Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Street Food - Part 2

I enjoyed writing about street food in India and reminiscing the good old days. In the United States, I have traveled extensively to the north-east, the mid-west and a bit of south-east. The western part is still a mystery for me. So this blog post mainly talks about street food in these regions.
I will start from the most current experience and go back to what I have been noticing over the years. I have lived in DC for a little over three months now. My colleagues I and A were the first to introduce me to food trucks in DC.

Let me tell you that people in DC take their food trucks very seriously. There are dedicated websites not just for the food trucks, but also to locate them. Some URLs of websites of food trucks are: http://takorean.com/, http://fojol.com/, http://www.eatsauca.com/ and many more. Unlike India - they do not park themselves at the same place, same time every day. They are more mobile. I have not had a good experience eating good Indian food in restaurants in DC. Some of the best Indian food I have had though is at these food trucks - made by non-Indian people! The food offered by these food trucks ranges from everyone's favorite pizza to Mexican food, Thai food, empanadas, a lot of kabab trucks, Indian, Ethiopian and other cuisines. Because of my egg allergies, I have not had the cupcakes. I once got a cupcake for A and he absolutely loved it. Oh and yes - to further satiate your sweet tooth, there are specialty ice-creams and gelatos also.

The first time I went to the food truck was during our lunch break. I could not wait to get back to my desk and eat. The Bombay Chicken was yummy. What I really liked was that they had used very good spices. And you could know from the taste, that they ground their own spices - rather than use the ubiquitous 'curry' powder. Since that time, I have had Korean tacos, vegetarian empanadas (I got lucky as they didn't have egg), Mediterranean food, Indian and Ethiopian food. I had never had Korean tacos before. They were served on a corn tortilla with fresh salad called kimchi. It was made with red cabbage, cilantro and lemon. The crispy salad went perfectly with the filling and the soft taco. During the summer and fall months, there is a once-a-month festival called 'Truckeroo'. Food trucks within DC participate in it. They all gather at one big open area and park themselves from 10 or 11 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night. I went to the last one a month back. I have to admit that I called A from there and told him I wanted to eat everything over there! I have not seen something like this elsewhere happen on such a regular basis. This is what I mean when I say that people in DC take their food trucks seriously. Currently DC citizens are trying to save the food trucks as they are competition to the restaurant business and so the latter does not want the food trucks. The only flip side is that if you went to a particularly famous food truck, chances are you will have to wait a little before you got your food.

Moving on, some of the most well known food trucks in Columbus, Ohio were taco trucks. Several of them were owned by Mexican folks who didn't know or speak English. One website spelled things out for a person to order when s/he went to a taco truck and not confuse or get confused. A lot of food trucks in Columbus mushroomed late at night - after 10:30 or 11 PM and that too close to the bars and night clubs and of course close to campus. A once had the lamb gyro late at night and really liked it. They were very accommodating and customized his order. When I met my friend K A-H a few months back, she said that work was being done at the local level to offer more healthy food at the food trucks. This would provide a boost to those who wanted to eat tasty, yet healthy food and not resort to unhealthy food, just because it was street food. Columbus has the largest college campus in the country. The business of food trucks or food vendors would thrive if they could sustain themselves on or near campus. During the three years I was there (2008-2011), I didn't see a lot of options apart from the usual Panera bread, Wendy's, Chipotle and the like. I think having food trucks or food vendors in the campus area would be a great way to diversify the culinary appetite of students, faculty and staff.

The first time I had food from a food cart was masala dosa and it was in New York city (NYC)! Yes - it was masala dosa! I was at a South Asian Journalists Association's annual conference. I had been in the country only four months and I saw this advert about the dosa truck at several places. And people were already talking about it before lunch. I was curious why everyone was raving about it and so I tried it. After eating the first few bites, I understood why everyone was talking about it. The dosa (similar to a savory rice crepe) was crisp, light and the masala was adequately spiced to serve various palettes.

Thiru Kumar, also known as 'Dosa Man' is very well known and also has a loyal clientele that is willing to wait in the long lines. He dishes out masala dosas that you definitely want to try if you are in the city and spot his truck in your vicinity. A loves the food trucks and food carts in New York City. He loves the kababs and gyros that the city offers. They are quick to order, and easy to handle if you are on the go and need something handy that will not spoil your blazer during a work week. With NYC's cosmopolitan crowd and a population that is willing to try food from different ethnicities, it is no wonder that food carts and food trucks are so well known. Apart from these, there naturally are the hot dog carts and the carts that sell things ranging from small pizza slices to candy to peanuts and hotdogs.
When A and I lived in Connecticut, I began working in downtown Hartford a few months before we moved to Columbus. So I didn't get a chance to explore it as much. Hartford, being the insurance capital of the country, had several big firms, IT firms and more. This was one of the main reasons that food carts were seen mostly in downtown Hartford. The way even small cities in India have a major street food presence, it is not the case in the United States. You are not very likely to see food carts or food trucks in small cities. What one may find in smaller cities though is specialty restaurants that serve some of the best local cuisine, and people from other parts of the country come to try that.

Again - please do share your share of experience with food trucks or food carts in the United States. If you have never been here, what is something that you would like to tray?

*Pictures of New York dosas taken from http://newyorkstreetfood.com

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Street Food - Part 1

If you have not had street food - ever, or in any part of the globe - I will say you are missing something. You are missing the casual atmosphere, getting fresh and tasty food and seeing it made right in front of you. What you won't miss is burning a hole in your pocket. Laaris (pronounced as laa-rees) or road-side places where they make the most delicious food were the ubiquitous small places lined up on the side of the roads in most cities in India. One of my favorite cuisines to eat at these road-side stalls was Indian Chinese food. As they read this post, I know my sister N and some other friends would probably be dreaming of the piping hot vegetarian manchurian and chilli garlic noodles that we used to get from there more than ten years back. It was almost a weekly or fortnightly routine to get any type of food from these laaris. We used to get this food more than ten years ago and people still love the street-side food in India. My sister also loved South Indian food from a road-side eatery in Baroda. It was a tad too spicy for me, but delicious nonetheless. Those who know A know that he loves food. One of his favorite was egg-bhurji (scrambled eggs, cooked with Indian spices, onions, tomatoes and cilantro) and any other egg preparation. He always says that you just cannot replicate the taste of road-side egg dishes at home.

Basically - the road side stalls offered food from Indian Chinese to authentic north Indian food to all sorts of egg-preparations, and a lot more. It is not just that the price is attractive at these places. These road-side food places - that stand on four wheels and cook food in a small area right in front of you also had the appeal of a very good taste. How many of you had had stale food in 3 star to 5-star hotels? That won't be the case here as these people don't have the mechanism to store food. You won't see a refrigerator or freezer at the laari. So you know it is fresh and that gets validated in the taste.

Bombay and Delhi boast of some of the best street-side food. There are vendors who may not even have their stall on four wheels. They may dish their lip-smacking snacks from a small box that is hoisted on a bicycle or have a sturdy long stool on which they keep their snacks. For instance, one can easily find Dabeli (pronounced as daa-bay-lee) sellers in Bombay - who may have a stall or may operate from their bicycle. Think of dabeli as a sandwich with spicy mashed potatoes, with a smearing of two or three chutneys and sprinkled with peanuts and pomengranate seeds.

The ever famous Bombay's Bhel puri that people eat not just by the beaches is again something one should try. It also brings me to another point. My mom always said that eat anything that is warm, but not cold. And the chutneys in the bhel and dabeli qualify as cold. The same goes for raw onions and tomatoes. Her logic was that anything that has been cooked will kill the germs. She was right, but we still indulged :) Similar to restaurants, seasoned road-side food vendors will ask you if you want your food mild, medium or spicy.

The nation's capital - New Delhi is no stranger to road side food. Here's an anecdote. On my last trip to India in 2009, I went to Delhi to visit my best friend T, her husband and their beautiful daughter. We went for a drive in the evening and her husband - being a foodie, told me to try chaat from one particular road-side vendor. I could not be more excited. It was around 7 PM. So we went there. It was as if I was a kid in the candy store then.
There were so many options to choose from, at a humble road-side vendor. Some were a tad bigger than the others. They worked so efficiently. Once again I didn't heed to my mother's advice. I had pani puri from there. Now anyone who has lived in India or has had family visiting from across the pond, knows that they are always told to be cautious of the water! And I had pani puri from a road-side vendor. I couldn't miss this chance. And I've lived in India all my life. So I had that, shared the dahi bhalla, aloo tikki chaat and samosa chaat.

How could I be in Delhi and miss the chaat? After driving for about half an hour, my friend's husband asked, "Dinner kahaan karenge?" (where will we do dinner?) And I told him I thought that that was dinner. To him that was snack. And to a lot of other Delhi residents, road-side vendors help tide the people over till dinner time. The road-side food stalls serve as a snack and the heavier dishes can be a meal in itself.

To end on a sweet note, my friend S highly recommended cold cocoa. I had never had it till I went to Bombay. Cold cocoa is cold milk, with rich chocolate and lots of ice. It may or may not be sweetened with sugar. I got my chance to try that when I went to Bilimora (a town in the state of Gujarat) to my friend L's place. Her dad took us to this place and I understood the reason why S always raved about it. Cold cocoa could be vaguely similar to mocha latte (minus the coffee) or a chocolate thick shake. Like all other street-eats, this was delicious too. I consider myself lucky that I have never fallen sick or had an upset stomach because I had food from one of the road-side food stalls. If you noticed the heading - it says Part 1. Part 2 is all about street food in the United States. This post is written as I reminisce small details of India and the small things that make you smile. Immaterial of the country you grew up in, what were some of your favorite street foods? Do you even enjoy street food? I would love to know your experience.

Pictures taken from Chatteringkitchen.com, Shutterstock.com,

Saturday, November 19, 2011


I am writing a blog after a long long time. A lot happened between the last post I wrote – more than a year ago, and this one. I graduated from school, got a second Master's degree, fell sick with my annual flu, had a big family vacation to British Columbia in Canada, my second beautiful niece was born and I moved to Washington DC. A and I always wanted to move back to the north east part of the country and I found a good job in the District. Having a full time job has happened after a long time - five and a half years, and after working for it. A senior and very well-respected person in the field of policies told me in an email about a month back that I have a great support group here in DC. It made me emotional and immediately made me reflect on the past few years. Having a professional support group has not come easily. The email is the reason for this blogpost.
I came to the United States in early 2006, with a background in journalism. I knew it would be difficult to break in to journalism, but was willing to work for it. I didn't know how much 'work' meant at that time. Since that time, I freelanced, interviewed at places for a full-time job, worked odd jobs and then got enrolled in school. Like me, there are other girls who come to the country, give up their passion to work to follow their heart and be with their significant other. The choices of finding work are limited. I would say that from the many friends I've had, M from Connecticut has been one of the luckiest, who took her GMAT and got admission in a college in NY. And then she found a job! So she didn't end up going to school, and began working. I was beyond happy for her when that happened to her. (I still remember the car conversation that the four of us had)
Some of us freelanced for a year or two, hoping to break in, and at the same time understood that it was not easy. The combination of not having a work permit along with print journalism trying to cut corners was not in our favor. We went to school, changed our fields and got our degrees. It is easy for me to fit this in a few paragraphs. But it was hardly easy. We did become adept at juggling school, work, home and social responsibilities. We went to school with the hope that an educational degree from here would help finding a job a bit easier.

As luck would have it, the timing was such that by the time we graduated, the country was already in a recession. Companies didn't want to spend the money on hiring a lawyer and filing the paperwork for a work permit. A lot of us were once again writing cover letters, tweaking resumes and looking for jobs. The difference was that we had a degree from this country. The question was - to what extent did this help?
A and I were extremely fortunate that we were able to get the green card (becoming permanent residents). This provided a huge impetus and a factor that helped me get the job I now have. Had I not had a green card, I would not have been eligible to even apply for this position. After spending endless hours talking on the phone with friends who were in a similar situation and asking if I should take this job, I finally did! My friend F and I have spent a lot of time on the phone since 2006 - first venting out our frustrations about freelancing, then deciding whether to go to school or not, and then talking about visas and green cards.
I understand the value of this opportunity because of what my friends and I have worked for. Having a handful of friends who have been in the same boat as I and having a family that supported me has helped on various levels. In the end, it is all about choices we make and our luck. Should you go back to school? Should you pay the enormous fees that an international student pays? What's next? What if I keep trying to find a job? There will be questions at every stage of life, decisions that will have to be made.

My two cents – step back, take a look at the bigger picture. Have faith in the Higher Power. This post is called Destiny as you swim along with the currents of life and adapt accordingly