"Los Angeles County is moving to submit its flock of 9,500 food trucks and carts to the same health department rules as restaurants — including requiring them to prominently post a letter grade based on food inspections — in what may be the ultimate sign that this faddiest of food fads is going mainstream."
For the first twenty-some years of my life no meat ever passed these lips. This must sound more dramatic than my saying that I grew up vegetarian, especially if you factor in the notion I have that it is positively Jesuitical to distinguish between meat and fish (if you prick them, do they not bleed?). Not just meat, for I grew up with an otherwise irreligious father who was brahmaniacal about anything to do with the "other" - to wit, the mlechha. That meant NO STREET FOOD, manna to Indian children, let alone eating at non-veg friends' houses.
So I recall with nostalgia the sporadic appearance of a tall mustachioed fellow in our alley. "Ma, Ma, soan-papdi-walla's here!" My mother would swear us to secrecy and splurge for a few ounces of this ethereal artisanal delicacy to be scarfed in the scant hour before Baba came home from work. After a gap of forty years I rediscovered a sanitized version of this guilty pleasure at an Indian store, sadly, often congealed from the experience of being hermetically packaged and sent halfway across the globe without benefit of the flies that soan-papdi-vala had to constantly fend off. Still. we have this rave (albeit with the wrong image) from gustator par excellence Joyce E. Fink at Amazon.com -
"Haldirams Soan Papdi: I was given a box of these flaky sweets by a friend from Bahrain and found them to be absolutely devine [sic]. So glad to have found them online so that I can order some to give as gifts to my other friends."
For our salty cravings we had chana-choor, dispensed, from a pushcart stationed outside the gate of our school, by a mustachioed pocket Hercules we knew only as pehelwan who had reputedly served time for murder. A generous squeeze of lime on the roasted gram, chili, onion and (proprietary) spice concoction, served up in a cup made of dried leaves, would be an extra two pice. In place of such small town fare, all that Bombay had to offer in my college years were gol-guppa and bhel-puri dished out by anonymous people of no distinction.
It's the daring vegetarian Indian who comes to the west and samples tandoori chicken and imagines pleasure to palliate the guilt. Why bother, say I. Such bland food must have been invented for the sole purpose of suckering gora-log into thinking "orientalism". Shortly before leaving India I was with some friends in a Kanpur baazaar with a beer too many and a hunger to match. I pointed to the fiercest looking stuff on a pushcart and minutes later I was officially non-veg. My mouth was burning, my brain awash with the mixed messages of satiation and original sin. My mlechha friends informed me that I had eaten liver. After that, how could I ever stomach chicken in any form, I ask you?
And yet the most memorable meal I've had was neither delicacy nor treyf. Four of us were celebrating college graduation with a rough tour of the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. At one point we were on a bleak minor highway with no rides in sight and stomachs protesting, when along comes this old villager with a pushcart. He spoke neither Hindi nor Punjabi but we managed to chat him up somehow. He was the official chuck-wagon for the road repair crews of those parts and he had enough left over for us. We were charged by the roti, all the rest was thrown in. He fed us the staple of potato and cauliflower curry garnished with ghee, raw onions, green chilis, and dipping salt. We couldn't have fared better in town, and at country prices too.
I have this ditty to remind me of that grand meal :
Aloo, mutter, gobi / Hum saab, tum dhobi.
... which loses everything when translated to :
Potato, peas, cauliflower / Me boss, you laundryman
And somehow, this song fragment seems appropriate too :
Supe que lo sencillo no es lo necio
Que no hay que confundir valor y precio
Y un majar puede ser cualquier bocado
Si el horizonte es luz y el rumbo es beso.
... which I translate very freely as :
I know the simple aren’t cause for mirth
That price must not be seen for worth,
And every morsel can a delicacy be
If the horizon's lit and the course be kissed.
Do you have some stories about what my Bombay neighbors used to call "thrash food"?
(Editor's note:Narayan's nostalic musings about street food were inspired by this article in the NYT.)
Glossary of Indian words:
- Soan Papdi: a very flaky pastry like sweet made from gram flour, sugar, clarified butter and pistachio nuts.
- Chana-Choor: A salt and spicy mixture of whole and flattened roasted chick peas.
- pehelwan: a muscle man
- gora-log: people of European origin
- roti: south Asian flat, unleavened bread, usually made of whole wheat flour.