The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express
"I see the sunny side of human nature - everyone likes to see the snack man. Treat them nice, talk to them normal, mix them a cone with a bit of consideration- people blossom and for that short spell they can be who they really are. Food made for another can be powerful. It is alive in all sorts of ways. That's when the street food works, like a spell cast to take you away for a few moments with a flash of a blade and the spin of a tin, a squeeze of time and a dust of powder. And when you just do one thing all your attention can go into it and that makes a lot of difference"
Hard to introduce this one because he's just sort of a wise flavour-mesmerising wanderer so will delve straight in. Born in South Africa, grew up in Surrey, currently residing in Hastings (and bopping round Ldn with his trolley) serving jhal muri cones and Bengali snacks to the people since 2k5 - here the magic man tells you how it all came to be (with some recent photos of a 2020 trip to Bengal to teach the girls at Dasghara Women's College) slotted in.
"The whole Kolkata thing started with a flight to Australia and a stopover there in 2004. I was leaving a life in Devon where I had just sold a shop I had a while. By chance I arrived in Kolkata on the last day of durga puja on way to the mountains, their big 4 day celebration. The darjeeling express leaves in the evening and outside the station the drumming troupes gathered for the last night of precessions and warmed up by ripping rhyme and rhyme into the skins like I never hear before. I was there less than 24 hours in and out but something changed inside.
I made the same flight the next year and this time I stayed a longer. The night before I left I had a dream that I should make the film I'd had in my head for a while, on the hands of street food sellers and the noises they make - kind of close up and arty and informative to. No voice over no presenter and a tight edit, like the intro to city of god
...and a few months later after a load of synchronistic situations pointing in that direction I walked out into Kolkata street and pushed the red button. I got back home with a bag of tapes and edited it on the hoof in between catering jobs. And I'd go back to Kolkata in the winter and stay 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 5 months depending and work on the film of the street food of Kolkata.
I did jhal muri for the first time when I'd just got back from Kolkata, 2005, A friend was pitching something for a food channel and wanted me to do something from Kolkata in the Friday market at Tot Nes. I did a rough version of what i saw out there. I didn't know what I was doing but I did something and the reaction was very unusual.
To have a snack that seemed to cross boundaries and boarders with such universal approval does not come often; it ticked a lot of boxes at the time. It was portable, containable, profitable and sociable. Vegan, gluten free, good shelf life, no kitchen needed, set up whenever wherever. I started like the film - green and innocent to how to make it happen but sure that it would in some way in time make sense.
I made a portable structure for my tins and i walked out on london streets and took it from there. often hanging around the Asian areas of tooting (below), whitechapel, southhall, were they we very supportive and encouraging and helped shape the cones with gentle advise.
I did lots of festivals and gathering, parties- getting it out there, being seen, getting it tasted. leaning the ways, the smart moves, what never to do again and getting confident and when that comes other doors open to other worlds.
The idea was never to get back fully into catering (I trained as a chef and done my time in kitchens and running restaurants). I was keen to do more film stuff. It took a while to finish the film but it got done after 7 years but by then The Jhal Muri Express was building a slow but steady head of steam and I just though I'll follow this one and see were she takes me.
I see the sunny side of human nature- everyone likes to see the snack man. treat them nice, talk to them normal, mix them a cone with a bit of consideration- people blossom and for that short spell they can be who they really are. food made for another can be powerful. it is alive in all sorts of ways. Thats when the street food works. like a spell cast to take you away for a few moments with a flash of a blade and the spin of a tin, a squeeze of time and a dust of powder. and when you just do one thing all your attention can go into it and that makes a lot of difference.
I didn't choose Kolkata but I couldnt have chosen a better place as I'm not sure there is better street food anywhere. The quality, the quantity, the price. it's truly a remarkable spectacle. from a single sweet to a full Bengali lunch all is there waiting for you or coming to you. Make shift kitchen and bare wire cooking situations with no electric or water or refrigeration producing some of the best food i have ever tasted no matter what price or thickness of the napkins.
The more I returned to the city the more i realised how incredible the food was and how much i could learn and in time it totally changed the way i cook. when you are limited in resources the mind can go into creative overdrive and great things can come. Kolkata is a remarkable place. not easy in some ways but it is the people and the food that make it magic.
The street food there is not a frivolous luxury for a few on the week end it is a vital part of the city and a major part of many peoples nutrition. the informal economy is encouraged there and there is much we can learn about how to feed a lot of people with good, cheap, nutritious and very tasty food. That's what interests me.
I got bored of restaurants - very hard work that is your life and often you feeding people who do really give a monkies or need what you have to offer. If I'm going to give a large part of my life to something I prefer it something I believe. I worked a lot at a restaurant in covent garden in the early 80's called Melange. It was before covent garden was what it is now and the restaurant was a bolt hole from santity run by Fred Zuidike who is an amazing man and a great inspiration for me to look outside the box. there was also Loius Wah who I cooked with in the 80's doing incredible feasts and one night restaurants and he taught me a lot about flavour and not worrying. There was also an old lady in paris around that time who had a restaurant the opened only for lunch with a 3 course set menu that was 50p. I liked her.
I believe in the jhal muri. its a good snack- nutritious to body and mind and cheap too. Simple but also quite complex. From the jhal muri trolly you can learn a lot about how to season, textures, nutritional balance and other cooking basics. And snacks are a problem,- well what The West eats as snacks. With the snacks we are giving our power away and rotting our bodies at the same time. If as a collective we stopped eating all the crisps and other shit full of bad salt bad oil and bad sugar and stuff things would change rapidly.
There is a man in Kolkata who sell jhal muri called Mr Sarah. He is old and being doing it 50 years. you find him just off the old Landsdown Road. He is a humble man and only charges 5 rps a tolla (cone) because he has no family so he says he doesnt need so much. his stall is unassuming and messier than mine but his muri is like nothing else. It is him that inspires me and reminds me what is important.
My favourite places in London are Goldbourne Road at the top of Portobella and half way down the Tooting High Road. Both have big skies and beautiful sunsets and also great food. The morrocan soup kitchen, the grilled fish and the Trinadadian guy on goldbourne road and the Pooja chaat counter and their gujarati dal on the tooting road and for best street food in the world it has to be kolkata - and a beach selling coconuts- though that beach food I guess...
There is more to making money with making food. You have the potential to make a difference to peoples day and in that larger ripples are sent. For me i like the foods that come to you - the wandering carts and trollies that operate outside the laws of conformity.
I've had many wonderful experiences with the trolly but its very heart warming the reaction of those that know the snack much better that i do and the support they given me over the years- that and setting up near a speaker stack at carnival and letting nature take its course.
There is also i believe a god of catering and he looks after you especially when you put heart and soul into something but not much came back in return and you feeling raw and wore. it comes in little gifts like the yellow i pot i found on an amsterdam street or the set of pans on st germain station, to bits of food, music and lucky escapes.
- Angus Denoon