Right here in the Midwest, you can stroll down the block or step around the corner and sample Indian street food. The aromas will seep out the window and entice you. Have a bite and you are in for a flavor sensation.
Funny thing about Indian street foods here in the Midwest — you may find them hiding in restaurants and Indian grocery stores. You probably won’t stumble across a streetside food cart or a marketplace vendor. Not every day, anyway.
Maybe you won’t even find a food truck, but fear not. You will still find casual, delicious Indian food and if the trend forecasters are correct, your options will expand.
In 2015, The Washington Post reported that there were about 5,000 Indian restaurants in the United States, compared to about 40,000 each of Chinese and Mexican restaurants. That is about to change.
In 2015 Forbes Magazine predicted an upswing in Indian food and in January 2017 Business Insider reported that Indian could be the next big food trend. Many food critics and food professionals concur. One taste and you just might agree, too.
More people are cooking Indian food at home and the number of Indian restaurants is up. The rising number of immigrants, the adventuresome palates of millennials and the frequency of traveling are driving the popularity of ethnic foods and strongly flavored dishes. Instagram and Pinterest posts feature Indian recipes and food newsletters flood the electronic in-box with curries, samosa, aloo tikki and pakora.
Street food of every cuisine is on the rise. While vendors and booths specializing in Indian cuisine may be scarce in our metro, the fast, casual, ready-to-eat fare popularly served at the street carts and markets in India are popping up locally at restaurants and at Asian and Indian markets.
Historically, street food sprang up as workers were unable to go home for a meal and wanted to quickly eat something appetizing. This casual, “fast-food” cuisine embodies fun and great tasting food, no matter where it is served.
Not all Indian food is what you think it is. Raghavan Iyer, chef and cookbook author, shares the story of his first Indian street food memory. As a boy in Mumbai, India, he remembers a lady selling fresh mango by his elementary school.
At recess he would race to her and purchase slices of the fresh, sweet fruit, which she would season with cayenne and salt. Now, years later, he cannot forget that wonderful flavor.
Fresh fruit slices or fried, finger-licking, spicy hot food? What is your image of Indian street food? It is time to dispel some Indian street food myths and explore this wonderful Asian cuisine.
Vast and varied
India is a huge country with seashores, rivers, mountains, deserts and rainforests. The ethnically and religiously diverse people and countryside mean that the food is also rich and varied. The foods and specifically the street food of one area may be very different from the food served in another region.
So much more than vegetarian
Meats, fish and poultry are a tasty part of Indian street food, and the cuisine is not all vegetarian. Yes, there is an emphasis on vegetarian dishes, with lots of vegetables, beans, rice and breads, but you will also find chicken, fish, seafood, lamb, beef and other meats.
Beyond fried finger-food
Not all Indian street food is fried and you may even wonder if it is “finger food.” You will taste plenty of steamed, mashed, baked and even raw foods in this varied cuisine. The fresh mango slices are a prime example. Not all of the dishes appear, at first glance, to be “finger foods” for rich and varied chutneys, and sauces are ladled over the servings. Grab a fork or spoon and enjoy.
Familiar foods prepared in new ways
Many of the foods will be familiar to you. Think potatoes, rice, beans, lentils and peas. It is true they may be seasoned and prepared very differently than what you first think of, but the common, familiar ingredients are there.
Jyoti Mukharji, a local Indian cooking school teacher, featured Indian street foods in a recent class and the tasty dishes included potatoes, garbanzo beans, onions, cucumbers, cilantro and chicken.
The tamarind chutney, roasted cumin, chilies, anise seeds, chaat masala, amchoor (a dry mango powder) and cilantro chutney added traditional, delicious Indian flavors to the everyday ingredients, and the preparation method she used created classic but new-to-us wonderful dishes to enjoy.
Layers of seasonings
The seasoning is often earthy and rich but is not always hot. Cumin, cilantro, cinnamon, turmeric and ginger are common. Some recipes are hot, with cayenne and chilies, but not every dish.
The seasonings and flavors are often layered, so there will be lots of different seasonings in every bite. Hot and spicy dishes may be tempered with cooling yogurt sauces or refreshing chutneys.
What dishes should I try?
Iyer’s advice is to keep an open mind.
Here are five top Indian street foods to try, and with flavors like these, you will probably be coming back for more.
Vegetable Pakora — Deep fried snacks made from vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower, bell pepper, cabbage or eggplant and a chickpea flour batter.
Samosas — Spicy mashed potatoes and peas in a super crispy, fried crust. In Iyer’s book, “660 Curries, The Gateway to Indian Cooking” (Workman, New York, 2008), he explains that in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, the samosa is often broken open and served with a hearty stew and sweet/hot chutneys.
Pav bhaji — A delicious thick vegetable curry served on a soft roll. This is by far one of the most popular street foods in India. The thick vegetable curry is made with peas, potatoes, carrots, onion, tomatoes, cauliflower and spices. Other vegetables may also be part of the bhaji portion of this street food. The soft roll (pav) is buttered and toasted on a hot griddle. Sonal Patel, who lives in Overland Park, serves this to her family as a dinner meal, often adding cooked, cubed chicken to the curry. She explained that while this street food originated in Mumbai, pav bhaji is popular throughout India today.
Masala dosa — A South Indian, fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils. Chetna Makan, in her book, “Chai, Chaat & Chutney, A Street Food Journey Through India” (Octopus Publishing Group, LTD, Great Britain, 2017), has fond memories of her mother’s “amazing dosa meals.” When the dosa (the crepe) is stuffed with a filling of potatoes, fried onions and spices, it is transformed to masala dosa. Chetna recommends cooking the potatoes with the skins on so that they don’t disintegrate. You may find dosa’s filled with a variety of ingredients.
Papdi chaat — A dish combining fried tortilla squares (or papdi) topped with small cubes of cooked potatoes, garbanzo beans, tamarind chutney, plain yogurt and spices. Jyoti Mukharji, who teaches Indian cooking classes in her home in Prairie Village, prepared and shared a recipe for papdi chaat in her recent Indian street food class (see recipe to follow.) Jyoti suggested using flour tortillas for the papdi if you don’t have papdi readily available. The dish is satisfying and the depth of flavor will linger long after you have enjoyed this street food.
Street foods and Indian ingredients
Shopping for ingredients or looking for Indian street food? You might find you can do both at some locations. This list is just a few of the many we visited; new spots keep popping up, so be adventuresome.
▪ Ambica, 9054 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park
▪ KC India Mart, 8542 W. 133rd St., Overland Park
▪ Namaste, 10563 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park
▪ Tikka House, 411 Main St., Kansas City
▪ A Touch of Asia, 6860 W. 105th, Overland Park
▪ Bayleaf, 947 New Hampshire, #120, Lawrence
▪ Chai Shai, 651 E. 59th St., Kansas City
▪ Godavari, 7328 W. 119th St., Overland Park
▪ Ruchi, 11168 Antioch, Overland Park
Ready to step into the kitchen and make your own? Begin with these two, popular recipes.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 cups finely chopped cauliflower
2 cups cooked, peeled, finely cubed russet potatoes
2/3 cup frozen peas
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger root
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
6 to 8 soft bread rolls (or pav), split horizontally
Soft butter to spread on rolls
Heat the oil and butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 to 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the cauliflower, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, garlic, ginger root, salt, cayenne pepper, garam masala and turmeric. Bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat; reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until vegetables are cooked through.
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Spread each roll generously with butter. Place rolls cut-side down on the hot griddle and heat rolls 1 to 2 minutes or until lightly toasted. Serve vegetable mixture over rolls.
Sonal Patel adds about 1 1/2 cups cooked, diced chicken to the vegetables during the simmer time.
Pav is a soft, small roll common in India.
Recipe courtesy of Sonal Patel of Overland Park, who is known for sharing delicious Indian food with friends and neighbors. This recipe is adapted from one she makes and serves her family and friends.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
6 flour tortillas (or papdi), cut into 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch pieces
2 (6-ounce) containers plain, non-fat yogurt
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
3 russet potatoes, cooked, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes
1 (16-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 to 1 cup tamarind chutney
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Pour oil into a large, deep skillet to a depth of about 2 inches. Heat over medium high heat until the oil is 350 degrees. (Watch carefully so oil does not overheat or begin to smoke.)
Working in small batches so tortilla pieces are not crowded, carefully place tortilla pieces into the hot oil using a slotted spoon. Fry pieces until golden brown, turning to brown evenly. Remove the crisp pieces to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining tortilla pieces, frying until all are golden brown and crisp. Set aside.
Whisk together the plain yogurt and enough milk to thin to a pourable consistency. (The consistency should be similar to heavy cream.) Set aside.
When ready to serve, divide the fried tortillas (the papdi) among 4 to 6 individual small plates or shallow bowls. Top each with about 2 tablespoons cooked potato cubes, then top with about 2 to 3 tablespoons drained garbanzo beans. Drizzle each serving with 3 to 4 tablespoons of yogurt-milk mixture then 3 to 4 tablespoons tamarind chutney. Season each serving with a pinch of salt, pepper and ground cumin. Serve immediately.
Papdi is a thin, cracker-like bread that is fried and is traditional for Indian cooking. Flour tortillas are a quick, easy substitute for making your own dough.
Tamarind is an Indian date. The chutney made from this fruit is a common Indian condiment and is readily available in jars at Indian markets.
For a delicious cumin flavor, pour some cumin seeds into a small, dry skillet. Heat over medium heat, watching closely and gently shaking the skillet frequently, until the cumin seeds are aromatic and lightly toasted. Allow the seeds to cool, then grind in a spice grinder or coffee mill dedicated to spices.
Recipe courtesy of Jyoti Mukharji of In Jyoti’s Kitchen, an Indian cooking school located in Prairie Village. She shared this delicious recipe recently in an Indian street food class. You may also find her recipes on YouTube, under Jyoti’s Indian Kitchen.