Food that empowers
Traveling to Delhi in the winter cold is not easy. Given the fog that envelopes all the rail lines leading to the national Capital, journeying to Delhi in the biting chill would be the last thing on the agenda of Poachamma and her group of doughty half-a-dozen women. But they are here to be part of a movement, which demands that right of livelihood should be equally applicable to the street vendors. Last summer, Parliament passed the Street Vendors (protection of livelihood and regulation of street vending) Bill, President approved it in due course and the government notified it as an act.
“But to the police and the municipal officials, the law of the nation means little. The street vendors are still harassed and despite a Supreme Court order, most of state and municipal governments have not stirred to create vending zones. They realise little that a well-kept food street has the potential to add to a city’s tourist glamour,” says Arbind Singh, the national coordinator of National Association of Street Vendors of India, which has organized over 900 street vendors and hawkers associations in demanding the right of livelihood for the vendors.
To demand their right, they started a unique programme five years – to display the culinary skills of street-side food gurus. The initiative is growing into a movement gradually. As senior journalist and well-known foodie Vir Sanghvi tweeted recently, “Not trendy, not fancy. Just the food of India’s streets. Brilliant!” No wonder on a bright Delhi week, beginning Christmas in chilling December, thousands flocked to the Jawaharlal Stadium to satisfy their taste buds.
“There is a festival on in Connaught Place too. They too call it street food but this is where you get to meet the street vendors the way they are,” says Kumar Abhishek, who like several Delhi’tes enjoys eating food outside. “It’s the street vendors who can show the audacity of calling burger a Punjabi food and momos as coming from West Bengal,” says Sangeeta Singh, the programme coordinator of the initiative adding, “He has the confidence of selling burgers on the streets of Ludhiana.”
S Shankar sells chicken 65 near NIT in Warangal. He has come all the way from Telangana with twenty other vendors to display an array of dishes from his land. He wants to showcase the various recipes of the new carved state of Telangana and is very excited to participate in the National Street Food Festival for the very first time. He has a whole range of food items from chicken and mutton biryani to kaddu ki kheer and kurbani ka meetha. Right across Shankar’s stall sits S Mynama with a group of ten women who have come from Hyderabad. They are frying golden mutton keema mutti as they talk in broken Hindi, explaining to customers about what they are cooking. They have a small shop in Hyderabad’s Shahi Gotham market and they have been coming to the festival for the past five years now.
From piping hot pav bhaji of Maharashtra to spicy Jodhpuri kachoris, and Assamese peetha to Bihari litti meat, the Capital’s National Street Food Festival hopes to bring all kinds of street food on one platform. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is brimming with foodies from all over the city and beyond, seeking delicacies from states they have never visited and the smell of fresh fried goodies and sweets wafted as Delhi thronged the stalls from 25 states from down south to north, west and east of the country. The culinary skills and the clientele of these food gurus are recognised by no less a person than masterchef Sanjeev Kapoor himself, who makes it a point to attend and support this
Another objective of the festival is to promote the idea that street food is not unhygienic. Arbind Singh, NASVI says, “The common feeling among people is that the food one gets on the streets is not clean. But if you ask a vendor, he will tell you that he uses the best quality vegetables and ingredients that he can afford. Since his stall is out in the open you can see what he is using and how he is making. On the other hand, big hotels buy ingredients in bulk and put them in cold storages, you can’t trust what they are serving. The only thing these vendors lack is personal hygiene and that is what we are trying to teach them here.”
Training programmes for the vendors tell them small things that would help them create a cleaner setup for their stalls. “You can’t expect them to listen to you like students,” says Shashank Pandey, the training expert, “They are specialist in their own areas, and you need to explain to them why a training like this is important. If they have a clean stall, they wouldn’t be thrown away by police. They wouldn’t have to pay undue cash to the police and they will be able to use the same money for themselves.”
Small initiatives like launching a book, Street Saathi, that talks about the special street food and street vendors from different places in India. “Apart from the recipe and a short history of the dish, we have also written a short bio of the vendors who sell the food, their lives and their struggle is what makes this food different,” says Popimoni Sharma, one of the researchers for Street Saathi (the book). An app with the same name created by Dheeraj Agarwal has been launched. The app contains information of street vendors from every location in new delhi and Patna and it is expected to have detailed information of vendors from all over India by March 2015.
The festival itself is a celebration of clean street food. The idea is to bring food diverse and variant from every corner of the country. While people can taste food from every location of India, they also realise that the food doesn’t lose its taste when the vendors are extra careful with the cleanliness.
“Food is like God and anyone who makes food, anyone who feeds you, should be treated like God,” says famous chef Sanjeev Kapoor. “My father came to India after partition. He studied and supported himself. He always ate on the streets. He didn’t have the time to cook and these vendors were a great part of his struggle. And like him, many others depends on street vendors and they deserve respect and to be empowered.”
Talking about Indian food, Kapoor added that after Taj Mahal, India is known for its food. Foreigners should not feel scared before eating the street food in India as that is the actual taste of the country. “Vendors should simply think, and question themselves, whether they will feed the food they are serving to their children as well.”
Abdul Kader has a shop in Mundur Kannadi, a small district near Palkad in Kerela. He has come with seven other vendors to serve Biryani and Khichdi to the national capital. He has four different types of Biryani for all four days of the festival, apart from vegetable Korma and Ghee rice. “The profit we get here is hardly anymore than what we were getting back home, but we come here for NASVI. They have helped us by getting the Street Vendors Bill. We can now stand upto harassment by the municipal bodies and the police. We are also happy to bring our local food to Delhi, and the enthusiasm with which we are received is heartening. We learn many new things as well as we get to meet brother and sister vendors from different parts of the country,” he says.
Rama Rao and Usha Rao are enjoying and sharing a plate of Bisi Bele Bhat, a specialty from Andhra. Rama Rao is from Andhra as well, and he says “Street food is usually found in small congested lanes, it is good to see the same taste available in such a spaced out area.” Ramesh JS, a bank employee in Delhi is wiping the remainings of Ram laddoo from his plate. He says, “I have just had Chaat and Ram Ladoo, abhi to shuruaat hai (it is just the beginning). There is so much to choose from!”
The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was packed with visitors of all age. While children loved the roller ice cream and Chaat, the older lot was seen flocking towards the Jodhpuri kachori and Hyderabadi Dum Biryani. Another huge hit was the pan and the Assamese tea. “About 50000 people visitors are expected this year. Our satisfaction would be that they would have interacted with vendors first hand and gone back with some affection for them,” says Sangeeta Singh, who catches four hours of sleep during the four-day-long festival..
Dheeraj Agarwal was a street vendor in the by lanes of Agra. He would sell clothes along with his father on a cycle, till the age of 10. His parents somehow managed to afford him a good education that landed him in Delhi College of Engineering. Sixteen years later, Dheeraj (26) has a good job in a big company in Mumbai. A few months back Dheeraj contacted NASVI (National Association for street Vendors of India). He wanted to create an app that would give an opportunity to street vendors to come online, advertise themselves well and have a way for customers to provide ratings to their favourite street vendors and thus came, Street Sathi, in existence.
The free Android app enables users to search nearby street vendors by proximity, popularity and cuisine type. It also enables street vendors to upload information about themselves.
It started with little things. Dheeraj once saw a toy-seller sitting forlorn on a station. He went talked to him and explained that since the toys he is selling are extremely cheap in price, the vendor should inform people. Dheeraj then brought a chart paper and wrote down the prices of the toys. The sale of the toys automatically increased after customers saw the pricelist.
Another time, Dheeraj helped a cobbler at Mumbai’s Kurla Station by taking an A4 sheet and writing down quotes like ‘Good shoes takes you to good places’, reading the simple but interesting line many passerby started coming to the cobbler slowly. “I have always felt a kinship towards vendors. Back in Mumbai, I would sit, talk and give tips to the vendors. I have been a vendor when I was young and I still use those skills at my job today. I thought why not reverse the flow? Use my engineering and marketing skills for the vendors,” said Dheeraj.
Dheeraj had the idea of the app but he wanted it to be made on a larger scale to help more and more vendors. He chanced upon NASVI on the internet. “I didn’t expect to find an organisation that works specially for street vendors. It was a welcome surprise for me. I wrote to Arbind Singh, the National coordinator for NASVI. He was interested in the idea and funded it, “ he smiles.