Indian street food has always been known for its distinctive flavours. But recent years have seen food sellers experiment with more and more unusual combinations of ingredients as vloggers and social media influencers try to create moments that go viral. Freelance journalist Om Routray reports on this rather unusual trend.
At the Odeon Shukla Paan Palace in the heart of Delhi, customers line up with their mouths wide open, eyes closed in fear and anticipation as Vijay Shukla, the store owner, pushes a flaming paan into their mouths in one swift move.
Paan, a betel nut leaf with slaked lime, rose petal jam and mouth fresheners like cardamom and cloves, has fascinated South Asians for centuries.
Mr Shukla’s store has been selling paan for 75 years in the Indian capital, but it shot to fame eight years ago when it began selling fire paan, a version with crushed ice and camphor that’s served to customers after it’s set on fire.
Mr Shukla, a fourth-generation heir to the business, deftly folds the ingredients into the leaf and places the flaming pile in the customers’ mouth.
When it was first introduced, hundreds of videos of the delicacy were uploaded on social media, which showed excited customers giving a thumbs up to the camera. Magazines wrote about the thrills and the risks of trying it out.
Since then, Indian customers have seen an endless parade of experimental street food – from Fanta Maggi (instant noodles made with orange soda) and Oreo pakoda (batter-fried Oreo cookies) to kulhad pizza (pizza baked in earthen teacups).
Street food has always been an integral part of Indian cuisine. Breakfast joints serve cheap local fare. Lunch stalls outside office and factory areas serve affordable food with sizeable portions aimed at satisfying a diverse workforce. Street vendors in the evening cater to families and friends with a variety of delectable snacks.
It’s also not new to experiments. In 1975, Jasuben Pizza, now a successful chain in Gujarat, added a spicy sauce and grated raw cheese to their pizzas, says Anil Mulchandani, an author and food critic based in the state’s Ahmedabad city.
Around the same time, in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) city, vendors made deep-fried savoury dishes of goat brains and began serving king-sized rolls.
Mr Mulchandani says that some cities like Ahmedabad are known for being adventurous with food, mostly because of the entrepreneurial spirit of vendors and customers who are open to trying new combinations.
But for a long time, these innovations were limited to only some parts of the country.
This changed with the arrival of viral videos and social media trends – experiments became more common and many began to try extreme combinations which stand out.
Shock and awe are a big part of these projects, which are often aimed at going viral instantly.
In fact, many outlandish preparations are intended as stunts which become popular on the internet and attract new customers.
Such food videos also seem to have a life of their own. A recent video which went viral involved making ice cream out of gutka – a chewing tobacco made of areca nut and slaked lime.
The video was picked up by several other bloggers and even mainstream news outlets. But no-one could trace the vendor who made the dish.
Not all street food creations are made for the camera though – some are created around buzzwords that become popular.
Bipin Big Sandwich in Mumbai city has more than 50 sandwiches on the offer. The most famous one is called Baahubali, named after the Indian historical fantasy film that dominated box offices across the country in 2015.
The sandwich is made of four giant bread slices that are spread with butter, green chutney and an array of other condiments – baby corn slices, ginger-garlic paste, fruit jam, pineapple slices, jalapenos, olives, onions, capsicum, mayonnaise, grated cheese, tomatoes, grated cabbage and beetroot along with other spices.
The range of ingredients pushes the price of the sandwich to 400 rupees ($4.8, £3.78), at least four times more than the other sandwiches.
The owner of the place, Bhavesh, who goes by one name, says that the sandwich’s popularity has nothing to do with viral food trends – he credits his own “effort and creativity” for his success.
“Many other food stalls offer similar sandwiches but I am not bothered. Everyone brings their own luck and talent to the business,” he says.
Others, however, say that consciously crafted trends are now an integral part of the food business.
Abhay Sharma, a Mumbai-based food vlogger who runs BombayFoodie Tales, says he frequently gets requests from vendors to create viral videos for them.
“Such partnerships are not rare. There are times when vloggers push vendors to make something extraordinary for their cameras. Vendors also ask us to come up with concepts that can go viral,” he adds.
Anubhav Sapra, the founder of food tour group Delhi Food Walkswhich, says that vendors, content creators and customers have equally contributed to these trends.
“There is a stratum of people for whom street food is no longer about sustenance, the theatrics appeal to them.”
This kind of partnership between public relations and customer outreach is well-established in the formal dining space, but there are no clear rules for street food yet.
“But street food vendors have become aspirational chefs,” Mr Sapra says.
While news sites and social media platforms amplify their reach, the result has not always been positive for street food sellers.
A food stall owner in Kolkata had to close shop after a food blogger featured his rum-filled puchkas (fried discs of dough with potato and chutney fillings) on her social media channels. Authorities tracked the vendor and revoked his licence because he didn’t have the permission to serve alcohol.
As the theatrics around food and their viral videos transform food culture, experts also wonder if this could change what’s considered authentic street food.
“What will happen to street offerings that are considered quintessential to a region?” Mr Sapra wonders.
Other experts also feel these viral trends will have limited impact on the rich diversity and heritage of Indian street food.
Source : BBC