Everyday, I used to take a bus from outside Howrah Station to go to college. Soon after the bus crossed Howrah Bridge, the next four or five miles from Burrabazar to Dalhousie were flooded with commuters, hawkers, buses, cars – if you are from Calcutta you know what I mean. People running and trying to reach their destination, bus conductors screaming for more passengers, people running to catch the bus, coolies carrying huge baskets on their heads, office goers eating breakfast on the footpath as if no one was watching them. But in reality, someone watched them every day and that someone was me. I always preferred a window seat in the bus if I had a chance. The window was my portal to the world outside the bus.
Greedily, I peeked outside the bus window at the people eating hurriedly on the streets outside Writer’s Building. The sheer variety amazed me – ranging from biryani topped with an egg and potato, bread toasted on the hot griddle and then coated with a fried egg, huge deep fried puris served with ghugni to colorful fruits laid on a basket like a work of art to make fruit salad. I would have given anything to eat there, but being perpetually late and running for my life, I never had a chance to stop.
To me it might have been just a hankering, but for many, those street food stalls were lifesavers. People used to commute to Calcutta for work from far away, six days a week. Some people left the house even before dawn, some had odd working hours and some had late night shifts. They didn’t have the luxury of a full breakfast before leaving for work or eating home-cooked delicious dinners. The food stalls of Calcutta were where they ate their regular meals. More than just snacks, many of these sold lunch and dinner items, designed to provide sustenance on a budget. If you ever get a chance, go to the office para (office neighborhood) – you’ll be more than surprised to see the spread. Starting form freshly made fulkas (Indian flat bread) to Chinese dumplings to colonially influenced chop-cutlet, you name it, and they have it. Street food does not mean that it has to be prepared on the street. Often the vendors would bring their wares already cooked and then reheat it before serving. Sometimes they were halfway prepped and would be completed (usually by frying) in response to your order.
Although street food in India largely varies from one place to another depending on the local ingredients, there are certain things likely to be found in most cities. Chaat being the number one ubiquitous street food found all over the country can widely vary in terms of ingredients and taste. On the other hand, dahi vada is very similar in taste across the country with a little bit of tweaking here and there. The basics will always be the same, with the condiments being a little different based on whether you are in North India or South India. It is very feeling and healthy, and can be eaten as a snack or a main meal. Served throughout the year, it’s a staple in many restaurants, on the streets and in the homes of a myriad families.
Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup
Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.
Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups
Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like
Chat masala (found in the Indian store): to taste
Black salt: to taste
Red chili powder: to taste (optional)
Boondi/fried chickpea flour balls (available in the Indian stores): to taste (optional)
Coriander: a handful, finely chopped
Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings
- Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then soak the lentils in enough water overnight or for 3-4 hours. Keep at least one-two inches of water above the lentils as the lentils will expand.
- Drain the lentils and then grind them in a food processor with very little to almost no water. Do not grind them to a smooth paste. Keep the paste a little grainy…just a little.
- Add the fennels seeds and a little bit of salt to the batter and whip the batter very well. The whipping will incorporate air in the batter and will make the balls fluffy.
- Take a small bowl with water and drop a tiny portion of the batter in the water. If the batter floats on the top immediately, you know the batter is ready. Or else, whip it further.
- Heat a deep bottom pot with enough oil it to deep fry the balls. Again, drop a small portion and if the batter starts sizzling vigorously, you know your oil is ready.
- Either with your hand or with a spoon take out around a table spoon and a half of the batter and drop it in the oil. Put few more in the oil like this. Do not overcrowd the oil as it will bring the oil temp down and make the balls soak more oil.
- Fry the dumpling on medium high heat and turn them occasionally to evenly fry all the sides. DO NOT over-fry them.
- Keep a deep bowl on the side with luke warm water.
- Once the balls are fried, drain them on a paper towel and then drop them into the luke warm water.
- Soak the balls in there for 30 minutes and then squeeze them in between your palms and keep them in a separate platter. Do not press them too hard, they might break and fall apart.
- Whip up the yogurt lightly and add salt to it. Taste it. Add the tamarind chutney and all the powders and taste again.
- Soak the lentil balls in the spiced yogurt for almost an hour or more in the fridge.
- Just before serving, add the chopped cilantro and the boondi.