What’s sweet, sour, smooth, crunchy, spicy and hot – and that’s ‘hot’ as in hip? According to The New York Times it is a distinctive style of snack, traditionally sold from street stalls across India, called chaat (pronounced like ‘chart’) that has become popular on the streets of Manhattan. Across the Atlantic, Camellia Panjabi’s, Amaya, serves up a menu of Indian street food including a selection of chaat. Panjabi, author of the essential 50 Great Curries of India, is credited with making Indian food ‘smart’ in London. I have been in enamored with chaat for years. It’s one of my favorite Indian eats and I have my preferred chaatwallahs (vendors) in Delhi – a city renowned for chaat.
The basic components of the chaatwallahs trade are universal; sticky, sweet and sour tamarind chutney; a sharp, invigorating green chutney ground from fresh coriander and green chilies; salted yogurt whipped to a smooth creamy consistency; chaat masala, a magical blend of spices made pungent with black salt and dried green mango powder; a plain boiled chickpeas and cubed potato; an urn of the spice infused broth called jal jeera. and a pile of gole or puri( crisp hollow puffs fashioned from either wheat flour or semolina dough) and papri ( crunchy discs of ajwain flavored pastry).
From these singular components the chaatwallah composes the dishes of his trade. To make papri chaat, he builds a base with a handful of papri and a smattering of the potato pieces and chickpeas. This is then dressed with a generous ladle of yogurt, a good slick of tamarind chutney; a swirl of green chutney and a sprinkle of chaat masala. All of the genus chaat are variations on this theme and the alchemy that takes place when these tastes and textures are combined inevitably induces sighs and grunts of satisfaction from the consumer. The literal meaning of chaat is ‘to lick’ and scooping up the last remaining rivulets of sauce in the dish with one’s fingers is an automatic reaction – good manners forgotten in an attempt to prolong savoring such sublime flavors.
Chaatwallahs extend this basic repertoire with bhalle, a fritter made from ground urad dal that gains its unique fluffy texture from being fried then soaked in water and wrung out; rajgole, as the name suggests, a king-size version of gole that becomes the chaat equivalent of a hamburger with the lot, garnished with ruby red pomegranate seeds and slithers of white radish and red winter carrots.
Fortunately, a visit to Delhi, London or New York is not a pre-requisite for enjoying chaat. For those who like to undertake their culinary adventurism in the kitchen chaat is reasonably easy to prepare. This recipe for papri chaat makes an interesting first course at an Indian style dinner or served as a light lunch or brunch dish on the weekends.
makes 6 servings
I tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp roasted ground cumin seeds
1 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp ground rock salt
1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)*
1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste)
1 tsp amchur (dried mango powder)*
1/2 tsp asafetida*
1 tsp brown sugar (optional)
Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight jar.
*Available in Indian or Asian grocery stores.
1 ½ cups plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ajwain or cumin seeds
2 tbsp ghee, melted
1cup ghee for cooking
Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl; stir in the cumin seeds. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Knead the melted ghee into the dough until the dough is soft. Roll out to approximately 3mm thickness. Cut out small discs from the dough. Prick with a fork.
Heat the extra cup of ghee in a wok or deep saucepan.
Deep fry the papri a few at a time until golden.
Drain on kitchen paper.
Sonth ki Chutney (Tamarind Chutney)
My thoughts turn to heaven whenever I taste this chutney. It will keep in refrigerator for several weeks – if it lasts that long! It can be used to give a tantalizing lift to all manner of dishes.
Makes 1 cup
½ cup tamarind pulp
¾ cup jaggery, finely chopped or grated
1 tsp rock salt, ground
1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)
1 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp roasted, ground cumin seeds
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp chili powder
Soak the tamarind in one cup of hot water for 20 minutes.
Strain the pulp and water through a sieve into a small saucepan, pushing it through with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all the pulp.
Add the remaining ingredients and bring to the boil; reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat until the chutney thickens a little. Cool.
Hare dhaniya ki chutney (Green chutney)
This recipe requires a bit of labor and it should be used fresh. In India green chutney is ground on a grinding stone. If you don’t happen to have grinding stone handy a blender is the next best option (a food processor won’t give the right texture). The finished chutney should have a smooth texture.
Makes approximately ¾ cup
1 bunch washed coriander leaves, stalks removed
1 tbsp peanuts, coarsely ground
¼ cup green chilies, chopped*
2 tsp salt
1 tsp brown sugar or crushed jaggery/palm sugar
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Grind the coriander, peanuts and chilies to a fine paste.
Add the salt, sugar and limejuice. Mix well and serve.
To assemble the chaat
small cubes of boiled potato and cooked chickpeas
yoghurt whipped smooth with a fork
Place the papri on one large plate or divide amongst six smaller ones, scatter over a handful of potato and chickpeas, smother with curd, add a generous dollop of both the chutneys and a sprinkle of chaat masala.