Friday, June 25, 2010

Veggies with vengeance

(Published in The Times of India, Lucknow...May 25, 2010)

Move over mutton. For, veggies have arrived with vengeance. Hand-pulled carts are their ‘bat’tle mobile and arsenal full of katahals, gulars, soyabean, raw banana…the hegemony of shaami, galaawati and boti had never been so ambitiously challenged. Welcome to the latest fad on the Awadhi platter – the vegetable kebabs and biryani.

It’s a sheer delight to watch the dexterous hands move in unison and swiftly fry, fold and wrap the cuisine in paper napkins before handing it to a queue of people whose watering mouths can hardly wait. And as the empty stomachs bite into it, contentment on their faces is palpable. All this at a price which is light on the pocket.

Its scrumptious taste would make you forget the aromatic bylanes of Nazirabad and Chowk, eternally famous for the mouth-watering shaami and galaawat kebabs. For long, confined to the menus of a select few hotels and restaurants in the city, the vegetable kebabs and biryani have now ventured out on hand-pulled carts. Circumnavigate the lanes of Lucknow and you can see numerous such carts, thronged by food lovers and doing brisk sales by the roadside. The “roadside cuisines”, as one may befittingly call them, have tickled the taste buds of denizens in the land of nawabs.

It is in fact surprising that a city quintessentially known for its cordon bleu non-vegetarian delicacies has lapped onto the green meal with such enthusiasm. Harmeet Singh quickly sensed the public flavour and made a switch over from selling paav bhaaji to veg kebabs and biryani. He explains the phenomenon: “The rising mutton prices have made kebab rolls and biryani costly. Whereas a non-veg roll does not cost less than Rs 15-20 now, you can buy a veg roll for somewhere between Rs 8-12. Who would mind this bargain.” He goes on to add that people were also looking for some change in culinary taste and this ‘product’ came up as an ideal replacement. While busy folding veg rolls, almost incessantly, Harmeet hit the point: “Now, more and more people are turning vegetarian and this cuisine just suits them.” Non-veg aficionados can differ with Harmeet but cannot dispute the popularity of his culinary product. He daily sells 400-500 kebabs along with 80-90 plates of biryani, no mean achievement for a roadside vendor whose “equipment” includes a hand-pulled cart, steel utensils, a gas stove and battery lit CFLs.

So, what’s the hit formula? Mohd Rizwan, another vendor who is reaping profits in the trade, spells it out, and perhaps aptly. “Modestly priced, reasonably hygienic (as there is no fear of inferior quality mutton as in the case of non-veg rolls), easily available, quick to eat and sumptuous; what else does one need,” he says, adding, “In Rs 20-25 one can have two kebabs and two paranthas. Vegetable biryani is priced around Rs 10-15 (for half plate). The meal is thus, quite reasonable and filling, and that too in times of inflation.”

Though most vendors say that profit margins are not very high, they are happy to see foodies making a beeline at their carts. The peak sales hours are between 7pm and 10pm, though you can savour them anytime between 5pm and 11pm. However, for the men behind the carts, the day begins at around 10am. “The preparation takes around 3-5 hours, followed by the ‘decking up’ of the cart for daily business,” informs Rizwan. Ask him for the ingredients and he reveals a wide range: “Raw banana, khatahal, gulars, chana dal, masur dal, soyabean and some other items for garnishing.” The end result is succulent kebabs whose each bite is relished by umpteen foodies.

While Harmeet says that veg rolls and biryani started gaining popularity in the city about two-three years back, they have become a roadside rage only in the last 6-7 months. “Earlier, the trend was restricted to the markets of Alambagh and Charbagh. But now, these carts are omnipresent, and interestingly, most of them are doing reasonably well,” he said even as he extended a plate of biryani to a waiting customer.

The cuisine has come on the wedding menu as well. It’s almost common now to find a stall of vegetable kebabs in any wedding in the city and guests relishing it with full satisfaction.

So, next time if you happen to smell the aroma of the “roadside cuisine”, do not just stop and ogle at the carts. Go ahead and take a bite, for missing out on it would deprive you of the culinary delight.

Vijay Chopra

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