Nearly every other week, I come across articles that talk about how chefs in India are using local ingredients, and how they are turning them into stars on their menus. I’ve heard about red rice, ice-creams inspired by nankhatai, and rajgira being served in upmarket restaurants. And, while such instances are heartening, all it takes is a walk around your neighbourhood market to realise that a lot more needs to be done. Take the seasonal food that appears on our streets every year. While we are all familiar with boiled peanuts, chickpea chaat, grilled corn on the cob (during the monsoons), and cucumber batons, there is a lot more that waits to be acknowledged — and relished by us. Despite a bewildering array of fried snacks and a proliferation of eateries that mostly sell unhealthy food, our streets thankfully still feature hawkers who sell seasonal street food, the real bounty of nature. Stuff that is meant to be eaten in a particular season. They might not be as easily accessible these days, but put in a little effort and you’ll find them.Nature is abundant and most of this produce is still undervalued.
Water chestnuts/singhada: Water chestnuts are rich in manganese, potassium and, of course, starch. Hawkers selling crunchy boiled singhada were once a common sight near bus- and railway stations in summer. While they might not be as numerous as they as once were, you can still find them if you look for them, especially around old city markets. Served plain or just with salt.
Shakarkandi ki chaat: These fire-roasted sweet potatoes are served in a leaf bowl (dona) and sprinkled with a signature chaat masala and freshly squeezed lime juice. It is an excellent example of how contrasting flavours can work magic.
Sprouts chaat/Soaked kala chana chaat: The ingredients in this snack are dependent on seasons and geographical locations. You often find lashings of some local ingredients from the place you are visiting, but rest assured, they only make a fundamentally good concept even better.
Kachalu chaat: This pahadi snack is usually made of boiled colocasia tubers. But we can find variations made with potatoes or other tubers almost all over the country. Alu gutka from the mountains, or Alu Tuk from the plains is a good example.
Jhal mudi/Bhel/Churmur/Chevda/ Chanajor garam: These snacks are national favourites, and there are millions of versions depending on which part of the country they are being sold. But this winter, try and get your hands on Hurda. Hurda is tender green jowar, and is found in Gujarat (where it is called ponk) and Maharashtra.
Thirst-quenchers: Sattu ka sharbat, Aam Panna, Jaljeera, Bel ka Sharbat — carts selling these drinks were a common sight before tetrapack juices took over. The best thing about them, apart from the taste, was that they were made from real ingredients. Thankfully, the likes of Kokum Sharbat, Shikhanji (a limeade) are still available at certain places in our cities and made with mineral water. These obviously don’t contain high fructose corn syrup, and synthetic flavours.
Palmyra shoots: The most interesting street food I have seen in the southern states are the palmyra shoots. When I tried it for the first time it felt unimpressive. But these age-old street foods have survived several generations for a reason, and I found that the taste grows on you. Palm fruits (ice apples), on the other hand, are more accessible and I never miss a chance to have them.
Fruits and berries: Wild Ber, Kamrakh (star fruit), Tamarind, Jamun, Phalsa, Mulberries and all sorts of sour fruits and berries make their way magically towards schools and colleges where kids love to buy them with their pocket money. Interestingly, all these fruits and berries are high in antioxidants and help improve the immune system.