Indian food: Spice of life

New Zealand Listener, April 15, 2016

Jaipur, in the northern India state of Rajasthan, is a centre for delicious artisan foods brought to the city by refugees.

One of the busiest street corners on any morning in Jaipur, India, is at the crossroads of Chandpole Bazar Rd and Baba Harish Chandra Marg. This is the heart of the old Pink City and is known locally as the “breakfast club”. Half a dozen food vendors sit side by side tending vats of bubbling oil, cooking snacks for hundreds of men who arrive to eat on the street. Others pull up on bicycles to buy food to take home to the family.

We stopped to sample several of the spicy treats, including dal pakwan – thin, crisp sheets of deep-fried poppadom with a small bowl of rich, dahl vegetable curry; spicy deep-fried samosas; and mirchi bada – stuffed chillies with potatoes and chickpeas. It was the perfect way to set a traveller up for the day.

We were on an early morning “Chillies Walk the Town” street-food tour guided by writer Mita Kapur, part of a visit to northern India by Auckland Writers Festival patrons. It was an excursion for “brave hearts”, Kapur said. “You march past and into glorious old traditions that make up the grain and texture of the city of Jaipur. You encounter baked goodness in traditional wheat and semolina, combined with saffron and cardamom, almonds and cashews in crisp, sweet and savoury biscuits. You sample street snacks that have been handed down through generations and are still cooked daily on these sites.”

Kapur’s tours are intended to recognise and preserve the artisan foods that refugees to Jaipur made for a living. At our breakfast-club stop, we learnt about Sindhi refugees who ­settled there after partition and established dal pakwan as a traditional breakfast.

The walk ended with in a visit to one of the city’s most popular markets. Kapur had been hesitant about taking us there, but we’d been in India long enough to become acclimatised to the rubbish, smells and crowds. We were entranced and could not believe the colour, cacophony and amazing array of fresh vegetables.


450g agria potatoes

1 tsp salt

1 tsp freshly ground black peppercorns

½ tsp ground fennel seeds

2cm piece of fresh ginger

2 dried chillies

8 tbsp vegetable oil (grapeseed or rice bran)

2 tbsp frozen baby peas, thawed

2 heaped tbsp grated carrot

2 cauliflower florets, finely chopped

pinch of sugar

½ cup chickpea flour (besan)


6 tbsp plain yoghurt

4 tbsp spicy mango or tamarind chutney

2 tsp chaat masala (a mix of spices available from Indian specialist shops)

mint leaves

Peel the potatoes, chop them and simmer in a saucepan of boiling water until tender. Mash them well with a little of the salt and allow to cool.

Place the pepper, fennel, ginger and chillies in a spice mill or blender and mix with 2 tablespoons of oil until it forms a paste.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small pan and add the peas, carrot, cauliflower, spice paste, remaining salt and the sugar and stir and fry gently for about 6 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and when they are cool enough add this mixture to the mashed potatoes. Divide the mixture into 4cm balls, then coat in flour by rolling them.

Heat the remaining 5 tablespoons of oil in a heavy frying pan and add the potato patties in a single layer with a little space between them. Fry on each side until golden and crisp. You may need to cook these in two batches, and use a little extra oil.

To serve, place 2-3 patties in a small container, break them slightly open and spoon over yoghurt, topped with a teaspoon or two of chutney, then sprinkle over chaat masala and freshly chopped mint.

Makes 16-20 balls
Serve with icy beer

This fragrant, healthy soup made with vegetable stock is a spirit reviver, perfect for tired people or if you need a dose of vitamin C.



1 onion, sliced

¼ cabbage, sliced

2 carrots, sliced

1 leek, chopped

6 cups water


1 tsp vegetable oil

3cm fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 spring onion, very finely diced

1 small carrot, very finely diced

4 cups vegetable stock

1 lemon, finely grated zest and juice

4 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, with extra to garnish

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

salt to taste

To make the stock, place the onion, cabbage, carrots and leek in a large saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer very gently for about 2 hours. Pass the stock through a strainer and discard the vegetables.

To make the soup, heat the oil in a deep saucepan. Add the ginger, spring onion and carrot dice and cook until they soften.

Add the stock and stir until the soup comes to the boil.

Add the lemon zest and juice, coriander leaves and black pepper and taste for seasoning. Cook a further minute then serve hot garnished with fresh coriander leaves.

Serves 4
Wine match: riesling


On our walk around Jaipur we stopped for two beverages. The first, a refreshing date drink, is made daily, and like most food and beverages available from street stalls, sells out by 10am.

We also sampled hot, sweet, milky chai at the city’s most famous tea house, Sahu, in Chaura Rasta Rd, Jaipur’s main street. The drink was brewed on the footpath and the city’s mayor chatted to us as we sipped. He told us he’d have ordered the streets to be swept and cleaned if he’d known we were coming, to which our feisty guide, Mita Kapur, retorted he should see to that happening daily. As if.

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