Risk-free Street Food in India

May 12, 2009–CN Traveler, Daily Traveler

It’s a typical situation. You find yourself wandering the congested backstreets of Old Delhi when you experience the sweet and sour smells of pomegranate, tamarind, and yogurt, and the dense, savory scent of deep-fried dough. You turn another corner to find a swarm of people crowded around a particularly popular chaatwallah (a purveyor of some of India’s most celebrated street foods), and you are just about to order your very own pani puri when you remember the words of every guidebook and protective Indian auntie you’ve met: “Don’t eat the street food!”

Though most of the warnings against adventurous eating in India are (in my humble opinion) exaggerated, they are not entirely invalid. The chutneys served with many chaats are kept cool with giant blocks of ice made from water of questionable origin, and virtually all chaats are deep fried in oil that, even when perfectly clean, can be heavy enough to throw your digestive juices into a frenzy. The decision to move on is probably a wise one.

Enter Haldiram’s. Essentially an Indian fast food chain, Haldiram’s uses only light oils and filtered water and is any foreigner foodie’s best bet for trying chaat risk free.

Even Delhi’s most devout foodies concede that what the chain serves up at its spotless, efficient, fluorescent-lit counters is authentic. And with the average dish costing 50 rs. ($1)–count on two for a full meal–Haldiram’s will hardly break the bank.

Haldiram’s enormous menu offers familiar favorites like dosas and samosas, but a visit would be incomplete without sampling the traditional chaats so beloved throughout the subcontinent. First priority should be pani puri. Paper-thin hollow balls of friend dough about the size of a small egg, they’re served with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes, tamarind chutney, and water flavored with cilantro and green chilies. To eat them, you break open the top with a spoon and fill the ball with all three ingredients, then pop the whole thing into your mouth, chomping through the crunchy exterior. It collapses instantly, releasing the sweet, tangy, spicy (pick an adjective!) flavors.

Almost as exciting and just as delicious are my personal favorites, raj kachoori and papri chaat. Both dishes consist primarily of some fried starch smothered in yogurt, tamarind chutney, various masalas (spice mixes), fresh cilantro, and pomegranate seeds. After either, you’ll wonder how so many flavors and textures can coexist in a single dish.

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