Long live fusion

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018
Culture cocktail: The Maggi noodle-cheese paneer dosa, all yours for ₹70. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Culture cocktail: The Maggi noodle-cheese paneer dosa, all yours for ₹70. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’ Yeah   -  BusinessLine

A sprinkling of pushcarts at a busy junction is outwitting junk food chains in Bengaluru with variety and ingeniousness

Once upon a time in Bengaluru, eating chaat meant hiking across town to VV Puram and its iconic food street. If one wanted more exotic eastern street food it invariably meant buying an air ticket to Singapore or Shanghai, Tokyo or Taipei.

Then a couple of years ago something changed. I’m not sure what. Whether it was the VV Puram pushcartwallahs outsourcing themselves to all parts of town due to the increasingly impossible traffic jams that marred the snack hour (which, in Bengaluru, means the period after office but before dinner time) or an abrupt influx of gourmet Bihari chaat chefs, or some other secret plot to increase our junk intake, remains a total mystery.

Any reader who has a theory can kindly email me at zacnet@email.com and we’ll continue the discussion.

So, ignoring the neighbourhood’s slew of fancy junk food chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, WoW! Momo, and Burrito Boys, I am drawn to the chaat square that, every evening, turns the junction behind Sanjaynagar Bus Stop into a homage to peckishness.

Between them the half-a-dozen pushcarts dish up a menu easily numbering around 300 items, which makes it possible to visit every evening for an entire year without ever having to gobble the same snack twice. The 99 Variety Dosa dude, for example, has a two-page laminated card full of dosa offerings from the modest sada to the outrageous noodle-dosa.

I particularly like the traditional Karnataka-style ragi and akki roti-cooking couple, who serve many kinds of hot breads with spicy chutneys, though a newer discovery for me is the bun nippattu, which, since it was first invented in 1997, has become Bengaluru’s alternative to the allure of the ubiquitous McAloo Tikki™ burgers of the globalised food empire. This essentially fully veg local hamburger version contains a nippattu, which is a flat, crisp-fried spiced-up vada of rice and chickpea flours mixed with ground peanuts and dal, tucked into a sweetish bun that’s slathered with cheese and tangy chutney and covered in crunchy chaat mixture.

After such homely treats, my gut craves something exotic and hence my attention is drawn to the corkscrew-shaped aloo lollipops that the younger crowd seems attracted to. The ‘twisto’ or ‘twistato’ (short for twist-potato) is an artfully cut potato that coils in a foot-long spiral along a wooden skewer and is then corn flour batter-dipped. Once deep-fried, the crunchy twisto is dusted with piri-piri — the Swahili nomenclature connotes powdered African bird’s-eye chillies with a hotness of up to 2,25,000 on the Scoville index; it came to India via Goa and now grows wild all over the South. However, a quick Google search reveals that the twisto originated in Korea where, apparently, it is the most popular roadside snack, and it tastes sublime — like something in-between hot crisps and masala finger chips!

The paradigm shift in junk food has also resulted in interesting Indo-Chinese fusions. Next I sample a Maggi noodle cheese-paneer dosa, which is cooked before my incredulous eyes in minutes: some brownish gravy is ladled onto the frying dosa and mixed with a salad of onions and coriander along with green chilli sauce, mashed potatoes and carrots, and a fistful of pre-cooked noodles. And both cheese and paneer! Some delicate connoisseurs may feel that this is the yuckiest thing ever to hit the gastrics of Bengaluru, but the outcome, essentially a gooey-mushy Indian-style pan-fried spaghetti spring roll, is well worth the ₹70. Now I’ve heard rumours that in Mumbai one can get Schezwan chowmein dosas served with gobi Manchurian, which sounds even spicier and greasier.

Finally, to round off the Far Eastern theme, I have a ₹10 plate of capsicum bajjis, letting the tender deep-fried chilli pakoras de-clog my arteries and orifices from the cholesterol onslaught. Your question is: how is a pakora Far Eastern, when, as everybody knows, it was invented in Karnataka about 1,000 years ago? (Footnote: The non-veg chicken pakora is, according to the internet, a later modification first served in the 1930s by Kundan Lal Gujral in Peshawar, before he came to Delhi and started Moti Mahal, while prawn pakoras were introduced in the Chinese restaurants of Mumbai in the mid-’70s.)

Well, if you’ve ever had a fancy Japanese dinner and ordered tempura, the second-most famous Japanese dish after sushi, what you get on your table is their version of a pakora, for which you are paying ₹1,000 rather than ₹10. Food scholar KT Achaya writes that the entire idea of tempura, or vegetables covered in a light batter and deep-fried, entered Japanese cookbooks with the Portuguese traders who, in the late-1500s, travelled further east from their South Asian base in Goa. On their ships, they brought along Indian chefs to handle the cooking at their trading post at Nagasaki, which, at that time, was the only port where foreigners were allowed to do business.

The word tempura itself comes, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, from Latin ‘tempora’ — which, as Wikipedia further explains, relates to the days and periods when Catholic missionaries refrained from red meat, but ate pakoras instead. While the Portuguese and their missionaries got expelled from Japan in the early 1600s, their Indian cooks stayed on to cater to a Japanese clientèle. The pakora recipe was quickly picked up by Japanese street food vendors so that, by the 1670s, it was a popular snack in Tokyo and a novel way of eating seafood. Finally, with the advent of five-star fine-dining it graduated into a prawn tempura.

But prawn or no prawn, it still is a pakora!

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on April 21, 2017

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