Street food


Papdi chat

If you have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, recall how the story starts. Ashima reaches for the tin of Planter’s peanuts to mix with her puffed rice. She is attempting to recreate the popular street food available at every corner, every lane in the streets of Kolkata – jhaal muri. She adds the peanuts, some mustard oil, green chili to her puffed rice but it is not the same as what she remembers. Something is missing. The book stole my heart just by that vignette at the beginning – Ashima trying to recreate a comfort food in a land where she is new, everything is unknown. That is every immigrant at some point in their lives, isn’t it?

Papdi chat, as pictured above, is my absolute favorite street food that I make often at home. Either I have forgotten what the real thing tastes like or I have managed to create perfection or my palate has been compromised to think what I create is the epitome of papdi chat. No matter what the reason, I don’t feel like anything is missing from my concoction of papdi chat. Often I don’t have all the ingredients so I improvise. Today’s version included the following:

Papdis (wheat crisps, available in the snack aisle of Indian stores) – this forms the base. Top these with…

Half a cup of canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)

Half a boiled potato chopped into little cubes

2 tbsp of finely chopped raw onion (optional)

1 green chili finely diced – optional. If you like spicy, make it 2

2 tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves

1 cup of beaten yogurt poured over the mixture

2 tbsp of Chunky Chat masala

Half a cup or more, if you prefer, of tamarind date chutney

All this is topped with Haldiram’s Alu Bhujia (again available in Indian grocery stores)

I sometimes make it fancy by sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top.

Talk about burst of flavors in the mouth – crunchy, tangy, savory, sweet – perfection!

I say perfection and I am the only one who eats chat in our house. The non Indian and the part Indians do not care for it. I even go as far as to proclaim it as healthy – garbanzo beans, fat free yogurt, potatoes……healthy! At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.

NOLA: Day 2


We had booked a trip on a paddle boat ride for a ride along the mighty Mississippi on Creole Queen. The most interesting part of the ride was a historian narrating the history of New Orleans. The mystery of Spanish haciendas in the French quarter was revealed, the several change of hands of New Orleans was told, the battle of New Orleans to beat the British under the command of Andrew Jackson was dramatically narrated. We made one stop at the museum at Chalmette plantation, the battle field where the battle of New Orleans was fought. A park ranger talked in depth about the volunteers who convened under one flag to cause considerable damage to the British and managed to drive them away. On our way back, the talk was about Katrina. Every member on board listened with horror as the historian narrated grimly almost hourly advent of the storm that took lives of thousands. As we listened, the sky opened up, almost in grief.

By the time we docked, the rain had diminished to mere sprinkles, so we opened our umbrellas, which we smartly carried, and made our way to Frenchmen’s street. We had been told that street was a great alternative to raucous Bourbon street in French quarter and worthy of a venture. The music was better, food was good. We were disappointed. Everything was sleepy, and closed. We checked out the menu of several restaurants, found nothing that Sean, a vegetarian who does not eat vegetables, could eat. Finally, we ended up in Mona’ s cafe, a Lebanese restaurant. I devoured a delicious Lula kabob and Sean had a vegetable platter that contained the best baba ganoush.

After lunch, we strolled slowly back towards our hotel, stopping to see the majestic St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square.

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Once we were back, we promptly went to bed and fell asleep. Afternoon naps, everyday – a very important part of our vacation. Neither of us realized how sleep deprived we were.

In the evening, we went out late. We decided to stroll the French quarter again since every street gave us ample opportunity to catch snatches of music and watch people. As will be the norm each day, we rejected at least 12 restaurants since there was nothing for Sean and ate at a Mexican place. Sean had veg fajitas, I had shrimp po boy. We both had simply fabulous modoros (fried plantains). Our sweet server did not know how to change channels on their TV, so she handed the remote to Sean. He found NBA basketball game and we watched a game between Rockets and Golden State warriors. After wrapping up day 2 with more people watching as French quarter became increasingly inebriated we headed back to the hotel, watched NBA in bed and called it a night.

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I will end this blog with this observation. The mass of humanity in Bourbon street reminded me of the throng on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Pujo. The people on Bourbon street were immersed in the heady feeling of alcohol, jazz, beads and night clubs. The throng in Kolkata during Durga Pujo are focused on lights, pandals, extravagance, street food. But the energy in both places, I found, were similar. There was a feeling of letting loose, shedding inhibitions.

We saw quite a large number of homeless people on the streets of the city. Some were just listless while some socialized with other homeless men and women. A majority of them, especially women, had dogs with them. The dogs, interestingly enough, seemed to be in great health and exuded friendly demeanor. Sean and I conjectured whether the dogs served as body guards for many who were forced to sleep on the streets. There were dark corners too where hapless men just lay silently, most likely under the influence of some substance. One homeless man was downright honest. He asked folks for money saying, “Can you give me some money so that I can get drunk tonight?” We looked at him quizzically. He said, “What? I am not gonna lie. If I get any money, I am going to buy booze.”

We were in New Orleans. How could we not see the bayous and alligators? We had booked a swamp tour for the next day. We were going to be picked up by our transportation company to take us to the waterways, where we could either go on a loud, very fast speed boat or a slow moving, covered boat. We opted for the slow one to experience a leisurely boat ride. We gave up thrill in favor of serenity. More on that in the next blog.