Travel

Food Gypsy welcomes a few new faces in the kitchen this month as we expand the conversation to offer you more.  More voices, from more places and fresh perspectives.

First up, Sandi Harrison (aka Sandi Joy) – BA Ed, MA, is originally from Terrace, BC Canada and currently residing in Dalian, China teaching English to teenage boys.  Sandi is also a talented writer working on her first novel,an avid traveler and our very first Food Gypsy Foreign Correspondent.

Sandi Joy recently returned from a trip to India with colorful tales of her adventures and some stunning photographs to illustrate same.

Officially declaring this Bollywood Week in the Gypsy Kitchen (my alternate reality is a Bollywood Musical – there is high drama, sparkly bracelets and lots of eye liner)  following on Thursday with some spicy recipes from the Gypsy Kitchen.  Including Mango Chicken Curry, Lamb Vindaloo and Gypsy Sultan Rice (nothing like Indian spice mid-winter to really WARM you up.)

But first we take you to the streets of Varanasi, India with a nice, girl raised in a (mostly) bacteria-free environment.

Sandi in India

Sandi Joy and the Taj Mahal

  • About:  English Language Arts Teacher
  • Essential in the kitchen:  Cheese. Oh–and a grater (To make things baked with cheese.)
  • Comfort food:  Anything baked with cheese.  (Eat comfort food at least twice a day, three times on weekends.)
  • Indulgence:  Homemade pizza washed down with a few bottles of wine.  Wait — is this an indulgence or a way of life?
  • Red or white?  Red for winter, white for summer.
  • Secret ingredient:  Cilantro… I put it in everything.

Eating on the streets of India – Don’t tell Mom!

~ By Sandi Harrison  Photo Credits: Sandi Harrison and Kelly Thomlinson

We journeyed to India, because we are young and daring, we were determined to try Indian street food.

I’m a big fan of street food.  After years of travel and living abroad, I know some of the best food gems are hidden amongst the clusters of banged-up, three-wheeled carts, down that cockroach-open-sewage-lined alley (hey, at least the cockroaches are out in the open).

But there’s a slight problem: I grew up with a public health nurse as a mother. For years, she would gasp dramatically if I dropped something on our kitchen floor and applied the 5-second rule.

The first time Mom came to China to visit me, I made the mistake of steering her toward a food stall barbecuing spicy chicken skewers.
“That’s dangerous bacteria on wheels,” she croaked, nearly fainting.

We headed for the nearest grocery store, instead.  That voice creeps up every time I try to eat like the locals; I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette with my stomach.

India's Colourful Streets

I had heard that in India, every traveler gets sick.  People (many of who had never visited India, I might add) warned me:

“Don’t eat in restaurants. They leave the food on the stove top forever, and it grows bacteria,” or “don’t eat in 5-star hotels. They leave the food on the stove top forever, and it grows bacteria.”

More than anything, though, they hissed, voices lowered and eyes wide and shiny with fear, “whatever you do—don’t eat the street food.  It’s pure bacteria.”

Varanasi, one of India’s holiest of cities along the Ganges, is built almost entirely of narrow, winding alleyways, each filled with people, motorbikes, bicycles, rats, holy cows, and holy cow dung.  It was down one such alley that my travel partner Kelly and I stumbled upon the holy grail of food stalls.

We saw the cylindrical metal bin first, where steam curled into the cool winter air. We had eaten a simple (read: free) breakfast an hour earlier, and were already peckish.  Kelly grabbed my arm. “Let’s get some street food!”

Unlike me, Kelly did not grow up with a public health nurse as a mother.  She has an iron stomach.  Nothing to fear.  As much as I like the taste of adrenaline, I wasn’t sure if India Roulette would have more serious consequences than the Russian version.  My heart beat faster.

I didn’t want to seem unadventurous.  Or worse, lame. “Yeah! Definitely!” Came out of my mouth as oh God, we’re both going to die a slow food-poisoning death” ran through my head.

India, a street food haven

Street food, served hot.

The ‘stall’ was more like a tiny, open-air workroom on the corner of a building. It was made entirely of concrete, with two open walls and a floor that was about hip-height off the ground.  Two men ran two separate stalls concurrently from the same space; the masala chai maker from one open wall, and the food maker on the other.

“You!  Come here!  Eat this!” The food maker had seen us eyeing (me, somewhat cautiously) his wares.  Kelly took a firm hold of my wrist and pulled me into his world.

“Yes, please.  Two of that.” She pointed a finger at something white and spongy inside the bin. “And a masala tea.”

He nodded, and ushered for us to climb up, into the innards of the concrete shop.  There was a well-used, stained carpet beneath our feet, and a roughly hewn wooden bench on which he motioned for us to sit.  Outside the shop, crowds of men—only men—ordered chai.  They stood and chatted amicably, sometimes squatting or leaning against the wall.

That stand was the place to be for chai break.

The chai vendor was at work grinding fresh ginger in a mortar built into the concrete ledge. He added the ginger and at least 6 heaping teaspoons of sugar to the milky concoction on the stove.  Each time someone ordered, he poured it into a tall glass cup, leaving just enough room for two fingers to hold it without being burned.

India, street vendor, grinding ginger

Literally grinding ginger in a hole in the wall.

The food vendor passed out the spongy white bread in heart-shaped, oily leaves; the men ate easily with their right hands, sopping up a sauce and flicking everything expertly into their mouths without losing a morsel.  Children, some barely tall enough to see over the concrete ledge, came to collect food and drink for family members in nearby shops.  Women with downcast eyes and colourful green, pink, or red with gold saris carried chai obediently to their husbands.

Mice scurried between the boxes where the vendors kept their pans and supplies.

The food vendor pulled a cloth off of a tray filled with the steamed bread.  He poked a finger (somewhat grimy, my mother would have added) into the dough, then eased the bread out of the tray and onto a metal tray.  He spooned a grainy, yellowish sauce over it, and passed Kelly and I each a tray and a spoon.

“Eat. Enjoy idli.”

I bit in. The bread, still warm, melted on my tongue. The sauce was unexpectedly—but refreshingly—cold, and spicy.

We cleaned our plates and washed the idli down with a steaming cup of sweet chai.  We sat a moment on “our” bench, drinking in the street scene: the never-ending line of customers who crowded the alley, the cow who effortlessly pushed her way through the crowd, and the moto driver who was having far less luck but making a lot more noise.

The idli vendor leaned in to us.  “I can make pancake. You want pancake? I can make soup. You want soup?” We smiled and told him we would come back tomorrow for pancake and soup.

“Ok, tomorrow. 10 rupees for idli and chai, please.”

10 rupees. 2 cents. 2 cents. We tried to tip them, but the men refused with grins and a profuse hand wave.

India, Street FoodIndian, Idli India's narrow alleyways

As we made our way through the alley, avoiding knocking into men who might spill their chai and sidestepping cow dung, I looked back at the shop.  More men lined up, jingling coins in their pockets and laughing with each other, arms slung across each other’s shoulders.

That day was the first of many excellent street food experiences that Kelly and I had in India—experiences we never did get sick from.

India requires its travelers to shake off their fears, ignore the warnings of health nurse parents and the general—non-India-traveling—public, and feast.

It’s worth every bite.

India, Street Curry

Be smart but eat… everything. Live a little. What Mom doesn’t know…

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