Aloo muri vendors typically begin their days at 6 am. Before business begins, the vendors prepare their ingredients. After the potatoes are boiled and left to chill, they are loaded onto the vendor stand along with a mix of spices, thinly chopped vegetable toppings, and tamarind water. Once loaded, the stands are placed on their heads, and they head out to set shop for the day. The vendors carefully choose their locations, allowing them a vantage point to attract customers – both loyal and new. By 11 am, these aloo muri stands are ready to serve customers who arrive in hordes.
Like many other people, my first encounter with aloo muri was at a young age. Students, who make up the bulk of an aloo muri vendor’s clientele, gather at their stands after school or lecture hours. Apart from students, office workers also end up at these stands, which suggests that old habits are hard to kill.
When away from Shillong to attend university, it was always impossible to get hold of aloo muri. The only way out, then, was to either learn how to make it ourselves or rely on friends and family who learnt how to. This, however, is easier said than done because nothing comes close to what is served by vendors in Shillong.
The dish, according to vendors, is unique to Shillong. Though different in its ingredients, a remotely similar dish is seen in jhal-muri, found in streets across India. Depending on individual preference, one can ask their favourite vendor to add more or less of a particular ingredient – more raw papaya, no onions, a load of chili powder, anything you want – to make aloo muri one’s own. Some vendors even allow customers to change the dish’s DNA altogether. For instance, a newer version of the dish incorporates the hit Nepalese instant-noodles Wai-Wai into aloo muri, adding a fresh twist to it. For those who are not fussy eaters, one can trust their instinct to whip up their classics for you.
As much as people from Shillong love aloo muri, very few are aware of its origins. Though this is undocumented, vendors offer some hints. According to them, the first people to start selling aloo muri in the city were migrants who moved to Shillong in the 1980s. Ever since, the culture was set in Shillong, thanks to the recipes and businesses being handed down generations.
Beyond their impact on the city’s food culture, these vendors are also a reminder of the beautiful impact of migrants in communities. Without the influence of migrant workers in the region, it is unlikely that the recipes of aloo muri could have passed down generations and developed over time. Today, vendors of these dishes are not restricted to descendants of migrant workers, and other residents have looked to them for inspiration in setting up aloo muri stalls.
When the COVID-19 pandemic peaked and lockdowns were announced, these vendors were affected alongside the hospitality industry. With no support from the local government, many had to move back to their native states in search of alternative work to support their families. Ever since COVID-19 restrictions began to ease in Shillong, the vendors have come back, and loyal customers are back to eat their favourite street food. So, if you’re hearing of aloo muri for the first time, you must visit one of these vendors on your next trip to Shillong.
Jade Lyngdoh is a Constitutional Law Honours candidate at National Law University, Jodhpur, and has research interests in human rights and free speech. Follow him on Twitter @jadelyngdoh_
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty