Selling vada pav to St Louis

Discussion in 'Americas' started by Ragnar, Nov 2, 2014.

  1. Ragnar

    Ragnar New Member

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    Slowly, street corners in Seattle, Dallas and St Louis are starting to smell like Juhu beach. And no, Bollywood is not to blame. Yash Raj may have been responsible for the presence of hot vada pavs on the icy peak of Switzerland's Mt Titlis, but if more Americans are chomping on bhelpuris and frankies, it has to do with a more visceral force — nostalgia.

    A few enterprising desis, who are tired of the curries and chicken tikka masala that are about as Indian as Apu from The Simpsons and are pining for authentic Indian street foods, have started a unique roadside revolution. They are now doling out kathi rolls, various manchurians and other happy Indian culinary inventions on the shiny First World cousin of the handcart — the food truck.

    It was as recently as July this year that Seattle's Shama Joshi's cheery red food truck, Roll Ok Please (a play on Horn Okay Please) started warming up the cold, rainy streets of Seattle with kathi rolls. An "army kid" who grew up in various cities including Mumbai and Pune, Joshi quit a high-paying job at Microsoft to knead whole-wheat flour, lug 24 gallons of milk from the kitchen to the truck every day for fresh paneer and drive a 21-foot-long truck through Bellevue and Redmond. Her courage came from a dinner party during which the 40-year-old Joshi, an avid cook, had prepared her favourite egg-dipped kathi rolls and served them in aesthetic shot glasses. "My best friend loved the wraps and insisted on me taking this up as a business," says Joshi, who had moved to the US in 1996. But the years spent away from home could not erase the taste of the kathi rolls at Pune's Olympia (now Kareem's) and Kapila on DP Road, "our favourite haunts while in college."

    Serving, Joshi realized, was an integral part of being Indian, and very soon found herself cold-calling a number of local businesses while looking for a place to set up her food truck. While desi restaurants in bigger cities such as LA, Atlanta, Chicago and New York were among the first to hop on to the street food lorry around five years ago, smaller cities such as Dallas and St Louis are only now latching on to the idea. The response to her grilled chicken and paneer rolls, at around $6 (Rs 370) a piece, was immediate. "I posted about the truck on Facebook and there was electricity in the air," says Joshi, who along with her team — it includes a friend and two student employees — prepares everything from the cumin powder in the mix to the paneer herself.

    Setting up a food truck in the US, however, is neither cheap nor easy. Not only does it entail wading through a sea of paperwork, licences and health permits, but also an investment ranging from $30,000 (Rs 18 lakh) to $70,000 (Rs 43 lakh) depending on the scale of operation.

    "Opening a food truck needs the same investment as opening any restaurant but running it requires you to know the good spots to go to, the local rules of truck parking and the strict hygiene standards," says celebrity chef Sanjay Patel of Bollywood Bites, which runs four food trucks in California. "Five years ago, trucks were cheaper, labour was more available and we started the business with less than $25,000 (Rs 15 lakh)," says Dyana Lovold, marketing manager of Curry Up Now. Her food trucks in San Francisco area boast of everything from deconstructed samosas to a tribute to Kolkata's Nizam's kathi rolls (they use its font on the restaurant name). In a competitive space, "it's hard work and needs excellent marketing to combat the high failure rate," adds Lovold.

    What empowers desi food truck entrepreneurs though is the growing fatigue with fine dining in the US, an ever-increasing South Asian population and also, the steady shift towards veganism. This is why Bollywood Bites offers vegan 'chicken' tikka masala while Roll Ok Please is deliberately shy of a deep frier and maida flour.

    "Vegetarian food is an alien concept in the Midwest Missouri area, which is composed chiefly of meat eaters," says Dallas' Krupa Panchal, who started Bombay Food Junkies, the only vegetarian food truck in St Louis in Eastern Missouri in April last year. The truck offers vada pavs, moong bhajiyas, tawa pulav and even Udupi-style pizza and recently won the title of the second-best vegetarian food truck.

    Panchal, an eye doctor from Mumbai who studied aging after she moved to the US, launched the food truck with the idea of fulfilling her dream of opening an oldage home in the future. While she sources most ingredients, the stuffing of her paan comes from Mumbai. "Both my inlaws visit for a few months in summer which is our busiest time and help out along with two other employees," says Panchal, who is often chastised by Americans for calling vada pav a burger ("it has no beef "). Her mango lassi and samosa chhole are crowd favourites and Panchal gets a kick out of mispronounced names of dishes. Chhole is variously called cole, creole, cola and chloe while paneer tikka becomes paaaaneer tikki roti wrap. "I was surprised when an American woman asked me for a thali," she says. If things go her way, they would soon be asking for an extra puri at the end.

    SOURCE: Times of India

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