Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walks Puts Capital’s Street Food Culture on the Global Map
DELHI’S VIBRANT street food culture has had two diligent chroniclers. Rahul Verma of The Hindu (who now also writes for the digital edition of the Hindustan Times), in the lively old ‘hole-in-the-wall’ writing tradition of the late Behram ‘Busybee’ Contractor, ventured into the by-lanes of Shahjahanabad much before anyone else saw any merit in it. He gave street food the pride of place it deserves.
Surprisingly, not many food writers followed in Verma’s illustrious footsteps. The only notable exceptions I can recall immediately are Mohit ‘Chowder Singh’ Balachandran, who writes on street food whenever he finds time out of his demanding job (he’s the country head of Soda Bottle Opener Wala), and Mumbai blogger and author, Kalyan Karmakar, whose vivid descriptions of the bylanes of Bohri Mohalla make me salivate each time I remember them.
Into this exclusive club of ‘seniors’, a young man named Anubhav Sapra made, in his inimitable way, a low-key but notable entry last week at the American Center, a strategic community hangout where you wouldn’t expect street food to ever pop up in conversations with geopolitical ramifications. The choice of the venue for Delhi’s first Street Food Awards, steered by Anubhav with support from Dettol (an important alliance in the light of the universal fear of Delhi Belly striking those brave souls who venture out into the streets), spoke volumes about the pioneering work and growing popularity of the young former acolyte of the IAS officer-turned-civil society activist Harsh Mander.
American diplomats, in fact, are among Anubhav’s most adventurous street food walkers — one of them is the multi-lingual former Fulbright scholar, Columbia University Ph.D. and the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer, Craig Dicker, who made a lively presentation on the street food of his home city, New York. It brought back fond memories of Bronco’s Buggy, whose footlongs made with love and care by its owner-operator from Bosnia-Herzegovina were my saviours on alcohol-drenched nights at Athens, Ohio, where I was pursuing a Master’s in Journalism at Ohio University. And I just loved the soft pretzels with sweet mustard sauce that I wolfed down along with Lotan‘s tangy chhole kulche, Shri Balaji‘s papdi chaat and Kuremal‘s jamun kulfi.
Anubhav made Delhi his home after joining Delhi University to pursue a Bachelor’s and then Master’s Degree in Political Science. He first got people’s attention when he blogged about the street food haunts of the generally ignored Paharganj neighbourhood, which we knew till then for being a drug haven and a magnet for low-budget international tourists. Spreading the word through Facebook, he got a group of 35 to join his first food walk (also at Paharganj) in 2010, while he was still working for Mander’s Centre for Equity Studies. Four years later, he converted what was still a hobby into a business proposition. He turned Delhi Food Walks into a registered company and became its founding ‘Foodie-in-Chief’.
Since then, Anubhav has expanded the geography of Delhi’s street treats beyond the much-discovered Shahjahanabad, stumbling upon in the bargain the culinary secrets of each little corner of the metropolis, from Lajpat Nagar’s Dolma Auntie for momos to Raju Da’s The Singing Tree in Chittaranjan Park for its teas, to Sindhi Snacks at Shalimar Bagh, which must be the only Sindhi haunt in the city, and K.B. Chaat‘s ‘Moonglet’ (moong dal battered fluffed up like an omelette and stuffed with vegetables) in a by-lane at WEA, Karol Bagh.
Today, Anubhav’s repertoire of walks extends to parts of Delhi — from the Bengali-dominated Chittaranjan Park to Kathputli Colony (inhabited by folk artistes) — that were waiting to be discovered for their bustling food culture. In the meantime, Delhi Food Walks has gone national. Its September to mid-April calendar is packed back-to-back with a food walk a day — and in Jaipur, Anubhav says, his team organises two walks a week. And when they don’t have walks on their programme, Anubhav and his team travel around the country to shoot films on the street food culture of cities and towns.
With an eminently readable blog, an established tradition of food walks, a growing library of street food films, and a food safety campaign going in partnership with Dettol, Anubhav is the new go-to man for street food. He has made a good start with the Delhi Street Food Awards, but now he must collaborate with people like Balachandran and Karmakar to plant the seeds of India’s first National Street Food Awards, which will also recognise those street food vendors who invest in keeping their establishments spotlessly clean.