A taste of India's street food

DELHI, INDIA — Delhi, India, is closed today.

My guide, a solemn man named C.K. Gupta, is deeply apologetic. It is, he informs me, not a holiday, but a peaceful protest. "Too high prices in the shops." It is 2010, and I am in Delhi on vacation. It is my first time here.

Receiving this piece of early-morning information, I am all set for empty sidewalks. The occasional whining ambulance. Maybe a bus.

But when we leave my rented car near the Defence Colony, it is impossible to move. Trying to walk, I am blocked by the backs of shirts and jackets and saris. An undertow that I do not understand is keeping me in place.

My guide tugs me into a doorway. I am panting. Sweating. "What," I ask, "is going on?"

"Crowded," explains Gupta.

I can see that, I say. "But you said Delhi was closed."

Gupta compresses his face. His eyes are economized into coin slots. "It is closed," he says. "But people have errands. They are hungry. Come with me."

Gupta has me climb the stairs to a restaurant. South Indian Eating Paradise, says the sign. It so happens that Delhi is in northern India. But, for Gupta, this is not a problem.

Our early lunch turns out not to be as filling as I'd thought. "Listen," I say. "I hate to admit this, but I'm still a little hungry."

Gupta examines me.

An analytical man, he watches more than he talks. "Ah," was all he'd said yesterday morning when I'd been lost. Out of a stripe of shadow, Gupta appeared.

"I do not need any help," I had announced. "Ah," replied Gupta, watching, watching. "Ah." He then unfurled his map.

"How about a snack outside?" I suggest. "You could find a vendor. Same south Indian food, let's say, but simpler."

"Tourists do not try this," he says. "Even at a clean place, well, I cannot risk it."

The risk is mine, I say. Let's go.

Street food here, I have read, is a regional thing. Stalls in Delhi and Mumbai will have different techniques and tastes. A few years back, in 2007, there was a push to enforce new sanitation standards and set up "vending zones" with electricity and running water.

But, despite attempts at regulation, this is India. There are makeshift stands wherever you turn. The street-sellers sell on.

"We call this [street] food chaat," says Gupta, lecturing while I drive. He tells me about a typical sidewalk snack called pani puri, a deep-fried shell made from wheat or other flour, full of boiled potato and tamarind juice. Some of the foods, he adds, will give us tastes of yogurt. Chickpeas, "maybe mint" and peanuts.

Fine, I say. All fine.