There's something magical about charcoal. Light it up slow, put pretty much any foodstuff on it and you'll soon have a line of people trying to persuade you to take their money. There's the ubiquitous corn cob (American or desi), roasted on the coals and then lathered with butter and nimbu. Then there's peanuts, seekh kakabs and fifty other parts of lamb or cow, all calling out to you at every corner. Charcoal, in particular, goes well with simple things - potatoes, aubergines, chestnuts - imparting a smoky, slow-cooked flavour to convert otherwise dull stuff into comfort food like no other.
Some treats, however, are seasonal and harder to find; it was sheer fortune that I found two of these in the same week on the streets of Mumbai. Both are very distinctively Mumbai - I haven't really seen them being sold in this manner in other Indian cities. The first is green chana. I'm not really sure if it has anything to do with normal chana but it looks like hairy pea pods on the outside, and green chana inside. Street vendors put the pods to slow roast, tossing it around in a large iron kadahi to char the skin, and then sell it to hungry snackers like me, five rupees per hundred grams. Peel off the charred skin and there's a small kernel of sweet delicious chana all roasted up.
This is also the season for sweet potatoes. Vendors go around in carts, selling raw sweet potato in dull, reddish piles of the stuff. The back of the cart also holds, however, a small charcoal sigri that he's roasting these tubers on, slowly turning them by hand till they're all charred outside and cooked through to golden goodness inside. Hungry snacker comes along, a little bit of old-fashioned peeling of the skin happens, and you're handed a sliced-up tube of sweet sweet potatoes dusted with salt and chilly powder. They smell mildly of charcoal, taste salty and sweet and quite comfortingly healthy. I would have squirted a touch of that magic ingredient - a nimbu - but he didn't have any.
As a bonus, both are as healthy as you can get. even size zero supermodels can happily load up on the stuff. Plus, anything eaten off a cart on the streets has...shall we say...street cred.