I quickly stumped the clerk who helped me find groceries at the Indian market in Issaquah, Washington. She looked at the length of the shopping list on my clipboard, then at me, and said, “Let me find the manager.” He and I sped through the first 10 or 15 ingredients, stuff like black chickpeas, Kashmiri chili powder, jaggery, nigella seed, curry leaves, and buttermilk, before he caved.
“What are you making?”
These purchases created a whole new annex to my spice drawer. I was happily switching from being a consumer of one of my favorite foods—the Indian snack food known as chaat—to making it myself, thanks to a fantastic new cookbook. My guide was its author, Maneet Chauhan, an Indian-born chef with a set of Nashville restaurants and a slot on the Food Network’s show Chopped.
This was an exciting plunge to take: Chauhan and her coauthor, Jody Eddy, use their book Chaat: Recipes From the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India to introduce readers to what I consider the most fun food most Westerners have never had. It is also perhaps the least subtle of foods, pressing all of our buttons at once, giving whopping doses of sweet, sour, salt, and savory, along with a litany of spices, from hot to funky and multiple varieties of crunch.
My favorite, and suggested gateway drug, is bhel puri. Chop up ingredients like cooked potato, red onion, cilantro, tomato, and mango. Add spoonfuls of tamarind and cilantro-mint chutney, toss on some toasted cumin seeds and big scoops of puffed rice, sprinkle with chaat masala, itself a tart and funky spice blend, and gently stir it together. If at some point in that list of ingredients, you thought, that’s probably plenty, you’ve missed the point. Instead, sprinkle crispy, crunchy sev—tiny chickpea flour noodles—over the top.
It is fresh and healthy and the gastronomic equivalent of being in a room full of your best friends, an explosion of joy on your palate. I don’t know how your pandemic’s going, but I am 100 percent down with a bit of fun right now.
So … what is chaat again? The Hindi word for “to lick”—chaats are street-food snacks that Chauhan describes as “tangy and sweet, fiery and crunchy, savory and sour, all in one topsy-turvy bite … They often include a main element such as an idli or puffed rice, that is served with a variety of other ingredients such as chutneys, yogurt, and chaat masala.
Chauhan’s book is your passport to this joy. Chaat is classic Indian train-station food, and she reminds us that Mumbai alone has five major and more than a hundred local train stations, each with its own chaat specialties. The book, with photos by Linda Xiao, is structured as a train trek across the country, each section divided into recipes for a handful of regional specialties. While there are a few more composed shots, most of them are from Chauhan, Eddy, and Xiao’s trip there. My favorite is a passport-size shot of the chef on page 113, enthusiastically munching her way through a potato fritter sandwich known as vada pav. As she puts it, it’s “a potato fritter the size of a baseball stuffed into a flaky white bun, smeared with coconut and spicy green chile chutneys, then squished until it’s small enough to fit into your mouth.” No pretense here, just good food.
I did not end up with this book by accident. In the late 2000s, I spent a month in India, and a good hunk of that time riding its rails on a trip to learn as much about the country’s food as I could. Now my wife, Elisabeth, happily indulges the complex detours involved in seeking out chaat in North America.
Bhel puri was the first thing I made from the book, and, holy cow, am I happy to report that it is just as fun to eat at home as it is in a restaurant. It’s super fresh, and since this was my party, I added a dollop of tangy yogurt. In years of cooking, I’ve never made anything like this.
Next, I made kala chana chaat, a salad based around black chickpeas (the kala chana) with, among other ingredients, tomato, mango, mint, and amchur (dried mango) powder, which gave everything a nice, tart tanginess. There are several other interesting ingredients that I’m leaving out for brevity’s sake. I was also thankful to have Chauhan’s enthusiasm and guiding hand showing me the way.
For something more substantial, I made lamb yakhni, a Kashmiri dish where boneless lamb leg is seared in mustard oil, then braised with fennel seed, ginger, green and black cardamom, cinnamon, and bay. This bubbles away on the stove until the lamb is tender, then you add a mixture of yogurt, cumin, cloves, chili paste, and ghee and serve over rice. After that, you’ll want to try a bite, then schedule the next few times you’ll make it.
With no photo for kanda bhaji, I wasn’t completely sure what I was making, but the translation, “crunchy onion fritters” sold me. What kind of person wouldn’t want an onion fritter with garlic, ginger, chiles, turmeric, and the caraway-adjacent ajwain seeds, all sprinkled with tart and funky chaat masala, and ready for dipping in the chutney of your choice? I needed to tinker with the seasoning at the end, but once I had it dialed in, I realized I’d made something so authentic, it brought me back to specific train platforms where I’d seen vendors selling huge trays of it in western India.
My main critique of the book is that you’ll occasionally be flying blind, cooking a style of food that’s probably new to you. I occasionally caught myself looking for more hand-holding than I expected. This came from things as simple as a lack of photographs of what a few of the dishes look like. Or that the road trip photos of the food might not sync with the recipe Chauhan proposes. The lamb yakhni, for example, calls for boneless leg cut in 1-inch cubes, but the (still beautiful) photo shows two big bone-in pieces. And I learned the hard way that seedless tamarind pulp may, counterintuitively, still have lots of seeds in it—a mistake that cost me an hour when making tamarind chutney.
On a related note, if this kind of cooking is all new to you, take it easy on yourself and just buy some store-bought chutneys. By the time I’d made two of them on my first day cooking from the book, I was all cooked out and didn’t have anything to eat. Also, the occasional bit of added specificity would help. Calling for “two red onions” in an onion fritter recipe without giving a rough weight or even size—are those big onions? little ones?—can lead to unwanted problems.
I finished out testing with Delhi’s classic aloo chaat, the first recipe in the book. Here, boiled then shallow-fried potato bites are coated with chili powder, toasted cumin, chaat masala, and finely chopped red onion, then served with chutneys, salted yogurt, and pomegranate seeds. You can doll this up further, as, to borrow a pretty phrase from Chauhan, “tomatoes, red onions, radishes, and cucumbers are all frequent dance partners.”
Elisabeth and I danced, so to speak, making the dish with just the ingredients as written, then eating it, happy in the way we might have been had fireworks just started going off over the dance floor.
Doesn’t this sound fun? Wouldn’t you like a little more fun in your life right now, perhaps with a bit of crunchy sev sprinkled on top? Or at least a safe, socially distanced project that’ll help us get through the end of winter? Buy Chaat, pick out a few recipes—no skipping bhel puri!—make a list, bring it to the Indian grocery store, and ask for the manager.
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