Chaat For Rs575?: How Five-Star Hotels Price Street Food

February 1, 2013 11:52 am by

Chaat counter at the Renaissance Convention Centre Hotel.

Have you eaten a plate of pani puri or a vada pav that costs over Rs350, not counting taxes and tips? It tastes pretty much like a milder version of the one made by your favourite street thelewala. In fact, it is supposed to taste as much like standard Mumbai street food as possible.

Five-star hotels take pains to ensure that the street food they serve on their menus is as authentic as it gets, both in flavour and in the experience of eating it. At the Renaissance Convention Centre Hotel in Powai, for instance, they serve the street food items in paatals (leaf plates) from redis (tables on wheels), and the dishes are prepared in front of the customer. At most five-stars, the staff tastes food across the most popular thelewalas in the city, including those on Chowpatty beach and Juhu beach, and then try and replicate recipes.

This is not food that needs expensive or imported ingredients, or even equipment. Anyone can learn how to make it. If my favourite pani puri-serving restaurants (Kailash Parbat and Elco) and my favourite street vendor (Jambulwadi), all offer it from Rs35 to Rs50 per plate and make a healthy profit, what you may wonder is so special about five-star hotel pani puri that is priced anywhere from Rs350 to Rs575?

A lot, it seems. It’s not so much as the ingredients themselves, but the process of selecting them, handling them, and all the overheads of running a hotel that contribute to the cost of street food in a luxury setting. “The yield (usable portion) of ingredients is lower in a hotel,” says Stany Lopes, chef de cuisine at the J. W. Marriott’s Lotus Cafe. “We don’t puree the whole tomato, or (mash) the whole potato.” At the recently-opened Shangri-La Hotel in Lower Parel, they follow a strict “vendor assurance program”, says executive chef Geoffrey Simmons. “For example, if we’re buying yoghurt, we don’t only check the yoghurt, we also go to the vendor and see how it is stored, transported, and how it arrives at the hotel.” They sanitise every raw ingredient (such as kothmir) before putting it into the grinder or chopping it, says Simmons.

Prices of street food items are fixed after factoring in food costs, and making sure the rates are consistent with the rest of the menu. While the food cost for street vendors is easily 80 to 90 per cent of their total cost, at a five-star hotel, on average, the food cost makes up only about 20 per cent of the total cost, except in the case of dishes that use expensive ingredients (which aren’t usually needed for street food items). Products with lower food costs are typically marked up to subsidise the expensive stuff. “In items like New Zealand lamb chops or Scottish salmon, hotels lose money,” says Satbir Bakshi, senior sous chef at The Oberoi. “Chaat is like tea. You wouldn’t pay as much for tea on the street as you would in a hotel. Remember, it [your food bill] pays for chefs’ salaries, the GM’s salary, presentation, electricity.”

Every hotel chef I spoke with said that the target customer for their chaat items is not the person who likes to eat on the street. The international tourist or business visitor is the guy most likely to order a Rs575 plate of pani puri. “The clientele is very different from the one in the marketplace,” says Danish Ashraf, senior chef de cuisine at the Renaissance. “They come with a mindset that things are not going to be [priced] as they are there.” The idea is to satisfy the curiosity of the tourist by providing the same flavours and textures, while assuring him that the quality of the ingredients and hygiene will save him from getting Delhi belly (most hotels admit to tweaking spice levels for international tourists). Bakshi says that wealthy Indian businessmen and their families are a big customer base too, because they are becoming increasingly conscious of the health risks from eating unhygienic food.

Lopes counts celebrities among the biggest lovers of five-star street food. Bollywood stars, we’re guessing, aren’t just concerned about the hygiene factor but also the greater chance of being recognised and mobbed if they visit a roadside thelewala. In a move that makes better economic sense for both the hotel and the patron, many five-stars now include a street food counter in their buffets.

Feel like eating your street food with fancy flatware? These are your best bets:

Buffet chaat counters are the best way to ensure you don’t get a plateful of bhel puri or dahi puri that’s been spiced and sweetened to suit the Western palate. The joy of roadside chaat is in customisation, and at Lotus Cafe, you can give them instructions like “aloo kum, limbu zyaada”.
Ground Floor, J. W. Marriott Hotel, Juhu. Tel: 022 6693 3276. Sundays, from 12.30pm to 3.30pm. Brunch buffet Rs2,300 per head without alcohol, Rs2,850 per head with alcohol; Champagne brunch Rs4,150 per head; kids’ brunch Rs1,250 per head.

The brunch buffet at the Lake View Cafe at the Renaissance hotel arguably has the biggest selection of street food, with about ten items including dabeli.
Renaissance Convention Centre Hotel, Powai. Tel: 022 6692 7550. Sunday, from 12.30pm to 4pm. Brunch Rs1,600 per head without alcohol, Rs2,200 per head with alcohol.

Is it the dahi batata puri that gets parents to set up match-making meetings for their kids at the Sea Lounge at The Taj Mahal Palace hotel? It’s their best-selling item, followed closely by the pani puri, with the pani served in shot glasses.
First Floor, Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba. Tel: 022 6665 3366. Daily, from 7am to midnight. Dahi batata puri Rs575, pani puri shot Rs575 (excluding taxes).

The architecturally-constructed dahi papri chaat at The Oberoi’s all-day cafe Fenix isn’t just fancy-looking; it’s as complex in flavour and texture as the street version.
The Oberoi, Nariman Point. Tel: 022 6632 6205. Daily, from 6.30am to 11.30pm. Dahi papdi chaat Rs450 (excluding taxes).

The candyfloss at Seven’s buffet, offered in various colours, is loved by adults and kids alike. It is served at a counter, and wound around a stick, street-style.
Shangri-La Hotel, 462 Senapati Bapat Marg, next to High Street Phoenix, Lower Parel. Tel: 022 6162 8000. Daily, from 12.30pm to 3pm and from 7pm to 11.30pm. Lunch buffet Rs1,550 per head, dinner buffet Rs1,750 per head (excluding taxes).

Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Voguemagazine, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the restaurant reviewer for the Hindustan Times newspaper in Mumbai.