India’s Visual Feast
In the second edition of “Street Food of India,” accomplished Israeli photographer Sephi Bergerson takes his readers on a fascinating tour of the street food scene of India. Through his amazing photographs the street cuisine of India comes alive; one can almost smell and taste the splendid cornucopia of food offerings from the swarming lanes of old Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Amritsar, Varanasi, Hyderabad and Jaipur, to the hot and dusty streets of the countryside. Bergerson captures the world of Indian street foods with such perfection that the book is a feast for the eyes.
The very first taste of the humble pakora he nibbled at Pahar Ganj in Delhi inspired Bergerson to relocate to Delhi, a few years after his first visit, to pursue his dream of becoming a documentary photographer. No wonder the street food scene became the theme of his first book. In the introduction he writes how he discovered, devoured and became obsessed with the street foods of India. He also voices his concern that the explosion of food courts and restaurants in major cities — serving up hygienic street food favorites in cleaner surroundings — threatens the variety and sheer spontaneity of the street food scene.
Visually splendid street food
Street food is instant gratification; it is a great way for people to sample unfamiliar food. Street food cooking styles of India range from deep-fried to roasted to pan-fried to dumplings to refreshing smoothies and piping hot drinks. The one thing all street foods have in common is that the dishes are about keeping food simple and boldly flavored — this is food that is ready when you are ready to eat. These roadside delicacies are prepared in front of you in little makeshift stalls, and their spicy aromas tempt shoppers, office workers, students and tourists to stop and enjoy something scrumptious before rushing off to their destinations.
Bergerson has lived in India for the past seven years and has explored the northern half of the country pursuing the best of the street foods India offers — everything from the humble pakora to giant parathas for people coming out of the mosque after breaking the fast on the last day of Ramadan. And Bergerson’s keen eye for detail has captured every nuance, every moment and every splash of color the street food scene offers.
The main emphasis of this visually splendid book is the breathtaking photographs, with the recipes taking a back seat. A glossary that provides explanation of ingredients and suggested substitutions for difficult-to-obtain ingredients would have been a great help, especially in this edition meant for a Western audience. For a book titled “Street Food of India” the book unfortunately lacks a broad representation of all corners of the country. The southern half of India is drastically overlooked except for two or three photographs and recipes, sadly reinforcing the myth that South Indian food ends at idli, dosa, vada, sambar and chutney.
The recipes are brief, with step-by-step instructions. Bergerson is first and foremost an exceptionally talented photographer and, understandably, the multitude of ingredients and unfamiliar cooking methods of Indian cuisine can be daunting for a newcomer. A few recipes suggest incorrect cooking methods and inaccurate measurements. The recipe for vada pav first says to deep-fry the potato mix, then dip it in batter and fry again. Vada is deep-fried only once after dipping the potato mix in the batter, but not before as well, as potatoes without a binder will disintegrate in the hot oil. Moth ki dal is listed as an ingredient for making moth chhole, but it is completely left out in the cooking instructions. Soaking black gram dal for just 20 minutes is not sufficient in cold climates and will not yield soft and fluffy idli, and an equal amount of rice and black gram is the incorrect measurement for good dosa batter.
Despite my quibbles about the recipes and cooking instructions, in this beautiful book Bergerson has captured the rich spectrum of the Indian street food scene with his incredible photographs of vibrant street snacks, bustling marketplaces and faces of street vendors who dole out an astounding selection from makeshift stalls and carts. It will tempt anyone to contemplate a trip to India to experience this vibrant scene, or at least to make a trip to the chat stand at the local Indian store to experience the flavors and aromas of the street food of India.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photo: Book cover of “Street Food of India” by Sephi Bergerson. Credit: IB Tauris