You may be familiar with ubiquitous snacks like dosa and samosa, but India is home to an extraordinary smorgasbord of street foods, many of which are unfamiliar to even die-hard fans of the country's cuisine. That's because there's a remarkable degree of variation among India's 29 states, each of which features regional and seasonal specialties.
Yet for gastronomy-focused travelers, the destination-worthy street foods of India can be better than any guide. Think sweet hillocks of pearly ponkh (sorghum) from the westernmost state of Gujarat, juxtaposed with savory, spicy sev (fine noodles of fried chickpea dough); sandaal, or steamed cakes made of fermented rice, creamy milk, and almonds, available exclusively during Ramadan; garadu, a winter specialty of the central state of Madhya Pradesh that features deep-fried purple yam soused in asafoetida-heavy masala; and chakuli peetha, cakes of steamed rice and lentil that are submerged in spicy red chutney, which you'll find in the eastern state of Odisha.
If I were to paint the peculiarities of my country's foodscape in very broad strokes, I might say that in Goa, Maharashtra, and even Gujarat—states striped along the west coast and influenced by the Portuguese invasion—you will find a predominance of the soft, white, dinner roll–like buns called pao (the word is borrowed from the Portuguese word for "bread," pão) and coconut. Meanwhile, in the eastern state of West Bengal, fiery mustard finds its way into many dishes—in the form of mustard oil, mustard seeds, or paste, or a sauce that's called kasundi—and river fish are a staple of the diet.
In the north, Punjabi dishes marry chole (chickpeas) and potatoes with burnished, flaky wheat-based flatbreads like kulchas and parathas. Finally, in the south, kitchens make heavy use of plentiful local crops of bananas, coconut, and rice.
All this bounty means that a truly comprehensive catalog of Indian street food would fill several encyclopedias. This list features a selection of my personal favorites (and therefore leans toward savory and carb-laden items), which, taken collectively, capture a vibrant cross-section of street-food culture from around the country.
Puris are small, crisp fried breads made from wheat flour and water. Whether in the form of flat, cracker-like disks or hollow globes with eggshell-thin crusts, they are the foundation of many street snacks across the country (most prominently in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata)—often literally, as they frequently function as edible utensils or shells.
They're commonly found in papdi chaat—crunchy puris buried under an avalanche of whisked yogurt, diced potatoes, chickpeas, and pomegranate seeds, then lacquered with tamarind and coriander chutneys—and bhel puri, a dish of potatoes, onions, puris, and puffed rice topped with sweet-sour and spicy chutneys and a dusting of sev. (Sometimes the bhel comes with slivers of green mango.) You'll also find them in sev batata puri, a layer of puris served beneath boiled diced potatoes, sev, and date and coriander chutneys, finished with sour green mango and a blanket of whipped yogurt.
For pani puri, the puri spheres come stuffed with creamy boiled potato, sprouted mung bean for added heft and textural contrast, spice- and mint-infused water, and a wash of sweet-sour tamarind, date, and jaggery chutney.
In 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh, he brought in his wake a wave of loyal Tibetan refugees. With them came the momo, a hulking, hearty steamed dumpling.
Momos took root so firmly that most of India now believes them to be an integral part of the cuisine of our northeastern states (especially in Sikkim, where they displaced the local hyontoen dumpling, made from millet flour and stuffed with cheese). In Tibet, nubs of yak meat are encased in the dumpling shell, but in India, where no yaks are to be found, pork, buffalo, chicken, and vegetables are the fillings of choice.
Tiny momo stalls have sprung up on city streets everywhere in the northeast of India, where a plate of momos is usually served with a fiery chili paste or, sometimes, a cucumber salad. And so warmly has the rest of India embraced them that their hybrid offspring are now infiltrating eateries everywhere. In Delhi, for instance, momos stuffed with paneer and tandoori momos—that is, momos cooked in a tandoor oven—are very popular now.
Most travelers to old Delhi find themselves in Gali Paranthewali (literally "the lane of parathas"), a tiny alleyway that ribbons through the warren of lanes that is Chandni Chowk. Here lies treasure: stalls with tiny knolls of spiced, lightly pan-fried green peas, chopped cauliflower, paneer, radish, tomatoes, and potatoes, all waiting to be stuffed into parathas, flat, unleavened wheat breads that, when not stuffed, are usually laminated with ghee or butter, then pan-fried or deep-fried in a wok.
Gali Paranthewali may be Delhi's most famous destination for the flatbread, but it's also purely vegetarian. If you venture further afield in the city, you'll unearth parathas stuffed with a mash of minced chicken or mutton, even egg, and served with accompaniments like pickles, chutneys, green chilies, and sometimes aloo matar (green peas and potatoes) on the side.
Eaten at breakfast or as a snack, vadai are thick, rugged deep-fried rings made from a batter of ground lentils and fenugreek, sometimes invigorated with the addition of minced onion, ginger, and chilies. The earliest records of vadai date back to AD 1130, in the region now known as Karnataka state. The dish has since taken on a hundred avatars.
There's masala vadai, made with coarsely puréed split chickpeas studded with onion and green chilies; keerai vadai, in which the vadai batter is joined by spinach and other greens; aama vadai, made from a variety of dals; and the extremely popular medu vadai, made from urad dal (also called black gram or black lentils).
These crisp, savory fritters can be eaten all on their own, but they're usually served alongside cooling coconut chutney and sambhar, a rich stew made from lentils, which you can sink the vadai into, use as a dip, or spoon over the vadai like a sauce, depending on your preference.
Bhutte Ka Kees
Perhaps the best place to try bhutte ka kees, a street snack from the central state of Madhya Pradesh, is in Sarafa Bazaar, a cacophonous night market located in Indore, the state's most populous city, and home to some of its best vendors. The dish is made from grated fresh corn that's sautéed in ghee, then simmered in a bath of bubbling-hot milk until it achieves a polenta-like creaminess. It comes garnished with lime juice, coriander, and squiggles of grated coconut.
It's said that jhalmuri owes its popularity to World War II, when street vendors sold muri (puffed rice, an intrinsic part of the Bengali cuisine of east India) to Bengali businessmen and American and British soldiers stationed in Kolkata. This evolved to become jhalmuri—a sort of crunchy snack mix made up of crisp muri; earthy, spicy masala; crispy bits of fried chickpea flour; flecks of pungent raw onion; boiled potatoes; lemon juice; and chilies, all soused with the lacerating stab of mustard oil and a slick of sour-sweet tamarind water, and eaten straight out of newspaper cones.
In their cookbook, The Seven Sisters: Kitchen Tales from the North East, journalists Purabi Shridhar and Sangita Singh compile homey recipes from people with roots in the seven northeastern states of India, some of which defy Western expectations of what Indian cuisine can be. According to Shridhar and Singh, the typical diet of Mizoram state, for instance, emphasizes “the essential taste of a vegetable stripped of any additive, preservative, spice or even the most basic taste-enhancer, salt.”
An excellent illustration of that thriftiness with spice is Mizoram's popular rice porridge street snack—sanpiau—which comes mixed with fermented fish sauce, spring onions, a paste made from cilantro, and a burst of ground black pepper to finish. In the absence of strong dried spices, the predominant flavor is umami from the fish sauce, plus heat from the pepper.
Even before the Mughals muscled their way into the country in the early 16th century, several Muslim sultanates had already taken root in northern India, and these continuous forays into the subcontinent naturally resulted in the mutation of the culinary landscape. In The Story of Our Food, Indian food historian K. T. Achaya observes that Muslim culinary influence transformed the spit-roasted meats that were endemic to the region into a wide variety of kebabs, which are now ubiquitous.
At street stalls, you'll find specialties like the Lucknowi galouti kebab: finely ground leg of lamb that's mixed with spices like clove and nutmeg, smoked, then formed into patties and fried. (Their meltingly soft texture was allegedly designed to please a toothless old royal.) There are torpedoes of slightly fatty ground lamb, beef, or chicken seekh kebabs, lightly spiced and impaled on a skewer, eaten with mint and cilantro chutney. Or try satin-soft shammi kebabs, made from lamb pounded with lentils that's boiled, then ground with onions and mint, shaped into patties, and finally pan-fried.
In Hyderabad, you can grab shikampuri kebabs, finely ground parcels of meat stuffed with yogurt and spices. Elsewhere, organ-meat lovers can revel in tender kebabs made from kheeri (udders), kaleji (liver), and other offal.
All told, kebabs come in a staggering variety of styles, more than I can count—as chunks of meat, ground meat, or minced meat; whether chicken, mutton, or beef; all precision-engineered through ingenious combinations of fat, spices, marinades, and tenderizers such as yogurt; and eaten off skewers or just off a plate.
There are many Sufi shrines dotted around the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and where there are shrines, there is nader monje. That's because the snack makes use of lotus root, an ingredient that's said to have been blessed by Sufi saints and is intrinsic to the state's cuisine. The mild, crunchy, potato-like root is carved into thin fingers, which are then cloaked in rice flour and plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil, from which they emerge shatteringly crisp and cornflake-crackly. Alongside, there is always chutney to be had, usually made from spicy, tangy onion.
In 1967, Amarjit Singh Tibb, a pharmacist from the bustling western coastal metropolis of Mumbai, pledged to create a shawarma for the Indian palate after tasting one on a visit to Beirut. And he did, though it's unclear how his invention ended up with its singular name.
The Tibb's frankie is an egg-washed paratha that's tightly wrapped around craggy pieces of chicken, mutton, paneer, or vegetables, spangled with onions, chilies, chutneys, and the secret Tibb's spice mix that elevates it all. By all appearances, it has much in common with the Kolkata kathi roll, which has recently become popular around the world, but there are differences—the meat in the kathi roll is encased in a paratha of refined wheat flour, while the frankie usually uses whole wheat, and the Tibb's masala mix is wetter than the masala used for the kathi.
The first Tibb's frankie counter went up at the now-defunct Aga Brothers store in Mumbai's Colaba district and was a resounding success, leading to a welter of independent Tibb's frankie stalls that now crisscross the city.
The Bombay sandwich is nothing like its delicate forebear, the English cucumber sandwich. A medley of raw vegetables (tomatoes, onion, cucumber, beet, bell pepper, et cetera), plus boiled potato, spices, and a thick smear of garlic and cilantro chutneys, are placed between two pieces of buttered bread, in whatever combination the customer desires. Pressed into a greased toaster, from which it emerges blistered and bronzed, the sandwich is served cut into bite-size pieces and wiped with more butter and chutney (and sometimes even ketchup).
The dabeli is the product of a clash of cultures—the potato and the chili first entered western India in the 16th century, thanks to Portuguese invaders, who also brought along a taste for white, yeast-leavened bread. The dabeli, beloved in the western state of Gujarat, is a combination of the three, spiked with a few quintessentially Indian ingredients: A spiced potato mixture gets tossed with chopped onions, coriander, coconut, peanuts, and pomegranate seeds for a touch of sweetness, and everything is heaped into a hunk of pao. The bread is then striped with sweet and spicy chutneys, and a confetti of sev is flung over the top as garnish.
Litti chokha is rustic, earthy fare that's only recently escaped onto hand carts and street stalls from the home kitchens of the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Litti are spheres of pastry filled with a paste of dry-roasted gram flour (sattu) and spices such as chili powder, asafoetida, ginger-garlic paste, and amchur (tangy mango powder). The balls are baked until golden, then dipped in ghee. They make a fine vehicle for chokha, a kind of relish made from boiled potato, eggplant, and tomatoes, the latter two of which are charred over an open flame to give their flesh a touch of smoky flavor.
The Malabari parotta, originating from the Malabar coast of southwest India, is a feathery, crispy-chewy iteration of its northern counterpart, the paratha. It's made of very thin whorls of refined wheat flour dough; when bronzed over a griddle, the whorls flake off at a touch, for a texture and flavor that shares much in common with the Malaysian flatbread roti canai. For a kothu parotta, torn pieces of Malabari parotta are fried up with an assortment of spiced vegetables and meats—anything from beef and mutton to chicken and egg, depending on where in south India you are.
Pyaaz Ki Kachori
Pyaaz ki kachori is Rajasthan's iconic street snack, a stuffed, deep-fried flatbread made from a refined-flour dough with a belly full of browned onions, their sweetness tempered with a masala made from coriander, chilies, cumin, and fennel seeds. To wash it down properly, you can go one of two ways—a soothing glass of cool lassi, or a steaming cup of chai.