Food: The Genius of Chaat
For BHARTI KIRCHNER, a return visit to Kolkata isn’t complete until she has made at least one trip to the roadside chaat hawkers in Chowringhee.
Mesmerized by multitudes of aromas, I blend in with a crowd that surrounds a food cart in Kolkata— and watch. The muriwala’s hands dance over the ingredients as he tosses a few things together, drizzles a bold condiment or two over the combination, finally finishing with a sprinkling of one or more garnishes. An eager customer accepts the bright plate; a big smile follows. Soon my turn comes. The jhal muri (a combination of puffed rice, mustard oil, green chili, lime juice, and sev noodles) teases my palate and brings back memories of my student days. But the showmanship and camaraderie I experience also satisfy a longing of the soul.
(Left) Jhal muri, bought on the street, served in a paper cone.
So, what is chaat? It’s a style of cooking, a shorthand for fast-and-fun street food, part of a lunchtime routine for workers in India, or any time nourishment is required. Chaat can substitute as a salad or hors d’oeuvre and, in a pinch, take the place of a full meal. A dish of chaat cools the body and is a popular summer pastime. It can, however, be enjoyed throughout the year.
The basic ingredients of a chaat dish are commonplace: raw and cooked vegetables such as boiled potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, onion, and cucumber. Or fruit such as slices of mango, papaya, or pineapple. The condiments might consist of cilantro chutney, tamarind chutney, or a yogurt sauce. The garnishing could include chopped cilantro, sweet onion, roasted peanuts, or sev noodles. A pinch of chili powder or chaat powder (see sidebar below) on top completes the arrangement.
It becomes clear then that the genius of chaat lies in the unique and artful blend of contrasting flavors—sweet, salty, sour, or spicy—and textures—crispy, crunchy, or creamy. It also lies in the variety of ingredients used, often dissimilar, which harmonize to make a celebration of taste sensations. Then there is eye-appeal, the colors and shapes of the diverse ingredients piled high on a plate. All this for a low price!
You can find chaat in every major city in India and even in smaller towns. They appear in mind-boggling varieties. A few examples are pani puri or golgappa (a round hollow puri stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas, and onion, and drizzled with a spicy, flavored water, which is quickly popped into one’s mouth); pakoras or bhajias (battered and deep-fried vegetable fritters served with tamarind chutney); dahi vada (fried urad dal dumplings soaked in a yogurt sauce and accompanied by a green cilantro chutney).
Of late, chaat houses have opened in many U.S. cities as well. You can, however, easily prepare chaat at home. (See recipe below).
• Chaat fixings can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. To fully release the flavors, bring them to room temperature and assemble them just before serving.
• Juicy vegetables such as cucumber and tomato are traditionally favored as they contribute flavor to the dressing as well as create a cooling effect.
(Left) An example of a chaat combination with papri on the bottom, sev on top, and various tasty ingredients between.
• You can put together your own chaat combination, remembering that contrasting flavors and textures are your only guidelines. Minced fresh chili peppers add crunch and a piquant zest to a chickpea chaat. Lime juice and ground red pepper bring a tart-hot taste to sweet papayas. For a layered look, consider scattering sev—fine, crispy noodles made of chick pea flour—on top for added texture and a delightful nutty flavor. You can place papri (deep-fried, crisp pastry rounds) on the bottom. Corn chips can be a substitute for either.
YOUR CHAAT PANTRY
A sampling of spices you might wish to store in your pantry. All are available in Indian grocery stores.
Asafetida (hing) powder - A pungent powder with a strong garlicky smell, asafetida is the dried gum resin of a plant. Often used as a substitute for onion and garlic.
Black salt - This rock salt from India with an earthy flavor is not black, but pinkish gray. Even a small sprinkle of it adds a distinctive taste to dishes. Don't omit or substitute with regular salt.
Cumin - Yellowish brown cumin seeds resemble caraway. Ground cumin is used in preparing chaat powder or as a final garnish. For best results, buy cumin as whole seeds, and then prepare them as follows. Place the seeds in a skillet over medium low heat and stir frequently. In a few minutes they will turn medium brown and emit an aroma. Remove from the heat immediately. Grind them to a powder using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.
Lime juice - Considered more flavorful than lemon juice, lime juice is most commonly used as the base for a chaat dressing.
Mango powder or amchoor - Made from dried, unripe mangoes, this brown powder adds a pleasant tartness to dishes.
Mustard Seeds - Black or brown mustard seeds are smaller than the more common yellow variety. Sauté them in a little oil until they pop, then add to the finished salad.
Tamarind - The dried pulp of the fruit of the tamarind tree adds a complex sourness to chaat. Tamarind concentrate is available in jars in Indian food shops.
Yogurt - A mixture of yogurt and spices is often used as a topping sauce for chaat.
Chaat Powder - Commercial chaat powder is sold in Indian food shops and varies widely, but it can be made at home by following these instructions. Combine 1/4 teaspoon each of ground cumin, ground dried ginger, black salt, 1/8 teaspoon each of asafetida and freshly ground black pepper, a dash of red pepper, and 2 teaspoons mango powder. Thoroughly blend the mixture to a fine powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Adjust the mixture to your taste by adding more of each individual ingredient.
Chaat-Style Tangy Potato Salad
Perfect for those concerned with the fat content of most potato salads, here potatoes are steeped in a fat-free lime dressing, and then tossed with a mixture of chili, cilantro, and ginger root. The result is a tangy blend of diverse yet complementary flavors.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (leaves only)
1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and minced (or to taste)
8 to 10 fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon peeled, coarsely chopped ginger root
Dash of sugar
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 teaspoon chaat powder (recipe above)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Process cilantro, jalapeño, mint, and ginger root in a food processor until a smooth paste forms. Set aside.
Steam or boil potatoes until they can be pierced easily with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place lime juice, chaat powder, and salt in a large bowl and mix well.
When the potatoes are ready, transfer them to the bowl and toss gently to coat each piece. The potatoes will absorb the juice. Now add the herb paste and gently toss again. Taste and adjust salt.
Best served immediately. Can also be chilled for 30 minutes and served cold.
As a cookbook author, Bharti Kirchner focuses on vegetarian cuisine. Her novels include Shiva Dancing, Darjeeling, Sharmila’s Book, Pastries, and Goddess of Fire. The Seattle-based writer’s mystery novels are titled Tulip Season and Season of Sacrifice.
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