Delhi bustles on a normal day: Customers crowd into shophouses, chic cafés plate continental fusion, and five-rupee cups of chai fly out of stalls. But all of this came to a complete grinding halt when Delhi was named one of the country's largest hotspots for COVID-19, and a nationwide lockdown was mandated from March through May. Despite the nearly 80,000 confirmed cases in June, restrictions were lifted as the lockdown proved to be unaffordable.
Even as street food vendors slowly reopen their stalls, there is the unshakable realization that gathering publicly over food is now not only no longer feasible, but also dangerous. So how must the street food industry adapt in order to survive?
I spoke to Delhi Food Walks founder and tour guide Anubhav Sapra when the city had just begun opening again. It was the first time Sapra had left his home in suburban Delhi in four months. Pre-COVID, Sapra led food tours across Delhi, guiding tourists through the hubbub of the capital. A popular stop on his tours is Old Delhi, the streets of which are lined with paratha stalls, biryani shops, and kebab kiosks.
When I joined Sapra on a tour in Old Delhi in 2017, he took me to a tea stall where the chaiwala sat on the ground and poured hot doodh patti chai (tea brewed only with milk) into small clay pots. At our communal table, we were joined by a cross-section of locals: rickshaw walas, upper-class Delhiites, and migrant workers from the nearby shophouses. Despite our class and cultural differences, we shared lively, casual conversation — brought together by a pot of tea.
Such is the culture created by India's street food industry. It isn't necessarily about seeking out the best food in town or the most authentic stall or vendor, but the electric energy, chance gatherings, and unforgettable conversations that are afforded by the food. Street food levels the playing field — for a brief moment, socio-cultural barriers cease to exist.
Despite remaining a hotbed for the virus, Delhi further relaxed its lockdown this, demanding 78 percent of the working population to return to work. Because a typical 9-to-5 worker will start his day with a cup of chai, pick up biryani for lunch (washing it down with another cup of chai), and end the day with a bowl of juicy momos made by his neighborhood momowala, this has meant business has started to pick back up, ever-so-slowly, for street food vendors — albeit a little differently.
Some street food vendors have been considering offering their menus through third-party online ordering apps. Working with delivery apps means street vendors are assured business, with no limits on capacity, and provided the systems needed for handling digital, cashless purchases. Simple, small assurances (but assurances nonetheless) that those in the unorganized sector, which makes up 93 percent of India's workforce, have long lacked.
It's not a completely stress-free transition. Saim Qureshi, owner of the family-run food joint Kashmiri Kebab Point, is one of the few vendors who's made the tough decision to offer his menu through an app, despite surmounting fees. "Customers prefer online orders now," Qureshi sighed.
Kanpur-based media professional Bilal Sheikh is one of these customers. Since returning to work, he's resumed his daily patronage of his favorite biryani vendor; only now, he places his lunch order for delivery through an online app.
Sapra insists that the long-term future of street food will ultimately depend on the creation of a representative body — one that can advocate for protections for vendors, enforcement of sanitary and social distancing guidelines, and the adoption of cashless systems. Only then might customers feel comfortable eating out again. Until then, the culture surrounding street food remains a distant memory.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: Is Delhi's Street Food Culture Over As We Know It?