Tangy, salty, sweet, hot, spicy, crunchy you can choose the degrees according to your taste and palate. This is about chaat, one of my favourite food items, no, maybe of most of the people, in the Indian sub-continent.
What used to be purely street food being sold on khomchas (conical stands made of lightweight cane), thelas (carts) on streets and tiny hole-like corners in marketplaces, has slowly found a prime spot in various chaat bhandaars (storehouses of chaat) exclusively selling these items or mithai (Indian sweets) shops. Chaat has now been elevated to a level where you can find it on the tables of famous restaurants too.
This is neither a sponsored piece (though I would gladly have done that) nor a food review, not even a research paper. It is about a unique food category that the Indian sub-continent offers and anyone can try even on a full stomach.
Chaat comes from chaatna, the Hindi word for licking, whether you lick the dona/pattal (bowl made out of dried leaves) or paper plates clean or your fingers. It is not against etiquette. The clicking of your tongue against your palate as you taste the spicy delicious snack i.e. chatkhare lena, is a reflex action to that.
Chaat, a purely vegetarian addictive food item, comprises a variety of snacks which you might not refuse even though you just had your meal. It does not include mini meals of combinations like pav bhaji, idli sambar, Chhole bhature or dal ke cheele etc.
I do not know who invented it and how it started, though legend has it that it spread from Uttar Pradesh to the rest of the country where it took the regional flavor and now the people there like it in that avatar. Every city in Uttar Pradesh whether it is Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, Mathura, Meerut or Allahabad, claims that it has the best chaat and their lovers cannot be argued with. Delhi is also credited with being the place of origin of some kinds of chaat. In the southern states, most of the chaat sellers are from Bihar and they seem to be making good money in this business. Such is the hold and fame of chaat sellers that every area in a city has its own famous joint even though some are undeniably better than others. Every chaat seller also swears by his secret spice mix.
Although Oxford English Dictionary describes chaat as a South Asian dish consisting of fruit or vegetables with spices,
yet most of the chaat items have a crisp and crunchy deep fried (who doesn’t love that) base of refined flour and semolina or dals (pulses). Further calories are added in the form of lightly spiced, sweet-sour imli (tamarind) chutney, hot coriander and mint chutney, sweetened yogurt, a spoonful of boiled chickpeas or black gram, boiled potatoes, small or large pinches of black salt, and powders of red chillies, coriander seeds, roasted cumin seeds, dried mangoes and chaat masala. Whatever the appearance of this heap, it is very rarely that somebody does not enjoy a ‘plate of chaat’.
During our summer holidays at my Nani’s (mother’s mother) place in Dehradun, all of us kept our fingers crossed that Kuldeep mama’s annual visit would coincide with ours. The reason – every evening he would stop Tan Tan Uncle (the chaat seller who would play on his griddle with his spatula to notify his arrival) and treat us to chaat before our grandfather returned from the court and chided us for eating spicy, unhealthy food.
There are hundreds of variants but here goes the basic list for you to choose from today:
Aloo tikki: (potato patties) Boiled potatoes flattened into tikkis (discs) and shallow fried till they are crisp, served with imli (tamarind) chutney and yogurt and with or without chhole, that is magic. In Mumbai they are served with a spicy curry of boiled white peas and called ragda patties. Even global food joint McDonald’s has cashed it with its McAloo Tikki Burger sold in India.
Matar ki tikki: In Lucknow and some other cities of Uttar Pradesh, boiled and mashed white peas are made into tikkis and shallow fried. They are served with a liberal squeeze of lemon juice, julienned ginger and dry spices.
Samosas: Who hasn’t heard of the chai- samosa combo? Travelling from the Middle East to the Indian sub-continent and far beyond it, this triangular stuffed cone known by different names in different countries, continues to be everyone’s favourite. In India it is generally filled with boiled and spiced potatoes and peas. Hot samosas coming out of scalding oil are eaten with or without chutney and chhole. A quick snack and favourite of students or those on a budget is samosa sandwiched between two slices of bread.
The slightly heavier kachori, is the deep-fried flaky puffed up sister of samosas, stuffed with spicy moong or urad dal paste. Bangladeshis swear by its cousin Dhakai chaat. Kachori or khasta is eaten with spiced potatoes and imli chutney.
Papri chaat: This is made of thin discs or crackers of deep-fried dough. It is very popular in Punjab where the papri is wafer thin and extra crunchy. The crackers are dipped in tamarind chutney and on that go yogurt and boiled potatoes and black gram, of course, powdered spices too, according to how much your system can take.
Sev papri: This variation of papri chaat has an addition-small, thin, fried crunchy gramflour noodles and green chutney.
Golgappe: This is the only item eaten with different fillings in different parts of India where it is known by different names too- pani batashe, gupchup, pani puri, puchka. A purely Indian invention, golgappas are hollow balls of deep fried dough. A little hole is broken into the crust and the ball filled with black gram and boiled potatoes in Delhi and Punjab, boiled white peas in Uttar Pradesh, and boiled potatoes and onions in Hyderabad and then everywhere, a touch of tamarind chutney, then dipped in spiced water to fill it. The water can have the dominant flavor of tamarind, lemon juice, hot spices or asafoetida. You open your mouth wide to eat it as a whole. Broken midway, it is not kind to your clothes.
Earlier, the water used to be stored in earthernware pots and stirred many times to prevent the spice mix from settling down. These days it is kept in plastic/glass/stainless steel containers.
Some golgappa – lovers fill golgappas with various juices or vodka for cocktail or dinner parties, but honestly, nothing is as good as the water with the right balance of spices.
I practically behave like an idiot giving up all pretence of being wise and mature, when a mound of stuffed golgappas is in front of me. It brings me no shame in admitting that one reason I love Amitaji is because she is extra considerate and always has golgappas ready for me whenever I visit their house. Does she know the reason for informing her before the visit?
Dahi chutney ke golgappe are just what the name says. The golgappas are not filled with water but with sweet yogurt and imli chutney.
Pakoras: Vegetable fritters i.e. vegetables diced or cut in roundels, coated with lightly spiced gramflour (instead of refined flour as in the west), deep fried and served with mostly green chutney. The choice of vegetables is endless, but potatoes, onions, cauliflower and paneer (Indian cottage cheese) are the traditional ones. This is perhaps the quickest chaat item to make at home too and thus very few people eat them outside.
Palak ki chaat– The first time I had it was in Lucknow. Whole spinach leaves coated in besan (chickpea flour) batter and deep fried are like palak ke pakore. But they areserved with the chutneys and if you like, yogurt on top, which differentiates them from pakoras.
Mangodi is deep fried balls of soaked and ground moong dal. Green chutney is the favoured accompaniment. A variant is Ram ke laddoo which are made with a paste of moong+ chana (black gram) dals.
Dahi wada (or dahi bhalle): Urad dal is soaked and ground, made into balls or doughnut shapes and fried. These are soaked in hot water to soften them, then squeezed and put in yogurt. They soak in the goodness of slightly sweet and salty yogurt and are served with chutneys and spices. Dahi vada is a popular item on the dinner menus too. By the way, to me the homemade dahi wada tastes better because the ones sold in shops are sickly sweet as if they have been dipped in sugar syrup.
Then come the two stone-heavy items:
Raj kachori –A huge golgappa, the size of a puri, filled with moong sprouts, boiled potatoes, chickpeas, crushed bhalle, yogurt and chutney. So heavy is this, that one Raj kachori can easily make a meal for a grown-up.
Basket chaat – Also called lachchha tokri, it is a tart like small bowl made of grated, pressed and fried potatoes and filled with nearly the same ingredients as the Raj kachori and unarguably as heavy too.
Matar ki chaat is a curry of white peas served with chutneys and spices. A variant, masala puri, is said to have originated in Karnataka and is popular in all the southern states. I wonder if my two former colleagues in Hyderabad Manjula and Anuradha remember our evening chai breaks during the link shift when we’d go to Ramu’s cart round the corner for chai but after polishing off a plate of masala puri at another cart.
In the end I take up the case of bhelpuri, with its ownidentity. Such is the fame of this dish that Vir Sanghvi has written a piece on bhelpuri in his column Rude Food and it is included in his book Rude Food: The Collected Food Writings of Vir Sanghvi (By the way, he has also done so for samosas and traced the history of this food item, which reminded me how much we used to enjoy my mother’s mutton keema samosas as kids before she realised that exposing us to a large variety of laboriously cooked items at home would mean risk spending nearly all her waking hours toiling in the kitchen the rest of her life). The only chaat dish which is not fried, it is not wrong to say that this puffed rice salad mix is perhaps the healthiest among them all as well.
Puffed rice is the base in which are mixed sev, roasted or fried peanuts, diced onions, boiled potatoes and tomatoes, tamarind and coriander chutneys. The mix is thoroughly tossed and then served in a paper cone. Sometimes papri or potato chips are also added to give an extra crunch. Counted as a Mumbai speciality, it has its Bengali version- the jhalmuri (hot puffed rice) and churmuri in parts of Karnataka. Maybe this too had migrated to Mumbai with the workers from UP.
Salty, tangy, sweet spicy, and crunchy, it gets soggy fast. These days dry bhel mixture, chutneys and spices are packaged and sold by Indian snack industry giants. You just add the fresh veggies and hey presto, bhelpuri is ready. Some people like their bhel with sev or yogurt.
Nowadays the very health-conscious among us have shunned all the above-mentioned foodstuffs and moved to fruit and vegetable chaat with corn, beetroot, cucumber, even bananas and grapes, cottage cheese, mixed with oats and cornflakes with low sugar chutneys. But for me, nothing beats the original criminally calorie-rich, traditional version with very little nutritive value. My only issue is that some chaat seller also pile up grated carrots, beets and radish, boondi (tiny fried globules of chickpea flour) and pomegranate seeds on the top especially on dahi wada or papdi, totally killing the feel of the crunch of the crispy fried base under it.
Although not a fan of fancy variants of chaat myself, I have several times kind of hoodwinked my son when he was small. Once in a while if he pushed the bowl of dal away, I would make him dal chaat. A layer of thickened dal on crisp toasted white bread, topped with tamarind and green chutneys, finely chopped onions and tomatoes with chaat masala sprinkled on it and the little boy would happily polish that off and even give me a lovely smile.
A couple of points of caution, however, about chaat-
My years of chatora (chaat gourmand, if you please) experience has taught me that it is always safe to eat chaat from a place where everything finishes by the end of the day. The seller does not refrigerate anything and does not use or mix stale food the next day. Who hasn’t complained about stale potatoes in samosas at least once in his/her lifetime even from the best of places?
All the items used in chaat are touched, stirred, dipped spoons in, again and again by the chaatwala which, if he is not careful, may actually breed germs.
The golgappe water can be a carrier of water-borne diseases especially in the monsoon season. The mischief-maker can be the ice, the water itself, or if the preparation is stale.
Yet, a friend had once complained that she used bottled water to make golgappe water but the result did not taste as good as the street chaatwala’s with his wet, wrinkled hands wiped on the much-used red rag on his shoulder as he serves you, dipping each golgappa in the pitcher of extra-spicy water while you stand around the cart waiting for your turn and having eaten, move away fanning your burning open mouth with your hands and breathing in air to soothe your scalding breath.
The photos tell the story as an Indonesian friend Imelda sits down to taste a golgappa for the first time in her life.
Imelda struggles to keep her mouth shut as the ball breaks releasing the spicy tangy water.
Photos courtesy: Ruchira Tewari, who used to magically conjure up a huge bowlful of golgappas, with the accompaniments, for the girl gang’s pooled lunches when we were in Berlin, Germany, together.