Begin your tour of Brick Lane street food at hot young upstart Indi-Go Cafe at Richmix arts centre. Indi-Go is the brainchild of restaurateur duo Ranu Miah and Danny Patel. It has snack plates that are hands-down the best in the borough. Try a generous bowl of bestselling papdi chaat, South Asia’s superior riposte to nachos: crisp-like wafers are arranged around a bowl, slathered in smashed potatoes and chickpeas, yoghurt, chilli chutney, chaat masala, and sev (tiny fronds of bombay mix). A liberal sprinkling of fresh coriander among the yoghurt delicately soothes the spicy and sour elements. This lends an incredibly fresh aspect to this dish.
Spicy Pani Puri
Another South Asian curbside classic is pani puri — Indi-Go serves around eight pieces of the hollow crisp pani, filled with a dollop of mashed chickpeas, into which red onion and chilli have been added. Diners have to dunk the pani in the small bowl of spiced water provided – a small hole in the top enables the crisp to fill with the cool tangy liquid. Then they quickly have to put the whole thing in their mouths, biting down into a violent, symphonic riot of flavours, textures and temperatures.
London’s Best Bombay Mix
Shake off your napkin, and perambulate down Brick Lane past the 24-hour bagel shops and vintage boutiques until you hit Taj Stores. Taj sells the best Bombay mix in the East of London. Varieties differ vastly across South Asia. However, Bombay mix generally contains of a core of short pieces of crunchy flour noodles (sev), chickpeas, fried lentils and peanuts. The sev is made by pressing chunky dough into a seviya, a mug-shaped brass utensil with interchangeable perforated plates. A handle is wound to push the sev dough through the holes. The dough then drops like curling snakes into a bubbling pot of oil. The dish is traditionally prepared at home and eaten at festivals between meals. At Brick Lane’s Taj you can buy whole bags of thin sev, thick ghatia, and other individual elements of Bombay mix. This means you can mix your own up and avoid the inevitable family scramble for the ‘best bits’, which always leaves a melancholic gaggle of peanuts rolling dejectedly around the bowl at the end of a meal.
South Asian Rainbow Desserts
The next checkpoint on our street-food journey is Rajmahal Sweets. Although Rajmahal’s prices aren’t the most competitive on the strip, their barfi are irresistible for sweet-toothed snackers. The perfect marriage of squidgy and crumbly, South Asian barfi are iridescently coloured in a raving rainbow of lime green, rose-pink and sunshine-orange. They are made from condensed milk and sugar, flavoured with nuts, saffron, spices or fruit. Often served at festivals and holy occasions, so not strictly a street food, the barfi in Rajmahal rub shoulders with its more informal relations- gulab jamun and rasgulla.
Indian Doughnuts and Dumplings
Gulab jamun and rasgulla are by appearance cut from the same cloth, but in design and origins wildly estranged. Gulab jamun is a sweet dumpling made from milk solids, deep-fried and soaked in a light sugar syrup, giving it the texture of a dense doughnut. Rasgulla balls are made from semolina and cottage cheese (cchena). This gives them their whitish appearance and spongy texture. They are cooked, again, in sugar syrup. Rasgulla has an ancient history springing from Odisha, a state on the East Coast of India, where its use as an offering to the goddess Lakshmi has been recorded for over 300 years.
Samosas: The King of Street Snacks
The final stop on our Brick Lane snack trek is the well-established Ambala. The firm, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year, is named after an area in the north Indian state of Haryana where its owner Mr Mohammad Ali Khan was born. The harassed-looking men behind the counter pack boxes with a flurry of hands and fried treats. They shout instructions to staff who bring steaming trays of samosas, pakoras, and bhajis to be passed into eager palms. The lowly samosa, a warming tetrahedron packed with spicy vegetables, has been kicking around for a speculated six centuries. Ambala sells both the small and flat, and plump and fist-shaped variety. The shape-shifting samosa is found in slightly different forms all over Asia, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.