Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tips for Eating Street Food and Tikkiya Chaat

Street food.

Did you shudder when you read that? Was it with titillation or horror?

Street food is a divisive subject. Some swear by it as the most delicious way to truly experience local culture as the locals do -- to miss the street food is to miss the point entirely. Others avoid it like the plague, probably because a bad street food experience once had them sick enough to think they had actually contracted the plague, if not something worse.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoy street food on occasion but am pretty wary. Not many meals are worth spending a day writhing in agony, especially if you are on vacation and have precious few days to spare. Here in Kathmandu, I find that I am not actually a big enough fan to return to certain delicacies after having tried them for the novelty. Many of these foods are deep fried, and if it's not fresh from the fryer, then it is not worth the risk of food-borne illness (or the money or calories -- anyone who has ever tried a room-temp french fry knows what I am talking about).

I abide by certain guidelines or rules when eating street food. These will not guarantee your safety, but keeping these things in mind may help increase your chances of avoiding Delhi Belly.
1) Avoid fresh fruits or vegetables or their byproducts (juices, smoothies, etc.). Trust me on this one.
2) Choose a popular cart frequented by locals over the cart no one seems to be patronizing.
3) Note that female chefs are somewhat more likely to be sanitary and trustworthy (note, also, that this stereotype is totally unproven).
4) Eat freshly-cooked, hot foods, preferably ones you have seen prepared with your own eyes.
5) Follow your gut (instincts, not cravings).

Fortunately, at my nearby Bhat-Bhateni Super Market there is a set of food stalls clustered outside the entrance, and this provides a safe zone for my street food fixes. Because these stalls are semi-permanent and heavily trafficked, I trust the food and so far have had nothing but good experiences.

There is a wide range of foods one can indulge in here, but my favorite at the moment is tikkiya chaat. As I understand it, "chaat" refers to a variety of savory South Asian street food snacks. "Tikkiya" refers to the pan-fried potato ("aloo") croquette that serves as the anchor of the dish.

So don't be shy -- step right up to the stall and place your order.

On the large grill the potato cakes sear alongside the deep-fried samosas keeping warm.

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Nearby, pakoras and other treats bubble and fry.

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The chef begins by flattening your tikki and scraping it into a plastic bowl.

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Next, he smothers the croquettes with a bean-thick soup.

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A squirt of lemon.

And now, the toppings.

The onions and a crumble of deep-fried crunchies add texture. A final drizzle of sweet sauce (per your preference) brings a unique savory-sweet balance which I love and others might find disgusting. To be honest, it is the salty-sweet combo that keeps me coming back. On my latest chaat trip they claimed to be out of the sweet sauce...until I threw a fit and they borrowed some from a neighboring stall.

My iPhone photo of the finished product does not do this dish justice, especially thanks to the unflattering flash. You will just have to trust me on this: yum.

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