Nasto Street


Nasto Street

New Delhi : Nasta bazaars are the unique street food courts of the small towns of Kutch

Some months ago, on a train from Ahmedabad to Gandhidham in Kutch, I shared a compartment with a Gujarati family. They had brought packets layered with the aroma of freshly fried ghatiya-phaphdas, spiked with green chillies in asafoetida. They tucked into it even before the train laboured out of the station. After that, each time a food vendor passed by, they would buy “snakes”. Motabhai, the eldest male member, sportingly explained that they meant “snacks”. All of them, having studied in English-medium schools, knew how to correctly pronounce snacks but it just wasn’t gratifying enough if they gave their “nasto” an English makeover. “‘Snakes’ are our nasto and Gujaratis can’t live without nasto,” he said, laughing. “Look at the business that vendors make from nasta bazaars now,” added Motabhai, while his wife dug into masala bhel stuffed into a paper cone.

“Nasto”, derived from the Urdu word “nashta” (breakfast), is a buzzy Gujarati idiom. It means snacks, refreshments or breakfast but in Gujarat, nasto is an all-day favourite. There is the morning nasto, the afternoon nasto (famously called bapornu nasto), even the midnight nasto. It is an anytime bite, usually plus-sized. At rail and bus terminals, khaman dhokla, puris, twisted ghatiyas, flat phaphdas, mixed vegetable pakodas and jalebis are sold from dawn to dusk, well into the witching hour. The rusty-musty smells of the railway stations mixed with the aroma of gram flour simmering in oil would tell you that you are in Gujarat, even if you were blindfolded.

But the new story, as Motabhai pointed out, are the nasta bazaars. Earlier, food carts would be scattered in different parts of towns. Now, they neatly line up in rows, forming a food court of sorts on the street. In Saurashtra and Kutch, these street food courts haven’t just sprung up in busy markets, they have also invaded middle-class residential neighbourhoods. Most notably in Kutch, where, as Kirti Khatri, editor of Kutchmitra, a Gujarati daily published from Bhuj, says, “It is true, nasta bazaars are one of the most visible changes in rebuilt Kutch.”

The rebuilding of Kutch after the 2001 earthquake has helped towns like Bhuj, Anjar, Gandhidham, Mandvi, Morvi, Bhachau and Nakhatrana shed their partly rural look. Multi-storeyed housing societies, big hospitals, schools, cinema halls and new, cemented markets dot the landscape. Amidst these, quite ironically, street food courts, which often remind one of village melas, have emerged as centres of family fun and evening entertainment.

In Gandhidham, if there was one nasta bazaar five years ago, now there are six, selling a range of affordable street foods. Scores of nasta rekdis (carts) decked with mogra garlands, paper decorations, idols of gods and goddesses, and colourful electrical lights; some with their names written in funky graffiti style, loudly announcing the name of the vendor, line up every evening. They serve as an open socialising ground for the working middle class. The scene reminds you of a Frida Kahlo painting with people from different castes, classes and religions converging in colourful, glitzy evening attire. Gujaratis, Kutchi Muslims, Sindhis, Jains — you will find them all here.

Unlike in Ahmedabad or Vadodara, there are few fine dining options or speciality restaurants in Kutch to compete for attention or taste. In nasta bazaars, nothing is organic or dietary; it is all sinful, delicious, deep-fried, high-on-cholesterol and cooked in reused oil. People willingly stand and eat unless an enterprising vendor has put out some plastic chairs.

Vendors at the nasta bazaars of Bhuj aren’t just Gujarati men hawking ethnic foods. Nepalis give you Gujarati Chinese, Bikaneri vendors sell samosa-kachoris; pizza sellers serve onion-less Jain pizzas, the idli-vada vendor doles out the sambar a bit sweet, Bombay bhelpuriwallas sit alongside those who serve traditional dhokla and khandvi, jalebis, and ragda patties (the local version of aloo tikki). Everything is vegetarian, except omelettes and egg bhujiya. Carts selling egg concoctions have to hustle in one corner at a little distance. On the other hand, the king of Gujarati nasta is the dhabeli — similar to the Maharashtrian vada pav, it is stuffed with spicy peanuts pounded with mashed potatoes, rose petals, fresh pomegranate and asafoetida.

In Gandhidham, Kapta Nasta House and Jumdomal Nasta House, old names in the trade, have been turned into roaring businesses by the younger men of the respective families. Jumdomal is a peculiar Sindhi name. The old man, who resettled here after Partition, was committed to sustaining Sindhi culture through food. He would push his cart across the streets of Adipur (the residential twin-town of Gandhidham), ringing a brass bell to call customers and sell dal-chhole-dhabal (dhabal means pav in Sindhi). He didn’t just build a clientele but became a household name. As a child, I was a Jumdo foodie. Incidentally, dal-chhole-dhabal found mention in a nostalgic song in Abana, the first ever Sindhi film produced in India, in 1958. After Jumdomal passed away, his son capitalised on the father’s popularity, naming his nasta cart after the father. Now, by selling snacks for just three hours every evening (the food is sold out in that much time), he has become a moneylender. When I queued up for a bite, a veteran customer reminded me this was the only place in the state, if not the country, where jamun-dhabal (sweet gulab jamun served with buns soaked in sugar syrup), a unique Sindhi dish, is sold.

“A new urban space is being created which uses traditional idioms to redefine contemporary identity and collectivity,” says cultural anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan, who has been living in Ahmedabad for many years. “One cart may mean nothing but an assemblage of 30 carts selling ritual foods, along with a variety of snacks from other states, redefines secular urban identity,” says Viswanathan. He believes that the multi-ethnicity of the foods is as important as people from different states.

The next time you visit Kutch, opt for a mutli-regional menu. Try dal-chhole-dhabal, fat, green mirchi pakodas with tamarind chutney and Jain bhel. But whatever you do, don’t forget the dhabeli; it is a Kutchi beauty.