Seven best Indian street foods and their origins

Bhelpuri is one of the favourite street snacks in most parts of India
Image courtesy: ©subodhsathe/Getty Images

With a huge diversity in cultures, climates and traditions, India has become the hub of food and a vast variety can be seen on the menu. Travellers are always in luck when it comes to food and no matter how much one tries to resist, the aroma from street food joints attracts you towards them. Although all kinds of foods find place on the menu here, some stand out for their uniqueness or allure.

Bhelpuri

Bhelpuri will put your taste buds through their paces. First comes the crunch, from the rice puffs and crispy sev, then the tang of tamarind chutney, then the chilli hit followed by lingering sweet, salty and sour aftertastes. The dish can be relished at any sit-in restaurant, but the best bhelpuri comes from street stalls and hawker stands.

Origin: The first written recipe for bhelpuri is attributed to an English army cook called William Harold, who was dispatched to the streets of colonial Bombay to bring back a list of ingredients for this delicious snack so it could be added to the menu in the officers’ mess. However, Indians trace the origins of this spicy chaat back to the Maratha leader Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who demanded a snack that could be prepared and consumed on the way to battle.

Chole Bhature

In almost every lane in northern India stallholders sit behind bubbling cauldrons to serve a brood of customers this plate of their favourite snack. To taste the chole bhature best, first breathe in the aroma of spicy chole, the scents of mingling tamarind, chilli, ginger and coriander. It’s intensely satisfying to deflate the bread and then use it to wipe up the punchy taste of the chickpeas.

Origin: Chola bhatura is from the Punjab, where it’s a breakfast staple. It became a Delhi staple when migrants flooded into the city from what is now Pakistan after Partition in 1947. One of Delhi’s best outlets was founded by the owner’s grandfather, who arrived over 60 years ago with his recipe; he and his descendants have sold the dish from a shop in Paharganj ever since.

Chicken 65

You can find the original Chicken 65 at the restaurant where it was invented, but the street-side offering is just as delicious. Perfect Chicken 65 should be served straight from the pan, still sizzling but moist and tender inside its chilli and spice jacket. It is lipsmackingly good and will leave a tingle on your lips.

Origin: When A. M. Buhari, the proprietor of Chennai’s Buhari Hotel, invented Chicken 65 in 1965, he had no idea what he was starting. The civic-minded hotelier decided not to patent the recipe for his phenomenally popular chicken snack and hawkers took it to the streets in droves. Buhari didn’t stop there– Chicken 65 was followed by Chicken 78 in 1978, Chicken 82 in 1982 and Chicken 90 in 1990.

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Kati Roll is soft and crunchy at the same time
Kati Roll is soft and crunchy at the same time
Image courtesy: ©Flickr/Josiah Lau Photography/CC BY-ND 2.0

Kati Roll

During the evening rush hour, when office workers gather for their nightly fix, you’ll see vendors rolling this portable feast at breakneck speed. The softness of the paratha gives way to the tender meat within, and each bite delivers a crunch of chilli and onion and a swoosh of sauce and spices. Kati rolls should be eaten fresh off the tava (griddle) when the paratha is hot and the sauces and meat juices are still mingling. Vegetarians can get in on the act with kati rolls filled with spiced vegetables.

Origin: Some claim that the kati roll was invented as a portable tiffin (light lunch) for Bengali office workers. Others insist that the dish was cooked up for colonial sahibs too fastidious to get their hands dirty while eating. Either way, the first kati rolls trundled out of the kitchens of Nizam’s Restaurant in Kolkata in the 1930s.

Daulat ki Chaat is a delightful winter favourite
Daulat ki Chaat is a delightful winter favourite
Image courtesy: ©Lonely Planet/ Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Daulat ki Chaat

Daulat ki chaat is one of those dishes with a flavour and texture that are difficult to describe. The first taste imparts a hint of butter, then the tongue detects the subtle flavour of saffron followed by the pistachios, unrefined sugar and dried condensed milk sprinkled on top. The initial impression soon fades to leave behind a hint of creamy sweetness, prompting you to take another mouthful in order to recapture the heavenly sensation.

Origin: The origin of daulat ki chaat is lost in the mists of time, but it probably evolved as a way of using up a surplus of milk. Since it’s a speciality closely associated with Old Delhi, where it’s a popular street snack in winter, it’s possible that the Mughal emperors were among the first to savour this ephemeral treat.

Hot jalebis are temptingly delicious
Hot jalebis are temptingly delicious
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock Photos/Alexander Mazurkevich

Jalebis

Biting into a squiggly jalebi can be described as nothing short of, well, orgasmic. The arousing interplay of textural experiences – from the crispy yet playfully chewy outer shell to the warm, sweet syrup that seeps out from within – is tempered with flirtatious hints of fragrant rosewater or kewra water.

Origin: Jalebis probably originated in ancient Persia (where they were known as zoolbia), with the earliest literary record being 13th-century manuscripts. Documentation suggests the sweet first came to the Indian subcontinent at least 500 years ago with the Mughals. Local variations have made jalebis a standout among India’s wildly colourful medley of sweets.

Meetha Paan is popular as mouth freshener
Meetha Paan is popular as mouth freshener
Image courtesy: ©AMAYRA/Getty Images

Meetha Paan

You’ll see them all over India by the roadside, near restaurants and lunch spots: paanwallahs, sitting cross-legged amid stacks of shiny betel leaves and a hundred jars, tins and boxes. After working like scientists, taking a scoop, a sprinkle or a pinch of each ingredient, the finished pan is a giant wad that fills the mouth and quickly begins its symphony of textures and exotic flavours. Eating it is the perfect ending to a meal.

Origin: Paan goes back 5000 years, when kings and queens had special paan attendants. The combination of supari and betel leaf was thought to have healing, digestive and relaxant properties. Over time it absorbed more ingredients – from spices to sweets to silver leaf.

This excerpt has been taken from Lonely Planet’s ‘The World’s Best Street Food’.