The city's street food is hot and happening.

When it comes to the business of street food, less is definitely more. There are no waiters, no white gloves, fine cutlery, seating or air-conditioning. Basic and stripped down, the focus is on simplicity and the prices are meant to suit all pockets. As for marketing, it's all about location and word-of-mouth publicity.

In Delhi, of late, this longstanding business is witnessing a surge in patronage with an expanding base of street-food enthusiasts. Alongside the regulars are the new converts ranging from foreign tourists and expats to young professionals moving in from other cities for work.

As Akansha Chadha, 25, an IT professional working in Sector-63, Noida, says, “Street food such as chaat, rolls, dosa, masala Maggi have become an intrinsic part of my daily life. Three out of five days I eat at various food stalls near my office. It's their quality, cheap price and instant service that work for me as perfect in-between-mealtime snacks. I also catch up with work-friends during these times.”

Explaining the special attraction that street food has for him, banker Karan Chowdhury, who moved to the city recently from Kolkata, says, “Though microwave-prepared Maggi is available in our office canteen no one eats it there, as we get a tastier version of it in the food stall outside our office, replete with masala, onion and even egg. As I live away from home I eat out a lot, and mostly it is street food, which is easily available right outside my office.”

Rajiv Kumar's bhelpuri stall in Connaught Place attracts a wide variety of customers, from auto-rickshaw drivers and students to well-dressed executives. “But it's the Connaught Place shoppers, especially women, who form the bulk of my customer base,” he says.

Delhi Metro has also helped transform the city's street food scene by bridging distance and class barriers, and thereby drawing a large number of new customers to areas that were earlier inaccessible.

“I know of several well-heeled people, including top MNC bosses, getting on to the metro from their offices in Gurgaon and getting off at Chawri Bazaar station just to satisfy their craving for Old Delhi's famous street food. Similarly, on Sunday evenings one is bound to find at least about 15 burqa-clad ladies from Old Delhi sampling bhelpuris or momos at Janpath, thanks to the metro,” observes Shishir Gupta, a businessman.

Alongside the changing customer profile, street food vendors too are evolving new strategies for business growth. Rather than just sticking to age-old family recipes, some are introducing innovative fusion food such as soya chaaps, tandoori momos, chur-chur parathas (extra-crispy parathas hand-crushed into small pieces and dipped in butter) and ‘chowmein paratha', which are proving to be as popular as the old favourite pav baji, chana kulcha and bhelpuri.

Some vendors are diversifying into new market segments such as wholesale catering, while others in posh areas such as Bengali Market are targeting the health-conscious customer with food prepared in imported olive oil.

Newer offerings are another great way to attract customers. Says a momo seller at Old Rajinder Nagar: “I noticed that momos everywhere were sold with the same red chutney, so to differentiate from the rest I have begun offering momos sprinkled with oregano and topped with a bit of cream. It's a big hit with some of my customers.”

Even famous established vendors such as Pandit Kanhaiyalal Guruprasad parathewala, set up in 1875 in the city's famous parathewali gali in Chandni Chowk, are now experimenting with tastes. The ‘Chinese paratha' stuffed with chowmein, for instance, has won over many enthusiastic diners.

The Kuremal family, which started its kulfi business in 1908 on a pushcart, with just one basic flavour of kesar pista, today offers about 50 varieties including pomegranate, litchi, jamun, tamarind, rose and custard apple, and has also moved from the street into a small shop in Sitaram Bazaar; it frequently caters to the city's leading hotels and resorts, including the Hyatt, Radisson and Tivoli Gardens.

Keeping step with the city's street food revolution are the many vibrant ‘street food walks' and eating-out blogs that introduce foodies to offbeat, lesser-known culinary spots. Besides providing firsthand food reviews, recommendations and recipes, along with Google map links to vendor locations, these online forums with presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut are helping build a growing community of young, tech-savvy street-food enthusiasts.

Hemanshu Kumar, 34, is an economist and the brain behind the popular ‘Eating Out In Delhi' blog. “I started the blog in 2006 as an online community on Orkut with the sole idea of discovering offbeat foodie joints, as no one seemed to know of any when I asked around. Soon the online group swelled and the idea of organising street-food walks took off,” he says.

In the past year alone, two more forums — Food Enthusiasts of Delhi (FED) and Chef at Large — have come into being to organise similar street walks, he adds.

According to food blogger Shashank Aggarwal of FED, people who sign up for his street-food walks are usually in the 20-30 age group and include students, entrepreneurs, as well as IT, public relations and finance professionals.

Observing that the walks also have great potential as a tourist attraction, Kumar says many foreign tourists, expats and professionals from other States join in as they are eager to learn more about Delhi and its culture through its local street cuisine, as well as to meet new people and make friends.

While some of the walks are structured on commercial lines, others are funded through voluntary contribution and conducted by people who take it up as a hobby even as they pursue regular jobs. There are customised walks for specific groups such as foreigners or vegetarians, as well as theme-based ones revolving around Delhi's heritage or festivals such as Ramzan. The food walks charge anywhere between Rs 100 to Rs 2,000 a person.

While ‘Delhi Belly' may be a common gripe amongst outsiders, especially foreigners, the city's redoubtable street food culture has its own share of enthusiastic fan following. Sample, for instance, British food writer Pamela Timms' blog on street food titled ‘Eat and Dust'.

(This article was published on August 11, 2011)
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