Cooking Indian street food… in Houston

By Anu Lal (guest post from my sister!)

India has its own street food that’s effectively unknown in the US landscape of Indian food (there are a few restaurants that specialize in Indian street food like Vik’s in Berkley and Balaji Bhavan in Houston).

Most Indians-visiting-India-from-the-US would avoid Indian street food because it doesn’t always meet Western standards for hygiene– it’s usually served streetside in open markets, prepared by bare hands, and served in dried banana leave bowls. For most of us, even the well-travelled in India, we would err on the side of being conservative to protect our delicate Western bellies from the possibility of falling sick.

When I was growing up in States, what I ate on the table was truly foreign to my friends and the country… by the time I was in my twenties I was working with folks who had had Indian roommates in college whose mothers shipped them food regularly so I would be often asked… do you know how to make aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower) or do you make those honey ball things (gulab jamuns)? Today Indian food in the States ranges from the creamy saag paneer to the flash fried spinach at a Zagat rated 27 in DC. I digress… street food is what we are talking about and even if you “LOVE” Indian food, it is unlikely you have had it… especially not this way!

For my sister’s reveal party (for 20 of which 7 were children—family only), my Mom made, at her request, street food favorites and it was perfect. Perfect in terms of tastes, textures, temperature, presentation, and consumption. The menu:

Virgin Blood Mary Shooters
Gol gappas (also known at paani puri)
Chole
Pau Bhaji
Dahi Papdi
Aloo Tikki
Eggless Flaxseed Pancakes (PPK)

My mother is the mastermind. In her book, nothing can be too “fresh” for my Mom. For example, I’m defiantly a lackey because I cook my family’s dinner mid afternoon rather than right before dinner. Her standards are high and she is demanding of us and herself in what she creates for all of us to enjoy. She loves through her food and feeding us. She loves every part of all of our being… if you could only see what she can whip up in an hour!

We are always on the sidelines learning and listening and taking direction. If you are from the subcontinent you know what “taking directions” means—- shut up, listen, learn, and do what you are told. Think about it later. My mom began cooking that morning—none of this “prep the night before” except for the chutneys (which were made free of pulp and additives, of course).

The tamarind chutney consisted of pods soaked to soften the tamarind fruit and then cooked with sugar and cumin.

The mint chutney was the family go-to: one box of mint, two bunches of cilantro, cumin seeds (1 table spoon), salt to taste, lemon juice, jalapeño.

The cooking the morning of (for a 2 party) began with cooking the garbanzos (no cans, folks!) and were seasoned with dried pomegranate seeds, ginger, tomatoes and onions.

The aloo ki tiki was stuffed with soaked and seasoned lentils

Gol gappa pani – This is the spicy tangy liquid that’s poured into the crispy gol gappa shells right before you place it whole into your mouth. To prepare it, raw rocklike mango was baked for an hour to pulpy perfection and then blended with lemon juice, mint, agave, and black salt.

Pau bhaji, the sloppy joe of India, was started by chopping cabbage, potatoes, bell peoplers, carrots, peas, onion and tomatoes… served with buttery griddle crisped slider buns.

My mother has always done this perfectly, but as we have become young adults she has humored us and allowed us to get involved in presentation and flow of the food under her tutelage. When I say we, I speak of my Delhi-hite bhabhi (sister in law) who has absorbed the ways of her ABCD family that she has married into, my sisters, my brother, and myself. We are the ops people—we get this from my PhD father, who got his PhD in industrial engineering before it was sexy to get an MBA and Harvard graduated 1500 people a year. We have DNA that makes us get things done.

Our task is simple —- take into account our food cultural needs (temperature, taste, freshness), keep the menu simple with little overlap in flavors (my Mom is big on this), presentation should be a pleasure to look at, and the food should be a joy to eat — this means flow around the table, size of the dishes (street food is often eaten standing) and of course, taste, but since my Mom was cooking this was a non issue.

Our innovation for this meal was the gol gappa and gol gappa pani service. To understand why was such a big deal you have to know the how and what of a gol gappa. Traditionally gol grapes are served to you by the vendor to you piece-by-piece while you are standing on in a market or street corner… again, most of us cannot partake because of the flora in our bellies that may get off kilter. Shells cannot be refilled with liquid because they will get soggy and spill so they must be eaten immediately. What did we do? We filled individual wine decanters with the gol gappa pani and everyone was able to serve and feed themselves for a perfect bit every time in without having to get up for each bite or shell. We went through almost 100 gol gappas and over 2 gallons of gol gappa pani. Mind you, we still had all at the other food items that we enjoyed.

BTW, this was just the food. The party was fabulous too. Take a look…