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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

There is an article in today’s travel section of the New York Times about street food in India. More specifically, the article deals with the migration of “street food” from the street to more restaurant-like establishments. I have not (yet) been lucky enough to see Mumbai, and although the piece is mostly about that city, I think street food is an universally Indian enough for me to comment.

Apparently, recently “a slew of restaurants are sanitizing street food, serving it in clean (if not always pristine) surroundings. At most places, you can eat like a king for less than $2.” First of all, $2 for Indian street food is a rip-off comparable to a McDonald’s competitor selling Big-Macs for $30. Second, part of what makes street food in India so great is the fact that is on the street.

There will always be those Mumbaikars who tell you that street snacks eaten in restaurants just can’t compare with the authentic fare of “Raju the blind chaatwala at the second open drain behind the Churchgate Railway Station.” They are probably right. There’s something about the down-and-dirtiness of real street fare that makes it all the tastier.

Typical Hot Indian Street (Varanasi)

Typical Hot Indian Street (Varanasi)

Like I said, I don’t know about Mumbai, but this is definitely true in other Indian cities, as well. The relatively uninformed traveler doesn’t know about Raju, and doesn’t know where his food stand is. So, in choosing where to eat, a slightly different process takes place. Stage 1: Walking down hot, crowded, smelly Indian street, impossibly trying to take everything in, and avoiding most vendors’ calls to buy their merchandise, not to mention being gored by a stray cow or run over by rickshaw driver. Stage 2: Surprisingly, amongst the heat, humdity and insects, hunger strikes. Stage 3: This depends on the level of familiarity with Indian street food (usually directly correlated with the amount of time spent in India). If familiar with Indian street food- decide on sweet fried food (Jalebi/Emarti/etc) or something only slightly more wholesome (Pakora/Samosa/etc). Stage 4: Pick best looking /smelling food cart. Stage 5: Enjoy.

The Only Way to Drink Chai

The Only Way to Drink Chai

It does take somewhat of a “brave tourist to sample the wares from a street vendor who is casually mashing potatoes with his bare and grubby hands, as flies buzz happily around.” That remains, however, the best way to eat your first Samosa, after escaping to a nearby alley when the “tourist bus” (I was the only non-local on the bus) to the Taj Mahal dropped us off at a way-too-expensive restaurant (kickbacks are rampant in the service industry in India).

In Amritsar - Not Street Food, but Still Great

In Amritsar - Not Street Food, but Still Great

The article “After all, what’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain …” Assuming that someone who travels with an expensive entourage, stays in fancy hotels, and eats at places suggested by Western-knowledgable locals is inherently more adventurous, is wrong. It might be a safer course of action – an upset stomach that starts in Varanasi, continued through the festival of Holi and a 24 rickshaw+train+jeep journey to Darjeeling and only ends after finally adhering to a strict, bland diet is well… an experience.

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Falafel on Rye?

Overheard at a falafel stand – guy who clearly does not know a lafa from from a tortilla: “I guess they only serve pita-bread here…”

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Hummus?

Here, in America, seeing the word Hummus on a restaurant menu generally makes me shudder. Hummus is a food that has become chic, cool. However, the average American has not the faintest idea what hummus really is.

Here’s a hint. If it looks like an scoop of ice cream and its served with “pita chips,” then it’s NOT hummus. I honestly have no idea how hummus has gotten so popularized if Americans have only had inedible substances whose only resemblance to hummus is that they contain chickpeas (garbanzo beans).

I happened to catch Guy’s Big Bite, on the Food Network, the other day, and he was making something, which he called hummus. Here are a few of the things that went into that goo, which I can only be glad that it was on TV and not on my plate (or anyone else’s, who I care about): jalapeño, chipotle, and roasted red bell peppers. All of these are products which do not go in hummus. I am not against adding hot spices to your hummus – but that happens when you eat it, not during the preparation. That is why hummus, in any place worth its salt, is served with a spicy sauce, known as s’hug.

Furthermore, hummus is definitely not ever served with “toasted pita bread.” Saying “pita bread” is the same as saying “bread bread” (or even “bauguette bread” and more to the point פיתת לחם, خبز خبز, and other such mistakes like “naan bread”). Also, heat the pita, don’t toast it.

Another mistake I saw on TV that day, was the host opening a can of chickpeas and simply pouring them into the food processor. When making hummus, you must, MUST, wash the chickpeas numerous times, to make the “hummus” even edible. Moreover, if you want your hummus to be good, even if you use canned chickpeas, you have to boil them and remove most the skins, from most of the individual beans.

The biggest mistake, however, was the lack of tehina (sometimes called tahini). For hummus to be really good it must include tehina. Apparently there are other authentic versions that replace tehina with ful or with labaneh, but simply mashing chickpeas (with other vegetables, no less) does not result in hummus.

In any case, my favorite version of hummus is masabacha, at Abu Hassan (Ali Karavan) in Yaffo (sorry, I can’t find an appropriate link in English).

Calling the product made on that show “hummus” is tantamount to libel. The host made a product and called it hummus, despite the minimal resemblance it had to the real thing. And then people wonder why hummus is referred to as a “diarrhea-like substance.”

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