It’s the rituals that make food food: the whole thing, before, around, and after the eating of the thing. The bhutta, just such a perfectly ceremonial food, triggers all sorts of embedded memories with no more than a whisper of that misty burnt smell in the fading summer sun. Like ice-cream at India Gate, or butter chicken at Pandara Road, or beer and pizza and football on the TV, or gin on a Sunday afternoon: the joy is rooted in its own history, the memories of all the bhuttas ever eaten that make up the whole of our experience.
Bhutta, or chhalli, or spiced fire roasted corn on the cob, whatever; it is an utterly unique street food. The spirit of the corn is intrinsically ‘local’. You don’t travel halfway across town to get the “best bhutta in Delhi”. The “best bhutta in Delhi” is the bhutta you’ve always eaten; the one nearest your home. It has never been gentrified — the guy on the street shooing dogs away is still pretty much the only person who ever makes it.
My guy, when I was growing up in east Delhi, was a soft-voiced old man, at least a hundred years old. He wore a white bush shirt on most days, and wore thick-rimmed glasses which only became fashionable much later. He would sit on his haunches, roasting the corn patiently, surrounded by a swarm of children hoping for pickings off his grill. On his days off, a lady in a sari filled in. Sometimes they’d both be there.
I knew nothing about them. The other people frequenting this tiny street-side establishment would sometimes make small talk — “garmi kaafi hai na aaj?” — so they’d get their orders on priority, and I’d be left with the slightly defective bhutta ears. Ah, the capacity for “no mutuals” small-talk: most enviable of all soft skills.
It’s always evening when you eat bhutta. The Delhi heat in May and June is unbearable, and it’s not wise to step out in the day. You can get a heatstroke. Or wake up the next day with a fever. Or catch one of those obnoxious summer colds that lasts forever. Or come back three shades darker — unacceptable in North India, as you know. But after six pm, the sun is still out, in a ‘my work for the day is done so I’ll just sit at my desk and look busy while checking Twitter’ kind of way, and allows us to creep into the slowly cooling street for snacks. The tadgola and the bel-sharbat are all-day delights; but the bhutta is for these evenings.
Before the jokers at the back interrupt, let’s get one thing straight: humans can actually digest corn. Just not very well. We’re not good at — among other things — breaking down the outer skin of corn. That’s it. The human body isn’t a thoroughfare; it doesn’t pass right through.
Bhutta stalls have a few different ways of treating corn. It’s usually made to unique and precise specifications: a one-size-fits-all situation is impossible. You can keep the granules soft by telling the chef to not roast it for too long. I know some savages who prefer it burnt to a crisp. I, on the other hand, prefer the softer consistency of undercooked corn; the flavour soaks through that way, plus it’s easier on my chompers.
Every bhutta-maker is also adept at tailoring and remembering the spice levels you can tolerate, or pretend to be able to. Their very special nimbu-masala garnish (called sneeze-glop in English), is a more-is-more sort of thing. The harder you cry, the better it tastes.
Corn-on-the-cob is also such an elegant looking fruit. Or is it a vegetable? It’s one of those great mysteries. (BPB Ed: it’s a grain.) There’s an ergonomically designed handle at the bottom for a comfortable grip. The studded-jewel arrangement on the torso plays around with blacks and yellows. The pit has a squishy, fluffy texture you can run your fingers through. (Acupuncture!). The tops narrows slowly, gently, organically. It comes pre-packaged in an aesthetic, petal-like casing that’s easy on the eyes and easy to navigate when there’s hot corn inside.
And the best part is that the taste lingers for hours. Corn has such an overwhelming flavour; there’s a kind of summery freshness to it, with the spices adding even sharper contrast. Why did I say ‘hours’? The taste lingers for years. Today, in a changed world, the bhutta has lost some social currency: it’s diversified into pop, sweet, baby, boiled-chaat, boxed-in-a-mall by a guy in a yellow hat. And yet the smell of its roasting, those sparks flying upwards: the future has never yet found a substitute.
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi.
Photo Credit: Instagram.com/humbhiarhai
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