Charmy Harikrishnan samples Delhis street food with Israeli photographer and author of Street Food of India,Sephi Bergerson
Street food is gold. The aloo chaat epiphany occurs in front of a peeling pillar of Connaught Place as the gaunt Israeli photographer Sephi Bergerson calls out his order in accented Hindi. Between gleaming yellow triangles of bread pakoras and samosas like pyramids of dull amber,the cubed spuds turn into ingots in dark oil. The chaatwallah Mahesh Kumar cant speak and is hard of hearing,but he knows alchemy that comes for Rs 10 a plate. A swish of red chutney and a whoosh of the green,the spice is a tad too much for Bergerson,but he exclaims after quick sips of Re 1-a-glass water,Arent they jewels in a pile of rubbish?
He does ask too many rhetorical questions,but he would know. The cover of his book Street Food of India (Roli) has slivers of carrots and beetroots and green chillies behind smudged panes of a shop at Paranthewali Gali. Inside are 150-odd picturesburnished globules of golgappas,a hawker pushing a cart of fried puris in Haridwar,a toothy vendor weighing biryani near Jama Masjid,golas getting a ruby-red coat in Bhuj,close-up of kachoris in Varanasi,chowmein and Kali in Kolkata,vada pao gobblers in Dadar and yellow lemonsperched on soda bottles,submerged in glasses,strewn amid sweet potatoes. Arent lemons just photogenic? says the 43-year-old. He never styles his food.
Bergerson has been photographing Indian street food since 2003,a year after he and his wife landed at Delhi airport with four bags,$40,000 and a baby. They were fleeing Tel Aviv burning in the Second Intifada. Every day buses were blown up. I would walk out of my home and see a building go up in flames. And my colleagues were going out of work, says Bergerson. He was a commercial photographer with a studio of his own in Tel Aviv and had been the president of the Professional Photographers Association. Finally,he sold his house and studio and left for Delhia city he had visited just twice before and had felt surprisingly at home.
The pakoras took hold of him much earlier thoughon his very first morning at Paharganj in 1998. Among vendors selling neem datun,there was this fat guy frying pakoras at 6 a.m., he smiles. The chutney burned the tongue that was used to Jewish-Polish foodhis parents were Holocaust survivors who left Poland for Israelbut he was hooked. The food that still acts as his madeleine,wrapping around its crispy ambiguous shapes the entire chaos of a street,is not in the book. Can you believe it? A book on street food without pakoras? It doesnt have chole-kulcha also. I just did not have good pictures of them. There is no Chennai either,and much of the Northeast is missing, he admits. But then this is not meant to be an encyclopedia. It is just a slice of the street.
Bergerson has childhood memories of a vendor on the streets of Tel Aviv,with his horsecart loaded with the spiky sabra fruit which he would split open to scoop out the amazingly sweet flesh within. Now sabra,peeled and sliced,is available only in supermarkets. And I see it happening here,the south Delhification of Old Delhi food, says Bergerson,shaking his head. It is hard to believe that his concern is born of nostalgia that is a little over a decade old. The freelance photographer has to renew his visa this summer,but his palate already acts like an honorary citizen. It has found its home in many way stations. A tea at Ustad Chai Stall,where pouring is pure theatrics that would have the Japanese marvel,and a stop at Natraj Dahi Bhalle Wallaand Tel Aviv slips away under the golden golgappa sun of Old Delhi.