I Heart Chaat

The perfect bite

Tangy, sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy, chewy, soft, flaky – it’s very difficult to describe exactly what chaat tastes like. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that – an explosion of flavors and textures in your mouth. The word ‘chaat’ means to taste or more precisely, to lick and a more apt word could not be found for this tasty Indian street food. As most things in India, chaat can take on many personas or avatars - a Hindi word much better recognized thanks to one James Cameron. Whichever form it takes, it will always have layers of components contributing to the whole – pieces of fried dough like puris, veggie components like tomatoes, onions, potatoes, chickpeas or sprouts, cilantro chutney for spice, tamarind chutney for the sweet and sour, puffed rice (murmura) and sev for crunch, yogurt to temper the heat and chaat masala, that special spice mix to round it all up. Besides the usual suspects of peppers, cumin, coriander, etc. what gives it its distinctive taste is rock salt and aamchur (dried mango powder). Seems like a lot in one tiny bite, but that’s chaat for you.

Tangy, spicy, sweet - the ingredients

Nostalgic for home and more specifically for Bombay, a friend and I decided to try replicating that taste at home. We both have fond memories of eating chaat on the streets of Bombay – from roadside hawkers where hygiene is questionable but the taste is not. I still remember one particular hawker who used to set up his mobile shop on the street outside my friend A’s house. On a wicker stand stood dozens of small tiffin boxes and his hands would fly between them as he added and mixed and served, never pausing to measure or taste. On a makeshift plate or cone made of magazine paper (sometimes if you were lucky you could read an article from Vogue) and for the grand price of Rs.10 (approx 25 cents), you got a tasty meal that would fill you up till you got home for dinner. In this way, the chaat is much like Bombay – made up of an endless kaleidoscope of colors and flavors and always on the go.

Puris - looks like a crafts class here

Everybody loves chaat – stop long enough at a chaat stall and you’ll see people from pretty much every walk of life. Rich or poor, old or young – they flock to the chaatwala to satisfy their cravings. I have been eating chaat on the street all my life and have never fallen ill, but as concerns for hygiene increase, many chaat sellers are going the extra step – advertising bottled water and gloved hands. Chaat has also gone upscale – you can now find it served at high-end restaurants where suited up waiters come by wheeling trolleys of inventive goodies, but for me the sterile surroundings lack the unruly joy and bonhomie of the streets.

Puris - fresh from the oven

Although I almost never order chaat at restaurants, I love eating it at home – chaat demands a certain informality and you can truly share the experience only with people you have fun with. It’s like eating a large, drippy burger – you’d never order that if you went out with your boss, would you? I remember my mom making pani puri at home – she’d plonk down on the table a bag of puris (fried fragile hollow dough shells), a plate of boiled sprouts and potatoes, a small bowl of sweet tamarind chutney and a large one of the pani – imagine green water made of tamarind, chillies and spices. You poke a hole in the puri, careful not to break it, fill it with the sprouts and potatoes, spoon a little sweet chutney in and then dunk it in the bowl of the cold, spicy water. The entire concoction goes whole in your mouth and the experience of all those flavors is one you should not miss. (A new rage is vodka pani puri – like a shot but so much more! Obviously, my mother has never made this, but I’m dying to try.)

Sev + Puris

When my friend S came over, we had some tough choices to make. Should we make bhel puri or dahi puri or sev puri or pani puri or samosa chaat or aloo tikki chaat? We finally settled on the first three as they would take the least amount of time – more instant gratification. While S chopped the tomatoes and onions, I made the puris. Made of wheat and all purpose flour, the puris are traditionally deep fried. However, I have this deep-rooted aversion to deep frying – something about all that excess oil. (Unfortunately, this aversion does not extend to eating deep-fried foods, which I love.)

Dahi Puri

I decided to experiment with baking the puris – rolling out the dough, cutting out circles, pricking them with a fork – 25 minutes in the oven and they were golden and beautiful, and nary an extra drop of oil in sight. I made the cilantro chutney at home but the tamarind chutney proved to be a challenge. Finding raw tamarind was next to impossible, and the tamarind concentrate I found in a store just didn’t look appetizing. I finally settled on Maggi Tamarind Sauce – a ready-made sauce sold much like ketchup – you can find it at any Indian store. I was expecting it to be watery and too sweet. But once again, Maggi came through. (Remind me to tell you later of every Indian student’s love affair with Maggi noodles.) The sauce was thick and perfectly balanced between tart and sweet.

Bhel Puri

Although I have given measurements for the overall ingredients in the recipes below, there aren’t too many for things like chutneys and spices because frankly, we were just adding and mixing and tasting as is traditional. Even the street hawkers will make the chaat to your specifications – sweet, spicy or ‘medium’. For the bhel puri, you mix tomatoes, onions, cooked potatoes, puffed rice, sev (the packet here advertises it as fried chickpea twigs, which is essentially what it is!), cilantro and tamarind chutney in a big bowl. For the sev puri, layer the puris on a plate and layer the components over. For the dahi puri, do essentially the same except use broken puris and of course, dahi (yogurt). The process is extremely simple and requires almost no cooking – perfect for those hot summer days. Play around with the ingredients, lay out a chaat bar (like a salad bar) so people can make their own, taste and add as you go. Whatever you do, have fun! because that’s what chaat is all about.

Sev Puri

Green Chutney

1 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 cup fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon minced ginger
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 green chilli or 1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder (or as per taste)
4 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together in a blender, adding a little more water if required to get a smooth paste. Check and adjust for seasoning.

Puris
Note: Puris are also readily available in Indian stores, so you need not be compelled to make your own. As with all things, homemade tastes better.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ajwain (carom seeds)
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
Salt to taste
4-5 tablespoons water

1. Mix the flours, ajwain and salt in a large bowl. Add the water one tablespoon at a time until the mixture starts to come together. Transfer the dough to a well floured surface and knead gently, adding a little more water as you go. The dough should be smooth and not sticky.
Allow to rest for 15 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350⁰F (175⁰C).
3. Roll out the dough on a well floured surface till it is roughly the thickness of a cracker.
4. Cut out 1 1/2 inch circles using a cookie cutter (if you don’t have one that small, use a small metal bowl or a tiny jar cap).
5. Place the circles on parchment paper and prick each circle thrice with a fork. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 mins until the puris are crisp and golden.

Sev Puri

24 puris
1 potato, boiled and chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 onion finely chopped
1 teaspoon chaat masala
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
Salt to taste
Green chutney, as required
Tamarind chutney, as required (I used Maggi Tamarind Sauce, available in Indian stores; you can also make your own if you’d like)
Sev, as required (available in Indian stores)

1. Arrange the puris on a plate.
2. Mix the tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chaat masala, chilli powder and salt. Check for seasoning. Top the puris with this mixture.
3. Drizzle the puris with the green chutney and tamarind chutney.
4. Sprinkle with the sev and serve.

Bhel Puri

1 cup puffed rice (murmura)
1 potato, boiled and chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 onion finely chopped
1 teaspoon chaat masala
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
Salt to taste
6-8 puris, broken into pieces
Green chutney, as required
Tamarind chutney, as required (I used Maggi Tamarind Sauce, available in Indian stores; you can also make your own if you’d like)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup roasted peanuts (optional)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
Sev, as required (available in Indian stores)

1. Mix all the ingredients, except the sev, in a large bowl. Transfer to serving plates and top with sev.

Dahi Puri

16 puris, broken into halves
3/4 cup yogurt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 potato, prepared as above
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 onion finely chopped
1 teaspoon chaat masala
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
Salt to taste
Green chutney, as required
Tamarind chutney, as required (I used Maggi Tamarind Sauce, available in Indian stores)
Sev, as required (available in Indian stores)

1. Whisk the yogurt with sugar and salt and chill.
2. Arrange the puris on a plate.
3. Mix the tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chaat masala, chilli powder and salt. Check for seasoning. Layer the mixture over the puris.
4. Spoon the yogurt over the puris.
5. Drizzle with the green chutney and tamarind chutney.
6. Sprinkle with the sev and serve.

The fixings

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4 Responses to I Heart Chaat

  1. Hash says:

    I hate you for cooking such awesome stuff!!! Too good Heena!!!

  2. shayma says:

    i cant believe you made your own puris- that’s fantastic. i am also on food52, which is how i stumbled upon your blog, lots of ‘chatpata’ things here. x shayma

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