Chaat, which means “to lick”, has been sold on the streets of India “forever”, according to Sunseeta Vaswani, author of Easy Indian Cooking. Though the beloved street food may lack historical background, it certainly doesn’t fall short on flavor or texture. Vaswani defined chaat as “seemingly disparate ingredients randomly thrown together to become something that’s unbelievable in contrasts of sweet, soft, hot, and crunchy.” Along with Anita Jaisinghani, owner of Restaurant Indika in Houston, they explained the rules for creating chaat. First, cooked potatoes or beans form the base. Then fresh ingredients, such as chopped onion, chilies, or green mangoes, are layered on top. The crunch comes from sev (chickpea noodles) or flat puris (wheat crackers) tossed into the mix. Essential to the building of chaat is the addition of at least one of several chutneys: sweet tamarind, green cilantro, or hot red chile. Black salt, mango powder, or cumin are some of the seasonings sprinkled on top to “add zing” to the dish, the most popular being a mixture called chaat masala.
Vaswani recounted for us amusing childhood anecdotes of disobeying her parent’s request to avoid chaat houses (they believed them to be unhygienic) and secretly indulging in bhel puri, the signature dish of her favorite chaat house, Shett Shetty. The dish consisted of puffed rice mixed with chopped onions, potato, cilantro, green onions, and green chiles and topped with tamarind chutney, green cilantro chutney, and “hot fiery red chutney made of pure garlic and chiles that sent tears streaming down my face.”
On a recent trip back to Mumbai (Bombay), Vaswani went on a chaat mission. To explore further the increasing popularity chaat is getting in her home country, she drove an hour away to see a chaat walla (man who prepares chaat). He sold chaat from a cart for over 3 decades. He recently added a fancy awning and stools to his cart in addition to operating an 80-seat chaat house inside a popular mall area.
When Jaisinghani first moved from India, she didn’t realize how much she would miss chaat. “If I wanted chaat in America, I realized I would have to learn to make it.” During her research trips to India, she would bribe wallas with Kit Kat bars in order to learn their ancient secrets. This, and hours of experimentation in her restaurant kitchen, enabled her to put her favorite flavors on the menu and share her beloved street foods with her customers.
We were treated to a tasting of several chaats, one being pani puri: a hollow ball of puffed wheat filled with a bean and potato mixture and a touch of tamarind chutney. We were given a small cup filled with cloudy water that we were instructed to pour into the hole. This water, though strange looking, was a highly seasoned broth of mint, cumin, and tamarind. The only way to eat it was to pop the entire thing in the mouth and wait for the explosion of flavors.
After the workshop, we walked out with not only a better understanding of India’s street food but a cookbook and spice packets to help us put words into action.