new Things I Ate in Cambodia: indian street food: chaat

Sunday, July 06, 2008

indian street food: chaat


Perhaps the first advice offered to vistors to India is "Don't eat the street food." You would do well to completely ignore this. Gastric complaints go away (generally.) Happy memories last forever.

India has an incredibly strong street food tradition, putting the roving dirty-water hot dog stands of our own country to considerable shame. This is due to India having less regulations about basically everything, which means both more variety and more opportunity for sorrow and woe. (Life is like that anyway.) You can pick up everything from kebabs to fruit salad to fried fish to chaat on the street, and variations exist in almost every town and region and state. An exhaustive survey of the delicious treats to be found across India would take much more time and patience then I have, so here's what I encountered. Let's begin with chaat.

The chaat stand near my office in Bangalore. Note the bags of pani puris to the left.

- Chaat is the most famous Indian street or fast food, a catchall term meaning "to lick or taste." In common usage, chaat just stands for delicious, savory snacks that are eaten either for lunch or at some time between the usual meals. Chaat is almost always vegetarian and generally comprised of some sort of delicious carbohydrate - common ingredients include chickpeas, yogurt, tamarind and chili sauce, and chopped tomatoes and onions. Chaat masala, a distinctive spice mixture featuring dried green mango (amchoor) is also a major player - I bought a bunch of the stuff back home and enjoy sprinkling it on fruit salad. There are roughly two million different varieties of chaat which vary from city to city, which indicates you should probably try as many kinds as possible if you know what's good for you.

Chaat may be found everywhere from gungy and slightly scary street stalls to fancy expensive restaurants - pretty much everyone adores it. I favor getting my chaat from stalls that are one notch above moveable carts (to avoid picking up a stray amoeba), but you can be a wuss and go to a real sit-down restaurant. I guess.

A fancy-schmancy version of bhel puri served up at San Francisco's commendable Dosa.

What chaat varieties do I recommend? Bhel puri is my absolute favorite chaat dish, composed of puffed rice mixed with sev (fried noodles), potatoes, papri puris (little wheat crackers), along with tomato and onion. Chutney is usually added to the mix: I consider the dark sweet kind, composed of dates and tamarind, to be about on level with crack. I put it on everything. Mumbai is reputed to be the ancestral home of bhel puri and I'd believe it. I ate a lot of bhel puri in Bangalore: I must admit, the simple version dished up from Juice Junction was the best. I have many happy memories of spending my lunch break balancing a plate of bhel puri on one knee and a fruit salad on the other, watching the little punks from the Bishop Cotton boys school across the street order up an after school snack: good times.

Pani puri is also delish and everywhere, composed of puffed fried dough filled with a watery broth of tamarind, chili, and potato. These little suckers are pretty much impossible to miss and usually sold by the piece: a nice way to cool down on a hot day. Try extra hard to avoid the super sketchy stalls with these as there are occasional unfortunate issues with nasty water. Occasional. It's best to eat these in one gulp as there could be spillage. You don't want spillage.

A delicious, delicious bowl of dahi papri. Scuse' me while I lick the screen.

If you're in a dairy sort of mood, it's hard to beat dahi puri, which consists of tangy Indian yogurt seved over crunchy puri rounds, mixed with chutney, sev, and god knows what else. Dahi papri is also delicious, featuring fried wheat crackers broken up into chunks and served with the same delicious yogurt topping. It's sort of like Indian nachos with cheese sauce. Only not really. (The person who successfully markets nachos in India will become incredibly wealthy. I am considering it.)

Pav bhaji is another Mumbai speciality, composed of super-tasty buttery buns (the pav) and a spicy potato and vegetable based curry (the bhaji.) Prepared in giant pans on the street most everywhere in Mumbai, it's a tasty and carbohydrate rich former factory-workers lunch that has earned the love of the Indian populace. I'm trying to learn how to make it at home.

A few of Chowpatty's food stalls.

Any mention of chaat would be remiss without bringing up Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai's near-legendary snack food capital. The beach itself is attractive enough and even moderately clean these days, but the real attraction is the food sellers, who shill just about everything from suprisingly elaborate stalls, working out of an authorized area. It wasn't always like this: selling food on the beach used to be illegal. As my friend Aneesa remembers: "You'd be buying a juice or something and in the middle of making it, someone would spot the cops and they'd just all run away and leave you standing was really quite funny."

Chowpatty Beach is all legal now and the hilarity factor has diminished, but the food is still there: bhel puri and pav bhaji are particular specialities, along with milkshakes, ices, kulfi, and falooda, a kind of Persian ice cream parfait. If you want to get all fancy, you can even sit down on plastic chairs. It is now unlikely your juice seller will run away in the midst of making your drink. Sigh.

Here's some pav bhaji - or rather bhaji bit - waiting to be served up on Chowpatty. The bhaji is prepared beforehand in big, impressive rings.

Chaat is one of India's many unexpected and delightful treats: you must not miss it when you visit. It's almost everywhere and seems to be the nations secondary real-people cuisine. Also, it tastes unspeakably good. You cannot possibly lose.

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