Uncovering India’s Street Secrets
Being a passionate foodie, raised in a family that travelled first with their bellies and then with their eyes, I have eaten my way through many a city. Restaurants, cafés, and fine-dining establishments certainly have their place, but it’s my experience that, if you really want to get the feel of a city, you must immerse yourself in the culture. Eat where the locals eat, eat how the locals eat. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life were beyond the walls of a restaurant, contained rather by decaying buildings on either side of a courtyard or bustling road; or at informal markets where architecture provides the scaffolding for a food network with a life of its own.
Coming from the ‘West’, India is quite accosting at first. From the minute you cross the threshold at the airport — moving from a clean, calm proficiency where floors are tiled smooth and walls have shiny glazing — you enter into another world. Your body is immediately met by the slam-dunk of spices, torrid heat, and the whizzing of a billion people, bikes, animals, and cars — a right assault on the senses.
Visiting the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I was struck by the grandeur and marvel of this curvaceous sculpted marble icon. But the lasting sensory memory I had is that of an oxymoron. The contrast between what lies within its sprawling gates and what lies beyond it is profound. One is constantly reminded of the wealth and poverty of India. Grand temples and mausoleums, often missing chunks of marble or disrespected with dirty laundry stand proudly, adorned with thousands of semi-precious stones or hand-painted tiles.
Outside in the courtyard of a restaurant contained by tall walls and decorative arches casting shadows of a past empire, I was introduced to the imarti. These gleaming golden deep-fried, syrup-drenched sculptural sweets of sorts seemed to me to be the echo of a golden age. You could almost taste the opulence of a bygone era.
I think the vibrancy which is representative of the Indian culture carries through to the sensory explosions of food and is translated into a nuanced built form. Texture, pattern, colour, and boldness are traits of the food and architecture of India alike. The play of light and shadow, solid and void of a hand-carved jali screen is reminiscent to me of the play between the soft and crunchy jalebi or the taste of sweet and spicy chilli-dusted fruit. The essence of the contradictory sensory experiences felt within the city is as much present in the food as it is in the streets.
I’ve always found, and I’m sure if you’ve travelled that you’ll agree with me, that my memory of a place is so intricately linked to the sensations of taste, smell, and sight. Often you will return home, and years later even, eat something that immediately transports you back to that moment in time — where you were, what was around you; the architectural stage which contained the experience.
It’s not uncommon in these tactile third-world countries to be left with the feeling that the buildings live more outward than inward. The façades that line a busy street are often containers, no more than noble sentries to the life facilitated beyond their walls. The experience of place is found in the spaces between the buildings — the alluring side alleys from which the other-worldly smells of undiscovered food emanate. These smells draw you through the city, resulting in the unpretentious exploration of a place through the guidance of your tastebuds.