Eat.Wander.Repeat: The call of the travelling vendor

As they walk through the windy lanes of your neighbourhood—and memory—all senses rejoice

The seeng-channawala with his makeshift coal roaster and paper cones. (Photos: Sameer Zagade/ Denise D’Silva)
The seeng-channawala with his makeshift coal roaster and paper cones. (Photos: Sameer Zagade/ Denise D’Silva)

Denise D'Silva

In this land of many food stories, one that is particularly interesting is that of the travelling food vendor hauling delicious morsels through winding lanes. It may seem like a small town or village phenomenon, but the calls and cries of these vendors are very much a part of the din of the Indian city, if you care to tune in.

Each vendor has a specific cry, and over the years I have seen sons who learn and imitate their fathers’ calls so perfectly, you’d be hard put to tell the difference. The sound of a rudimentary horn at the break of day can mean either the paowala or bread man if you’re in Goa, or the mini-idli seller if you’re in Mumbai.

These rubber blow horns have a distinct ‘pom-pom’ sound made at very short intervals. Sort of like a street alarm clock that announces: it’s breakfast time!

Coinsized idlis and piping hot medu wadas are carried in large steel containers alongside smaller vats of coconut and tomato chutneys and sambhar. I like how they’ve created a distinctively trendy way to tie their containers with an old, deflated cycle tyre.

Over the years, I’ve seen the choice of carriage move from the vendor’s head to the side of a bicycle. But the horn they all use has remained unchanged. It’s probably the best, most affordable breakfast for the millions of working-class people who commute through the city.

One plate of around eight idlis with a generous dollop of chutneys is about Rs 10 and for the same amount, 5–6 wadas can be had. Ravi or ‘anna’ as he is affectionately referred to, arrives in the suburb of Bandra every morning, cycling 4 km to sell his wares. His wife Aruna wakes up at 2 or 3 a.m. and starts the steaming and frying of hundreds of idlis and wadas so that he can sell them hot for breakfast at around 7 a.m.

He tells me that on an average, he sells about 1,000 idlis a day and makes a profit of about Rs 400–500 for his family of six. Idlis have put his kids through school and now college. Most of the idliwalas in Mumbai come from Tamil Nadu. Most of them still make their idlis with ponni rice from their home state, which might explain the whiteness and lightness of their idlis.

patticewala with his tin trunk full of goodies
The patticewala with his tin trunk full of goodies

It’s a tough job that begins soon after midnight and ends around mid-day when all the food is sold out. Most of the idli vendors I have seen are male, except Shailaja—a 40-year-old widow who took on her husband’s idli business to keep the family afloat.

She starts her day as early as 1 a.m., and commutes to a distant suburb every day by train. She’s a one-woman-army dressed in the brightest sarees, with the biggest smile. From cooking to travelling to selling—she does it all. Growing up by the sea, one of the first vendors I came in contact with were the seeng-chana-walas.

I was fascinated by their seemingly unending supply of nuts propped in perfect mounds on a small wicker basket. Many beach vendors had the same method of operating—a straw basket or steel vessel strung around their necks with a gamchha cushioning the straps to protect them from the weight. These small travelling displays sold nuts or chaat.

The chaat vendors were particularly colourful—shades of orange crunch, green mango and lime yellow, all neatly arranged with paper serving cones on the side to attract hungry beach revellers.

A trip to the beach or a park was always punctuated by the smell of roasting coal, warming the nuts atop the basket and the delicious salty taste that a few rupees could buy. The nuts came in cones sized small, medium and large (size defined by the number of twists in the paper cone). The last nut stuck grudgingly into the pointed end of the cone was usually the most treasured.

These food vendors certainly have a knack for getting their timing right. I remember the summer school holidays where we’d wake up mid-morning to be greeted by cries of ‘cakewala patticewala!’ outside the window. You see very few of them now, but the patticewala with his tin trunk of goodies carried on his head was a delight for every household with a child (as well as those young at heart).

When he opened the tin box at the door to your house, another world opened up. Brightly coloured cake slices—blue, pink, emerald green topped with shiny cherries, cream cones, rainbow sliced cake, tuttifruity buns, sponge cake bricks and warm off- the-oven chicken patties and hot dogs (not the sausage ones, but a very hearty and scarily red minced meat one).

The most expensive item was usually the cream-filled cone, but I’d almost always want to have the savoury patties instead. I would wonder how the pastries and their pretty butter icing didn’t melt with all that summer heat in a tin box. Or, for that matter, how they stayed in one place considering the way these vendors dodged traffic and potholes on their routes. All the cakes tasted pretty much the same, but these were times before the macaroon found its way to our shores.

For us, it was haute cuisine to have butter icing rosettes piped on a cake slice. It was also much before there were fancy bakeries around each corner. That’s the reason the cakewala was such a treat.

Medu wadas and idlis fresh and hot for the early breakfast run
Medu wadas and idlis fresh and hot for the early breakfast run

Bakeries were usually in particular pockets of the city and this was the best way to sample their wares without trudging all the way to where they were. And the summer holiday timing? Just brilliant thinking.

I spotted one of these rare vendors of joy recently—with a red tin trunk and a mobile number written on it, to keep up with the times. The spellings of the items though, are still from another world! When speaking of summer, can the kulfiwala be far behind? They carry particularly high baskets on their heads, usually draped in a red muslin fabric.

The basket opens to a treasure of different flavours all set in conical moulds, with a simple salt layer covering the outer container to keep these icy beauties cold and fresh. A thin stick is driven into the frozen kulfi while it’s still in the mould and the vendor gently rubs the mould between his hands to loosen the kulfi in one pull.

The hot months being the perfect time to eat sour foods, you’ll find foraged fruits arranged in hand-carts or baskets being sold by vendors at street corners across the country. Starfruits, berries of all colours, water chestnuts, tamarind and many exoticlooking fruits call out to passers-by. They’re usually salted, spiced lightly and dished out on leaves to faces puckering with delight.

No piece about travelling food vendors would be complete without mentioning the paowalas. Announced by the ‘tring-tring’ of the cycle bell, it’s fascinating to see them get on and off their cycles—heaped high with bags of bread—so many times and with such flair.

From the local bakery to homes across the city, they’re up before dawn arranging pillow-soft paos and crisp bruns into canvas bags, come rain or sun. Some of them, in ways unfathomable to me, also manage to carry stacks of eggs amidst all these bags of breads without getting so much as a crack on them.

For most of these travelling vendors, necessity has been the mother of invention. For us who listen and respond to their calls, they are ‘hunger saviours’ from happier times.

(Denise D’Silva is the author of The Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook, and co-founder of Hyphen Brands)

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