Everyone knows that the best eats in India are served on the streets. Street food is a way of life in the subcontinent, and generations of travellers have picked up the habit, feasting their way from Mumbai to Mamallapuram on a diet of aloo tikki (spiced potato cakes), vada pav (potato dumplings in a white bread bun) and chhole bhature (spiced chickpeas with fried bread).
India is one of the world’s greatest cooking pots, as well as one of its greatest melting pots, but amongst the familiar street eat treats are some more unusual offerings to tempt adventurous palates. Here’s my pick of the pavement menus:
Spend any time in the central plains and you’ll soon spot India’s petha-wallahs, their wooden handcarts swarming with hundreds of buzzing bees. The sweet treat luring all these winged hangers-on is a delicacy from the royal courts of Agra: candied cubes of ash gourd, enjoyed by residents of Uttar Pradesh for centuries.
Petha was allegedly a personal favourite of the Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, and despite the insects swarming over vendors’ stalls, its high sugar content acts as a preservative so it’s usually safe to eat on the street. Look out for it at bus stands, train stations and markets in Uttar Pradesh and beyond.
India was the birthplace of chutney – indeed, the word comes from the Hindi verb chatna meaning ‘to lick’ – and every region has its own unique take on this distinctively Indian condiment. But chutney made from red ants might be a step too far for all but the most ambitious eaters.
In Bastar in Chhattisgarh, red ants and their eggs are pounded with chilli, ginger and other spices to make a pungent, fiery relish. You’ll see chaprah being sold in bowls made from leaves in village markets across the region, eaten .
Eating insects has become a traveller rite of passage in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find similar exoskeleton-covered treats in Assam, where Indian culture brushes up against the hill-tribe culture of neighbouring Myanmar and southern China. Assam is famous for its silk saris, but the industrious silkworms that make it also crop up as a portable snack.
Having spun their valuable cocoon, silkworm pupae are re-employed as a street food ingredient, boiled with ginger and other spices as a munchable street food delicacy for Assamese market shoppers on the go. Eri Polu is usually served with khorisa, fermented bamboo shoots.
In street markets across India, particularly around Kolkata and West Bengal, look out for piles of alien-looking pods, usually dark green or purply-black, like pint-sized props from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Congratulations, you’ve just had your first close encounter with paniphal (singhara): the Indian water chestnut, or water caltrop.
Hidden inside that weird-shaped pod is a white, starchy tuber, that stays deliciously crisp and crunchy, even when cooked. However, a little caution is required as uncooked paniphal can carry the parasitic flukes that cause fasciolopsiasis; stick to the boiled version to be safe and wash with clean water before peeling.
For travellers used to sanitised, pre-packaged choice cuts of meat back home, the Indian enthusiasm for offal can take some getting used to. In the Maharashtran city of Pune, it’s chargrilled buffalo spleen that titillates local gourmet tastebuds.
Famed (or notorious, depending on why you speak to) for its sharp, almost acrid flavour, and sour, rotten smell, tilli is definitely an acquired taste. And not everyone feels the need to acquire a taste for meat marinaded in bile; try it and come to your own conclusion.
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