Sell Samosas, Go to Jail?

The semilegal world of Delhi street food

» Delhi Street Food Photo Gallery

A few months back, the BBC reported that Delhi was going to get tough on street food, setting and enforcing sanitation standards apparently to spruce up for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But when I recently strolled Delhi’s famous Chandni Chowk neighborhood—where humans, dogs, and cows dodge cars, rickshaws, and mule carts—street food was as plentiful as ever. One gol gappa seller offered a small mountain of puri (crunchy little oval-shaped fried breads) piled high on a large metal plate, with pani (a watery mint chutney) in a dented metal vessel underneath. He placed the puri in a small banana-leaf bowl, deftly poked a hole in one, filled it with mashed potatoes and chickpeas, and ladled pani over it along with some tamarind chutney.

But in Chandni Chowk, most of the cooking is not street cooking; it takes place in storefronts and is brought to street stands to sell. Walking in the congested streets and narrow alleys is difficult enough; setting up a kitchen with cooking oil and gas tanks would be virtually impossible.

It’s at the edge of the city, toward Gurgaon, that you can find open-air kitchens. These are—and always have been—semi-illegal. According to India’s current National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, street hawkers, while being acknowledged as a vital part of the economy, are considered “unlawful entities and are subjected to continuous harassment by Police and Municipal Authorities.”

Said Kunika Seth, an airline customer-service agent who has lived in Chandni Chowk most of her life: “It’s just another form of low-level corruption. The police do a sweep when they are low on funds, and get paid under the table to turn a blind eye.” Has anyone ever been nabbed? Yes, those who could not pay.

The Supreme Court in India has realized the uselessness of banning street food. Three weeks after the first proposed ruling, the court asked the municipality of Delhi to establish shared areas in marketplaces that would supply vendors with electricity and running water. Last week, the Supreme Court announced its final policy. There will be designated hawker zones with fixed vending times and new sanitary standards. With these new rules, the government hopes to protect the hawkers from exploitation by the police and local authorities, and to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. Public assistance will be given to those hawkers who are illiterate, to help them file for accreditation.

The culinary tradition of street food, or chaat, dates as far back as the 16th century. For most Indians, standing around a food stall and shooting the breeze with buddies while snacking is a favorite activity. Each region has its own specialty of chaat, so the typical Delhi chaat is not found outside Delhi, unless you happen across a displaced chaat seller. Street stands, like heirloom jewelry, are passed down from one generation to the next. Many date back to the 1800s, and each has its own secret family recipe.

Here’s a photo celebration.

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