The one Delhi street food we refused to eat on the street was gol gappas.
Gol gappas are hollow spheres of fried dough stuffed with potato, onions, and chickpeas, and dipped in a brown-green soup of spices. The vendor hands you an empty plate, pokes a hole in a sphere, shoves in stuffing with his finger, plunges the sphere into a giant vat of spiced liquid, and then places it on your waiting plate. You grab it and pop it into your mouth whole, before the water melts through the dough.
When you bite, the gol gappa explodes. There’s far more liquid than you’d ever imagine the little sphere could contain; it overwhelms your tastebuds and fills your mouth and, if you throat isn’t ready, makes you choke. You chew and smile and try not to let the juice drip down your face, and you keep your plate right below your chin just in case it does.
Gol gappas seem to occupy the same part in Delhi culture as Taco Bell in America: they taste best late at night when surrounded by friends. Gol gappas serve both as the evening kickoff and the evening nightcap. Crowds of men and women congregate around the nearest gol gappa vendor in the wee hours, each holding out their plate, their eager faces lit by the white glow of the gas lamp, laughing and chatting and popping their balls and asking for more.
It wasn’t that we didn’t like the flavor of gol gappas, although they did tend to be heavy on chaat masala, a spice sprinkled on everything from street food to lemonade that, to us, tastes vaguely of rotten egg. No, we avoided gol gappas for a different reason: the sight of the vendor plunging the spheres into the soup with his bare hand. Over and over again.
Look: we know that one can’t enjoy India if one is paranoid of a few little germs. But the sight of so much unfiltered water coming into contact with so much sweaty skin was too much for our sheltered suburban sensibilities to bear. (If you’re Indian, feel free to make fun of our pasty white cowardice; in this instance, you won’t be the first.)
So we would only eat gol gappas at Dilli Haat, the government-run crafts bazaar where, we were assured, the vendors cooked with filtered water. We were heartened at Dilli Haat to see the gol gappa vendor wearing gloves, and heartened further to see that he was only dipping deep enough to submerge them, as opposed to the street vendors, who seemed to prefer plunging their hands in up to their wrists.
The guys at the stall would laugh at us as we’d chew and swallow and cough and sputter, or else try to take it in bites and send juice squirting all over our shirts. Our Indian friends would laugh at us for our excessive precaution: filtered water, they said, ruins the flavor of the gol gappas.