Sunday, September 07, 2008

Street food and the Spontaneous Order

Partnhe Wali Gali, Old Delhi. Pic Courtesy: Krishna 1951

Lanka Reviewed has a post on my favorite street food joint in Colombo, "Burger King" in Malay street. Here's a brief about the setting from LR,
Mr Burger King is imaginatively located in Colombo 2 on the pavement next to the intersection of Malay St and Union Place: the one where you can go straight to go to Taj/Holiday Inn or turn right to Trans Asia.

MRBK is a cart with a grill next to it. They have placed a canopy right next to it with four plastic chairs so as to accommodate a more settled dining experience, with the aroma of diesel fumes and sounds of bus engines adding just an ambient touch of class. (It probably also makes the meat taste smokier so it's all good!) [link]
The place makes an awesome chicken Shawarma, the best I've had in Sri Lanka. Shawarma brings back childhood memories from Oman where I lived for sometime and spent all my Christmases till I was 11. Every weekend, or when he was free enough to take me out, dad would get me one of those 'rotating sandwiches'. Shawarma in Oman, If I recall correctly, tasted different and they had this amazing pickle to go with, which local places don't seem to have.

Among my other favorite street food joints are those juice stalls in Pettah, which sells anything from cordial to lime juice. The cordial is best avoided, but the lime juice is unbeatable, especially when you are in frantic Pettah under the hot Colombo sun.

But if you are a street food fan, you can't do much better than New Delhi. Street food is an integral part of Delhi's culture and you get wide range of stuff. The best I've had is possibly at Candni Chowk's infamous Paranthe wali gali or "Partha lane". The paratha joints there have been around since the time of the Mughals and the cooking is exclusively on the street, which frankly, makes me feel safer when trying out street food. Delhi's full of roadside eating joints but I especially recall Cannaught Place (or C.P. for Delhites) where I digged into Momos, corn and masala chai, perfect for the freezing weather, I found myself at that time in Delhi.

Another reason I love street food and the street vending in general, is because it teaches me economics. I'd wonder things like, why lime juice costs Rs.20 in Pettah and Rs. 120 inside say Queen's cafe? Then I'd get it, I'm not paying for lime juice at Queens, I'm paying for the service of getting a lime-juice at a place like queens. I'm paying for the possibility of chatting up with a bunch of friends, munching into a burger while I sip my juice in a comfy, cool environment. Something I cannot get at the Pettah place. The same goes for coffee prices at Barasita's. This realization has lead to my first (untested and probably wrong) theory in economics: There's no such thing called 'goods' in a market place. Only Services to provide goods.

Half-baked theories aside, watching and thinking about the seeming chaos in places like Pettah and Chandni Chowk has helped me visualize a Hayekian insight that a few people understand, and even fewer appreciate. I think Mary Kissel, writing for the WSJ captures it well,
The first time [my friend, Shruti] took me to Chandni Chowk's maelstrom of commerce, my feet froze in fear. She grabbed my hand, I shut my eyes, and we plunged into a bewildering web of weaving couriers, tooting cycle rickshaws, buses bursting at the seams, sacred cows, sari-clad grandmas and the occasional man stomping by with a 100-pound bag of chilies perched on his head.

After a few minutes, I stopped long enough to take a good hard look. And then I noticed it: Order. Not a single laborer walks aimlessly around this place. In every cranny, nook and lane, someone is selling something to someone. Even the men sitting on the sidewalks are ready for work. [..]

There's no government imposing order. And why should it? As Smith said, there's a "certain propensity" in human nature to "truck, barter and exchange one thing for another," so it's natural that a certain kind of system, guided by an "invisible hand," results. Chandni Chowk must be the perfect place to watch it at work. [link]
Hayek would call it Spontaneous Order.

1 comment:

Oman said...

My favourite Swarmah in Oman has to be the slightly spicy chicken ones, with pickle and chips – all wrapped up in wonderful flat crepe type bread.