A glimpse into the world of Indian Street Food

photography by Tiffani Jones

What comes to mind when you think of India? Is it the Taj Mahal or Gandhi? Bollywood? How about religion? Or is it the food? As Taste Editor, of course I think about the food first. It’s what I love. And Indian food is one of the world’s most adored cuisines.
Interweaved in cultural traditions dating back thousands of years, Indian eats are loaded with history and laced with the vibrant colors and pungent aromas for which the country is known. Many uniquely delicious spices and herbs are commonplace in classic Indian dishes. Biryani, for example, is an aromatic basmati rice dish that gets a lot of its color and fragrance from deep orange-yellow turmeric. Eating Indian food is an excursionary experience. I’ve never been to India, but one taste of samosas with mint chutney, pani puri, or recheado masala fried fish and I’m instantly transported to the land of infinite taste diversity.
India is the second most populated country in the world, and of the more than 1.2 billion people who live there, nearly a quarter eat street food each day. That’s like 95 percent of the United States buying a meal from a cart on the street. Street food plays a major role in India’s culinary culture. Colorful carts line the streets, and vendors peddle delicious delicacies like batata vada, a dumpling made by mashing boiled potatoes with green chilies, ginger, garlic, lime juice, turmeric, and fresh coriander, then rolled in besan batter and deep fried. Can’t you just imagine walking around with a couple of those little nuggets of wisdom while they teach you a few things about life? It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good either. In fact, street food is on the flipside entirely: simple dishes, made with quality fresh ingredients, and priced to sell. I like to think that something pretty special happens for the community in the street-food world. Street food brings people together to share in the one thing we all do: eat. It’s delightful to observe a construction worker standing next to a doctor eating and fully enjoying the same $4 butter chicken.

India is the second most populated country in the world,
and of the more than 1.2 billion people who live there,
nearly a quarter eat street food each day. That’s like
95 percent of the United States buying a meal from
a cart on the street.

While visiting San Francisco a couple of years ago, I visited a street vendor on a pier who was boiling fresh-caught Dungeness crab to order. It was a simple setup: stand and eat. You choose your crab, the vendor weighs it, tosses it in boilingwater and spices, and when it’s cooked, cracks it up with a crab mallet and serves it with plenty of lemon and melted butter. It was next level! When I think of heaven, I think of a bubbly caldron of Dungeness crab.
Street food is no new thing and has long since made its way to the West, but more recently it has exploded in the way of food trucks. These beefedup street carts tout full kitchens, are fully mobile, and full of possibilities. From Indian to Chinese, and churros to fried chicken, there’s a food truck that serves it. As a matter of fact, if you’re looking for something fun to do on a Thursday evening, check out the monthly Lakeland Food Truck Rally!
Let’s make some Indian street food, shall we? I’ve chosen a few classic dishes that are simple, delicious, and great as leftovers!
[item title=NAAN]
500 g strong white flour
2 tsp. salt
7 g sachet fast-action yeast
3 Tbsp. olive oil
300 ml water
Mix the flour, salt, yeast, and oil in a large bowl and add enough
water to make a soft, but not sloppy, dough. Knead well for about 5
minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl to rise for 1 hour until doubled
in size.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces (for smaller naan I divide the
dough into 16 pieces), about 250 g each, and use a rolling pin to
flatten each one into a circle, 15 cm in diameter and about 1 cm thick.
Then, leave the pieces on a lightly floured baking tray to proof for 5
Heat a large frying pan to medium heat and dry-fry each piece
until browned on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Set aside to cool
slightly before serving.[/item]
[item title=SALAD]
1 large ripe avocado
juice of 1 lime or 1 small lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
8 curry leaves (fresh or dry, optional)
coarse salt, to taste
1 Tbsp. coconut oil, light sesame oil, or light vegetable oil
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon quality curry powder (found at Krishna Grocery)
2 to 4 fresh hot green chilies, minced (these little guys are spicy,
proceed with caution)
Cut the avocado in half. Remove the seed and scoop out the pulp
with a spoon. Chop the pulp roughly. Blend in the lime juice, cilantro,
curry leaves, and salt (I did this with the same knife, on the same
board). Set aside.
Heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. When
the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Keep a pot lid handy, as the
seeds may spatter and fly all over. When the spattering stops, add the
garlic and let sizzle for 5 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring,
until limp, about 3 minutes. Add the curry powder and chilies,
mix, and continue cooking for one more minute. Turn off heat and
add all ingredients to the avocado. Stir to mix well. Serve at room
This salad was served on fresh naan, topped with feta cheese and
freshly chopped cilantro (also known as coriander).[/item]
[item title=PLANTAIN]
2 ripe plantains (they should be brown in color)
1/2 cup freshly grated coconut
1 Tbsp. chopped cashew nuts
1/4 cup sugar
cardamom powder, to taste
2 tsps. ghee (clarified butter) or butter
Steam the plantains with the skin on. Once sufficiently steamed,
remove the skin and mash the plantains into a smooth paste. This will
only take a few minutes. If your plantains seem too wet to work with,
add a small amount of corn flour. Be sure to add conservatively though;
it should not take more than 1/8 cup.
To make the filling, heat a pan, and then add the sugar and a few
drops of water. When the sugar melts, add the coconut, and cook until
dry. Add the cashew and cardamom.
Divide the mashed plantains into equal portions. Place some of the
filling into the center and form into a banana shape over the filling.
Heat a pan with ghee or butter. Place the filled plantain in the pan
and turn to brown each side.[/item]
[item title=MEATBALLS]
1 lb. minced chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, or pork
1/2 medium onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped
2 tsp. mild or medium curry powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. garam masala
1/2 tsp. paprika or cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. fresh coriander, chopped
1 egg, beaten
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (panko breadcrumbs are a great substitute)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup of prepared tamarind chutney (purchased from Krishna
Heat oven to 350 F.
Put the meat into a mixing bowl. Add the onions, garlic, curry
powder, cumin, garam masala, paprika or cayenne pepper, and
coriander. Mix well. By adding these spices, you’ll get a delicious flavor
without having to add any salt.
Add the beaten egg and breadcrumbs, and mix again.
Divide the meat mixture into 15-18 even-sized pieces and shape
into walnut-sized balls.
Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat so
you don’t transfer any germs that may be on the meat to other food
or equipment.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add the meatballs
using a spoon. Cook for 5 minutes, turning until golden brown.
Remove meatballs from the pan and place them on the tray. Bake
in the oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove from the oven. (Remember to
use oven gloves!)
Allow to cool slightly, then serve with fresh naan and avocado salad.[/item]
[item title=BIRYANI]
1-1/2 cups basmati rice
1-1/2 Tbsps. butter
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 bay leaf
3 cardamom pods
1 small cinnamon stick
1 tsp. turmeric
2 skinless chicken breasts, cut into large chunks
4 Tbsps. curry paste (purchased from Krishna Grocery)
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 cups chicken stock
chopped cilantro (coriander) and toasted flaked almonds to serve
Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear.
Heat the butter in a saucepan. Cook the onions with the bay leaf and
other whole spices for 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the turmeric then add
chicken and curry paste and cook until aromatic.
Stir the rice into the pan with the raisins; then pour the stock over the
rice. Cook until the liquid is reduced to about the level of the rice. Cover
with a lid and cook on low for 15 minutes. Stir well, mixing in half the
coriander. To serve, scatter the remaining coriander and the almonds on
top of the chicken.[/item]
[item title=CHICKPEA]
1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 tsps. whole black mustard seeds
7 sprigs curry leaves (optional)
4 green chilies, diced
3 Tbsps. shredded coconut
1 tsp. salt, more as needed
Soak the beans overnight in water and a little salt.
Cook the beans in the salted water in a pan or in a pressure cooker
(2-1/2 whistles) until just done. Drain and set aside. The beans can be
prepared up to two days ahead.
In a shallow pan, sauté a bit in oil or butter (ghee is best!). When the
oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and wait for them to pop. Add the curry
leaves and chilies. As they start to crisp up, add the cooked beans.
Toss and cook on low for a couple of minutes.
Sprinkle in the grated coconut and toss and cook for a few minutes.
That’s it. Serve![/item]
Looking for an Indian grocery? All of the ingredients for these dishes are available at Krishna Grocery here in Lakeland on South Combee Road. It’s a great little shop. The owner is very kind and helpful, and they had everything I needed.