Eating On The Go
January 18, 2013
Food is more than just food. It’s a cultural thing.
I was out on a morning walk on a cold October morning in the Montmartre area of Paris. I was walking briskly to ward off the cold, but enjoying every moment of being in this city that I loved. The shops were closed as unlike in India, out there people don’t feel the need to open shop at 5.30 am. I sat around for a while watching my breath freeze into a smoky white as it left my lungs, before I decided to start back up again. By then it was 6.30 a.m. and one or two roadside eateries had started to set up. Although, not really hungry at the time, I stopped in front of one of these selling crêpes. I ordered one and stood around while the lady at the counter proceeded to make one. She asked me: “Vous voulez sucré or salé?” (do you want a sweet or savory one?). A Bengali with a natural sweet tooth, there was only one choice, but I asked for a dash of “citron” (lime) for a twist. I walked on ahead, munching on the hot delight that melted in my mouth. After a while I had to stop again! The heady aroma of freshly brewed coffee beckoned me. I walked into one of Paris’s famous cafés for a takeaway expresso, and sat at one of those many tables that line the city’s pavements, at what the Parisians call ‘Café terrasse’, lighting a cigarette. Right there and right then I was in heaven. I have heard that hot wine is something to look forward to during the more severe winter months in Paris and other cities of Europe - something I will have to come back for.
Eating on the go has its own share of fun. In India, more specifically in Kolkata, you can eat almost anything that you might crave. Literally everything is available with roadside vendors, if you are not a snob that is, and willing to try. There are of course the legendary sweetmeats-ranging from ‘rasgulla’, to ‘chomchom’, to ‘shondesh’ and ‘rajbhog’. But the array is equally widespread if you are not into sweets; You could visit Kolkata’s very own ‘China Town’ or you could have ‘golgappas’ on Park Street but when in Kolkata, it’s an absolute must to use local parlance and call them ‘phuchka’. You could also try the ‘rolls’ that the vendors of Kolkata have made famous all over the world- succulent pieces of meat with sauces and salad wrapped up in a crisply fried parantha. Talking of parathas instantly took me to Delhi’s ‘paranthe-wali-galli‘ where you can taste every imaginable parantha-filling. If you could conceive it, rest assured that lane has it somewhere. Delhi is also the place for ‘chaats’ I am told. I’m not big on chaats so I wouldn’t really know but my friends swear by it.
During my travels, I couldn’t help but notice that street food has much less variety though in peninsular India. Hyderabad of course is famous for its ‘biriyani’, but I wouldn’t exactly call it street food simply because it is a dish that the nawabs of Hyderabad perfected and therefore is not really a mass affair if you want to taste the real deal. The variety of south Indian cuisine is more in its breakfast menus than for any other meal. You could have some of the best ‘dosas ‘from the chain of Udupi food joints that are there in most south Indian cities. During my stay in Kerala however, we used to often drive down to the Kovalam or Velli beach and more often than not choose to dine on parantha and Malabar style chicken fry sold from vans that stood at the beach. You could sit there right inside your car, with the waves lashing and the wind blowing sea salt into your hair and eat to your heart’s content as the willing vendor serves you through your car window. At the end of such a delightful treat, you pay almost nothing at all! Such is the wonder of street food.
In Spain, a friend and I literally ate free as we went from bar to bar drinking wine and/or beer and were served ‘tapas’ to go with it. The idea of course is to increase the alcohol sales but all said and done ‘tapas’ which is a kind of finger-food or snack that’s just right for that slight peckishness that you feel while drinking , when you’re not yet ready for a full course dinner. Be it ‘tapas’ or a delicious dish of sticky ‘paella’, food in Spain gives rise to a lot of conversation. The Spanish, unlike the French, can easily strike up conversations with total strangers. The French are big talkers too and can discuss and debate over almost any issue over coffee or wine and dinner but only amongst a close circle of friends. If you are friendless in France, you are lost unless you enjoy your own company. Or unless you are what they would call a ‘francophile’ like me who loves everything French, including the snobbery!
In Germany, I have tasted the heavenliest of sausages possible but missed the beer bit since I am more of a wine drinker. Nevertheless, there is this particular beer ‘garten’ called Hofbräuhaus in Munich where the atmosphere is so infectiously festive that I just felt happy, insanely, deliriously happy, without rhyme or reason. I am yet to travel to the US, but a very dear friend of mine says that on his travels he discovered the friendly lot Americans are while they enjoy their hotdog or chilly dog on the run as the case may be. In India too, people are generally friendly and love to chatter over ‘chai’ and snacks at road-side eateries. This reminds me of a jovial saying about Mallus- that if you happen to travel to the moon, you are likely to find that a Malayali has gone there before you and set up a ‘chai’ shack! Talking of shacks, you have to be in one in Goa to experience for yourself the totally eclectic mix of people, food and unbelievably inexpensive and profusely flowing alcohol that create an out-of-this-world atmosphere. I am not big on drinks (just a wine guzzler!) but happily go along with those who are. I think, and you may disagree, that a jumbo glass of ‘lassi’, the best of which I tasted in Ludhiana, can be as intoxicating as any alcoholic beverage.
No matter where we hail from, one thing unites us all: the love of food. Food is more than just food, if you know what I mean. It’s a cultural thing. There is gourmet eating and there is gourmand eating. One could write volumes about the food cultures of the world, but today I just felt like sharing with you some of my culinary adventures and the marvelous things that I experienced through them.
Happy reading! Happy eating!