Street Smart

The Bhukkad Cafe
Shop No. 6, Shamma Building
Al Karama,
United Arab Emirates

22nd October, 2018

Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.” – Anthony Bourdain

If ever there was a person so adequately (more than) qualified to have made such a statement, it was Anthony Bourdain. The man knew his food. Correction! The man knew his street food. The late, great celebrity chef, prior to his untimely demise, was notorious for this off-road culinary adventures, most notably through his pioneering work as a food and travel vlogger in several successful travelogue programmes such as ‘A Cook’s Tour’; ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’; and ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’.

Anthony Bourdain isn’t a name that you would find on my ‘Top 10 Favourite Chefs’ list. However, there was something about chef Bourdain’s culinary adventures that caught my attention. They stood out from the crowd. Perhaps it was the countries that he visited, or maybe it was the food that he continually devoured, episode after episode. Or (and this is more likely), it was the lengths to which he was willing to go to truly understand and appreciate a country’s local cuisine. In ‘Parts Unknown’, Bourdain took us on a journey through the culinary world’s deepest and darkest underbellies. From the fabled folklored footpaths of South-East Asia to the troubled treacherous terrains of Latin America, he travelled them all. From the potpourri porky parts in Vietnamese vermicelli to the curvaceous Chunchullo (beef small intestines) charred on Colombian charcoal, he had eaten them all.

It just so happened that during his fifteen years of travelling and eating, Anthony Bourdain did manage a couple of trips to the not-so-little South Asian country of India. If memory serves me right, his first (televised) excursion to India was to coastal Kerala. In this particular excursion – to the self-proclaimed ‘God’s Own Country’ – chef Bourdain was served up a local street delicacy – the Matthi (Sardines) Curry. He soon followed this up with a trip to northern India – to the state of Punjab – where the late celebrity chef dined on local vegetarian dishes at the state’s more famous street-side eateries – the dhabas!

You would think, having visited the north and south of India, that Anthony Bourdain would have unearthed all there is to discover about Indian street food. You’d be wrong! Such a shame, really, that things panned out the way they did. A third, fourth, or even fifth trip to India would have certainly been on the cards. After all, he had barely scratched the surface of what Indian streets had to offer. The sensuous spices of the Vada Pav from Mumbai’s Juhu Chowpatty Beach; the pungent pleasures of Puchkas from Kolkata’s New Market; the piping parade of Parathas from Old Delhi’s iconic Paranthe wali Gali; the moulded mastery of Momos from Shillong’s Police Street Bazaar; and the doughy delights of the Dosa from Chennai. There’s plenty more where that came from.

That brings us to my story, and unsurprisingly enough, it’s all to do with street food (of the hygienic kind). It was a pleasant autumn’s evening, and the family and I were sitting at home, feeling the effects of the Monday blues, when a sudden urge to venture out for dinner overcame us. The only problem was that we had exhausted all possible cuisine options, and that we weren’t in the mood for something heavy or posh. Therein lies the beauty of street food. Apart from its characteristic unhygienic nature, street food is notable for being relatively inexpensive and untaxing on the stomach (depending on what you order, of course!). So, we began our search for the right place.

It wasn’t too long before we found ourselves parked in front of The Bhukkad Cafe. Our decision to visit the establishment was almost immediate the moment it appeared on Zomato (not a product promotion). My parents, having been previous patrons at the restaurant gave their seal of approval. We were soon greeted by a beaming amber sign that read the restaurant’s name. With no doubt in our minds that we were standing at the right location, we made our way inside the cafe. It wasn’t overtly surprising to find the cafe almost empty, given that we had gone for dinner quite early on a weekday. That allowed me the opportunity to fully take in the interior decorations. And my word, was it worth it. The interior decor of the cafe matched the cuisine on offer. The ambience, much like street food, was bursting with colour. The intricate and artistic textile-inspired tiling, the wooden benches and barrel drum seating, the cartoonish cushion casing, and the large luminous lighting reading ‘Bhukkad’ in Hindi. The mere visuals were enough to transport me back to my days in New Delhi (shudder!). It was now time for the food to do the same. But before we could place our order, we were seated at one of the wooden benches, which unfortunately for someone who is over the 5’7 height limit is a tight squeeze, particularly from the knee below.

Having finally adjusted to the miniature surroundings, I was able to have a look at the menu. Creatively designed, the menu comprised of a blend of the everpresent (which I expected) and the unexpected (self-explanatory). Chaat, Vada Pav, Pav Bhaji, Chole Bhature, Bombay Frankies, Chilli Chicken, Bread Omelette, Momos, and the pride of India – Maggi! The options were aplenty. With each turn of the page, my eyes began to widen and my brows began to rise with excitement. Some of these dishes, some of them I hadn’t seen on a menu for a long time. Eager to start our dinner, we signalled for the waiter to come to our table and take the order. After a few moments of deliberation, the waiter returned to the kitchen with our entire order.

Whilst we awaited for our dinner to arrive at the table, we talked (to each other!), took photos (of each other!), and eventually gazed over to the TV on our right as we were treated to an episode of “this” food programme on “that” famous food channel. We were mid-way through the lime-zesting phase when the drinks arrived at our table. The Kesari Badaam Doodh – saffron flavoured almond milk – was placed before me. The drink arrived in a traditional glass milk bottle, similar to those seen on the doorstep of every British household, presumably left by the dutiful milkman. The Badaam Doodh, before it became a supermarket staple, was an Indian street classic, often served up by street-side sweet shops and roadside rickshaw vendors. The drink is said to be the perfect solution to a parched throat on a sweltering, hot, summer’s evening, and despite it being the exact opposite on the day, there I was, milk bottle in one hand, straw nestled in my mouth, sipping away like a newborn baby. The trick to the perfect saffron-infused almond milk lies in the proportioning of the key ingredients. While I was glad that I hadn’t just forked out a bundle of green on regular milk, the parsimonious use of saffron left the drink devoid of the richness it so craved.

Across the wooden table, the waiter placed the second drink of the evening – the Watermelon Kala Khatta. The traditional Kala Khatta is a dark purple, sweet, yet tangy, sherbet syrup prepared from the fruit of the blackberry bush. The syrup is most commonly served by roadside vendors as a flavouring agent in ice lollies – the South Asian version of the snow cones. So, I was fairly intrigued when I saw it as an entire drink in the cafe menu, and even more so when my parents decided to order it for themselves. When it arrived, however, it wasn’t exactly the drink that took me by surprise. Rather, it was the ‘vessel’ that carried the drink that became an amusing topic of discussion amongst the four of us. Unlike the more traditional bottle that carried my almond milk, the Kala Khatta was brought to us in an empty glass bong (yup!) – paying homage to yet another Indian street custom. Seeing that they weren’t given a light (to smoke up the drink!), my parents proceeded to drink the sherbet. They may not have been high by the time they got to the end of their drink, but they certainly seemed happy with what they had been served. The drink may not have been dark purple (different fruits), but it managed to perfectly balance the sweetness from the watermelon with the sourness from the pinch of black salt.

 ( From left to right ): Bhel Puri; Kolkata Chilli Chicken; Keema Pav; Watermelon Kala Khatta; Kesari Badaam Doodh; Chicken Schezwan Bombay Frankie; Rasmalai
(From left to right): Bhel Puri; Kolkata Chilli Chicken; Keema Pav; Watermelon Kala Khatta; Kesari Badaam Doodh; Chicken Schezwan Bombay Frankie; Rasmalai

With the drinking underway, it was about time our food made its way out of the kitchen and on to our table. The first main course to arrive was, unsurprisingly, the Bhel Puri. A staple street food from Mumbai, this particular variety of chaat quickly found its place in the homes (and hearts) of every Indian in the sub-continent. It even found its way to our table, courtesy of my mother! The Bhel Puri – a medley of puffed rice and vegetables, doused in a mixture of tamarind and mint chutneys – arrived in a small black stone bowl, filled to the brim (and beyond!), guarded by triangle-shaped papris (crispy fried dough wafers). In terms of presentation, the dish certainly looked the part. It wasn’t the best presented dish on the table, but it certainly had all of the colours that you would associate with a street food dish. When it came to actual flavour and taste, I found the dish to have the right amount of spices for a chaat, with the sweetness of the tamarind perfectly blended with the tanginess of the mint chutney. However, my mother was of a different opinion. With each bite, her eyes began to water and her tongue exasperated from the spice; so much so that she had to ask for a separate helping of sweet tamarind chutney to help ease the pain and nullify the spice emanating from the mint chutney.

The next main course to arrive was the Kheema Pav – yet another Bombay cafe delicacy (and not the last one of the night). The dish was brought to our table in traditional fashion – housed in a three-storied stainless steel lunchbox. These lunchboxes have, and continue, to be a relevant part of Indian food culture. With the lunchbox placed on the table, my father, who had ordered the dish, began to disassemble the stainless steel vessel into three tiny compartments. The first held the pav (bread), the second held the kheema (the spiced minced mutton), and the third held the garnish – chopped onions and a lime wedge. With a freshly cooked kheema pav, it’s the nose that gets the first taste of the dish. From the moment my father opened the stainless steel lid, the aroma from the piping hot kheema wafted across the table and into my nose; so much so that I kind of kicked myself for not ordering the dish. Fortunately, there was plenty of it to go around, and I took what I can describe as the perfect bite. The pav was warm and toasted – on either side! – and the minced mutton was well-seasoned, had just the right amount of spice, and melted as soon as I put a spoonful in my mouth. All that was missing was the customary green chilli to munch on for that extra kick. Though, after seeing one parent reduced to tears already, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see another one follow suit.

Now, I’m not going to move on to the next main course to hit our table. Instead, I’ll be talking about the final dish to arrive – the Bombay Frankie. No second guesses as to where this dish comes from – and you can see why I decided to skip the third dish (for the time being!). The Frankie is yet another Indian street-style snack that gained immense popularity amongst college-goers as a somewhat mid-day meal. You can see the attraction – a hotchpotch of meat, vegetables, and chutney rolled up in an egg layered paratha sold for a measly price. The moment the dish was placed before me, two halves of a wrap sat on a black graphite slab, I was immediately taken back to my undergraduation days, where I would spend my free hours standing in front of questionable roadside eateries, munching on Frankies and piping hot chilli chicken. It’s no wonder my stomach is in the state that it is in! With my short nostalgic trip now behind me, it was time to dig in. The dish had all the hallmarks of being a great Frankie – the grease pouring out from the layered parathas, the garnished bedding of grated cabbage and carrots, and the piping hot protein tossed with thin slices of onion and chilli. The chicken was moist and succulent, the onions and chillis were sufficiently sautéed, and the layering of egg in the parathas made one wrap seem like three. The only problem was that the spice levels in the Schezwan sauce seemed to be on the higher end of the Scoville scale, even for someone as tolerant as me! The combination of the spice and the heat emanating from the freshly cooked chicken was enough to set my belly alight. Fortunately, I had my almond milk to subside my personal burning man.

With the Bombay specialities now out of the way, it’s now time to turn our attention to the fourth and final main course of the night – cue the Kolkata Chilli Chicken. A Chinese dish originating out of West Bengal? That’s absurd! It may sound insane, but sometimes it’s the weirdest of inventions that make the biggest waves. Thanks to the Chinese community in Kolkata, the stomachs roaming around the streets of India are better off. Thanks to the Chinese community in Kolkata, the stomachs sitting around the table at The Bhukkad Cafe were much better off. The presentation of the dish was as bizarre as its origin. The Chilli Chicken did not arrive on a plastic plate, nor in a stainless steel lunchbox; instead, it arrived on the head of a short-handle shovel – specifically, it was presented on a greaseproof paper that covered the blade. Perhaps, the chef at the cafe thought that the dish was so good that you would want to shovel heaps of chilli chicken down your throat. Apart from the fact that it is humanely impossible for one to shove food down one’s throat using a shovel, it would seem that they had a point. The dish was extremely competent – so much so that I had another trip down memory lane. The chicken was crispy on the outside, yet tender and moist inside; the onions and chillis weren’t raw or bitter; and in a surprising turn of events the dish wasn’t that spicy!

Our stomachs now processing the street food we had just devoured, and our bladders nearing their brim with the drinks we had just gulped, we had just enough room for one dessert. The dessert menu may not have been as impressive as the food menu – from a (Google Maps’) street view point, but it was enough to make us ponder, for a few minutes, over what we wanted to order. Eventually, we resorted to yet another Indian street-side custom – ordering off-menu! Bypassing a few classics – Gulab Jamun, Halwa, or the notorious Paan – we decided to play it safe and order one of my all-time favourite Indian desserts – Rasmalai. Rasmalai can be a tricky dessert to get right, with the best results often a product of superior (cheese) sourcing. When done right, the cottage cheese breaks apart with just the touch of a spoon, and melts upon contact with the tongue. The Rasmalai at Bhukkad Cafe may not have been the best i’ve ever had (nor even second best) but the Indian cheesecake was certainly not as firm as some of the horrible ones I have had the displeasure of tasting. The cream and milk that sat below the cakes were sweet and rich (finally, the saffron!) and overall, it didn’t make me regret not ordering from the menu.

We requested for the check, with the customary hand gesture, momentarily after we had just polished off our dessert. In line with the entire evening, adhering to the “impeccable” Indian standard timing, the bill took a while to arrive. Once it did, we duly paid our due, and made our way outside. If Anthony Bourdain’s shows have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing quite like street food. In a city like Dubai, you would be hard-pressed to find such an experience, so I suppose that our little excursion would be the closest one could get towards experiencing a street-food vibe. That may sound like a complaint, but it is anything but. There were several aspects of my dinner that evening that truly reminded me of what I had missed about street food for the past three years – the colours, the choices, the aroma, the presentation, the uncertainty about my digestive system (I kid!), and the delay in getting the bill! Unfortunately, what would have been a complete experience was marred by a slight let down in a key component – the food. Writing as someone who has experienced the real deal, when it comes to Indian street cuisine, I felt that the food on the night failed to not only meet my expectations but also the standards set by long-standing (or sitting) local street food vendors. On a positive note, however, the ingredients for a successful street-food cafe are in place, and just like a typical street food dish, all it requires is a little shake!

The Bhukkad Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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