Rites of Passage: Street Food and the Bihari Bhaiya

Maitreyee B Chowdhury

Jan 12, 2015, 10:19 PM | Updated Feb 18, 2016, 12:09 PM IST

The writer’s chat with vendors over the street food they dispense make either side relate to the other in Bengaluru. The city’s peculiar cosmopolitan transformation makes it alien no longer to migrants.

My passionate wanderings and aimless walks through different cities have marked a pattern that assumes a connection resembling that of a flâneur.

To walk different roads everyday is to find a new story on each road. While your mind keenly takes on every aspect of the colour, chaos and spectacle unfolding around you, much like the Indian bazaar, it could be a blur unless you have a discerning eye to make all of this into a memory.

In Bengaluru now for the last 8 years and more, I realise that every day (now more than ever) the contours of the city have been changing. There are, of course, still those little nooks with English names, the promenades that scream with overloaded bougainvillea, the hidden little urchin mounted on some old church, the little white cottages with the delicate mauve of the jacaranda lending grace and the occasional mood up-lifter in the abundance of tabebuia fallen in a heap on the road.

But like every city that grapples with growth, much has been lost and gained here, too. But most cities are great blenders they churn us all in the same flavour of being hassled and if there is respite here, it is perhaps in the knowledge of its delicious smells that lurk in corners you haven’t discovered.

Typical of a migrant city, while the old complain of the chaos and the young lament its night life, soft-footed bengaluru has been gathering unique dimensions. Here the flavours are often a mixed bag, and nowhere is it revealed more than on the streets.

I realise while on my walks, when a city changes, it changes not only in the crumbling of its old walls but also in the way its people eat. The beginning of this is to be noticed first in the way its street food looks and tastes, when the delicate flavour of dosa is mixed with the robust kachouri.

My Kolkata street food-curated nose increasingly ruminates on this amalgamation of the typical dahi puri from the North with ghee dosa from the South, and I know with certainty that soon enough we wouldn’t be able to distinguish where it had all begun.

And so I design my walks to coincide with the food trail. I have of course done my bit of soul searching at Thindi Beedi or Food Street at VV Puram and found the paradoxical ‘Ramu Tiffin Centre’ with its Kali Dosa, Set Dosa, Bath Dosa, etc. There is the occasional decent Paapri Chaat stall here or the innovative mango corn masala cooked over charcoal fire and the usual Akki Roti, Jalebis and Gulab Jamuns places.

Food Street, V V Puram, Photo Credit: <a href="" shape="rect">Sarthak Singhal</a>
Food Street, V V Puram, Photo Credit: <a href="" shape="rect">Sarthak Singhal</a>

From time to time, the vendors here organise street food festivals like the one that introduced the hyacinth bean or the avare bele to the usual menu resulting in avare bele Chinese, to jamuns and jalebis with avare bele. But then, I’m not on the hunt for a delicate mix of the traditional with the new — in short, food not only well blended but well curated, too.

In my quest, I’ve constantly run into the evolving taste and presence of more and more north Indian street food and, more interestingly, vendors who sell such food. What I found interesting was that these vendors were trying to make food that raised the curiosity of foodies from both the North and the South, while also retaining a flavour of a taste that each has grown up with.

But is food really food without a tinge of the language you speak? I discovered to my surprise that what the tongue cannot speak, it accepts rather hesitantly too perhaps. My upbringing infused in me a strange sense of spoken Hindi that reeks of Delhi, Bihar and Lucknow with a shy Kolkata peeping through.

Amidst this chaos of linguistic delicacies, I realise a strange fondness for the Bihari babu, which resulted in me walking that extra mile for an irrelevant chat with the Bihari bhaiyas dotting the city, now more than ever.

Contrary to what culinary pundits might have us believe, it is my staunch belief that if there is one food that binds us all together as a nation, it is the phuchka as we call it in Kolkata. Eternal favourite of the young and old, the dish evolves in bits and parts across the country. But no matter how many phuchkas you might have had in your life, if you haven’t tried out one from a Bihari bhaiya, you ain’t eaten nothing at all.

Phuchkawala, Photo Credit: <a href="" shape="rect">Mammamiia</a>
Phuchkawala, Photo Credit: <a href="" shape="rect">Mammamiia</a>

Somewhere in the early 2000s, the streets of Bengaluru began to see the presence of little kiosks with the banner “Calcutta Victoria Chat”. The mention of Calcutta served two purposes: For one, it catered to the ever growing Bengali population in the IT hub and, secondly, it announced the arrival of flavours predominantly north Indian, since anywhere above the Godavari was considered North by our friends down South.

While Calcutta Victoria Chat does not still meet the required taste buds of the typical Delhiite, it is perhaps enough to whet the taste buds of Chettinad country.

But even while the city began to increasingly smell of samosas and papri chats in unassuming corners, till now dedicated to idlis and dosas, the phuchka (the real deal in street food) had still not truly acquired its original flavour.

One would often find a drowned-in-mehendi, chuda-wearing newlywed Delhiite instructing a fairly confused phuchka stall owner on how the imli was a tad too much or how the masala lacked punch and so on.

There is, however, that sudden day when you wake up and find to your utter delight that the phuchkas around the block have begun smelling and tasting different. You realise then that the man selling it has finally resisted the temptation of adding some dahi in it instead of the khatta meetha pani that he was supposed to. The evolutionary journey of the street food in Bengaluru had not only begun but was here to stay.

My first brush with a Bihari bhaiya in the city seemed almost romantic. I had flagged down an auto and asked, “MG Road jaoge bhaiya?” (Could you take me to MG Road?) Without preamble I was asked, ‘aap UP se ho?’ (Are you from Uttar Pradesh?) I had smiled then and told him I was from Bengal as he nodded his head wisely and said, ‘Achchha, to ihan kya kar rahe hain aap?’ (Is it? Then what brings you here?)

Suddenly the world had assumed the beautiful colour of being able to speak and be understood in a common language. Along the length and breadth of MG Road, we chatted, sometimes going the extra mile to crack a silly joke in Hindi that both of us knew would be lost on those without knowledge of the language. He told me about his modest home in Chhapra and how Bangalore appealed to him because the people here let him be.

The romantic in me would have you believe that the advent of the real phuchkas, bhelpuris, aloo tikkis and samosas on Bengaluru roads began with this conversation. A rite of passage of sorts!

Almost as a validation of the city’s new taste, uniquely its own, I met a vendor on MG Road who indulgently chatted with me about the changing taste and smells of Bengaluru. It was a particularly windy evening; I had just finished browsing in Higginbothams on MG Road and procured two particularly interesting books.

Feeling sedated enough; I took a stroll down the road looking to binge on some greasy street food, as if as a reward for the exhaustive book search. I found a young man sitting on the stairs of a closed shop just before the Barton Centre, selling eatables from a rather largish steel container.

He also had with him a bag full of small paper plates, plastic cups, chutney, masala and more. As soon as he saw me pause in front of him, he smiled and asked me, ‘Garam kachodiyan loge?’ (Would you care for some hot kachodis?)

Kachori with curd
Kachori with curd

On my previous sporadic visits to MG Road, I hadn’t seen anyone sell kachodis, and I was curious to find out how they would taste. I nodded in the affirmative even while he filled my plate with two and added a dollop of curd on the top. My north Indian tongue revolted and rather irritated I asked him why he had added the curd when the regular topping should have been a green pudina or dhaniya chutney.

The man smiled and asked me, ‘Aap North ke ho kya?’ (Are you from the North?) The question of course does not surprise one anymore. No matter how many times you scream Calcutta, if you speak decent Hindi, by some Karmic force, the North is your destiny, and so I shook my head in the affirmative and repeated my question.

The young man parts with an age old secret. ‘Didi, ihan ke log kachouri toh khana pasand karte hain par dahi ke sath, isiliye hum chutney nahin banate.’ (Sister, people here like kachodis, but with yogurt; so I don’t make chutney.) Adaptability has long since been every traveller’s forte and who knows it better that the Bihari babus who have been serving us the most versatile street food since the origins of phuchka perhaps.

I asked him where he was from and he amiably told me that he had descended on the city three years ago from Jhumritalaiya. And so as I tucked into the kachodis with the warm dahi, I realised that I was a part of this huge transition where the phuchkas might have arrived with their designated spice but the kachodis hadn’t, where Bengalis continue ‘coochicooing’ with their girlfriends in loud Bangla, blissfully assuming no one understands, forgetting that every Bangla film — good, bad or ugly — ran a full house here!

The roads and their cloak of awkward familiarity are rather nice, the dahi and the kachodis too actually, I realise suddenly. In the end it is the whiff of the familiar in unfamiliar corners where travellers with taste, find homes in.

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and writer based in Bangalore

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