One-Bite Wonders: My Love Affair with Chaat
Everything about living in Mumbai, India, is a sensory overload. A quick jaunt outside is filled with sunshine that bounces off of the brightly colored saris and salwar kameez that women wear. The air is cool and salty by the bay, turning thicker as you move inland, pungent with the sounds and smells of construction, crowds, and, most overpoweringly, food.
There’s the crackle of masala bhutta (corn cooked over a charcoal grill until the kernels blister, then slathered thickly with butter and sprinkled with mixed spices), and the cool reprieve of portable freezers carrying Chocobars and Amul brand ice creams in flavors like Alphonso mango or haldi (turmeric). And then there’s my personal favorite: chaat.
I like to think of chaat, a broad-category street food-type snack, as one of India’s greatest gifts to the world (or, at the very least, to my tastebuds). One single bite of chaat holds a well-rounded representation of the vibrancy and richness of an entire subcontinent. Chaat comes from the Hindi phrase “chaatane ko” (चाटने को), which means “to lick.” It’s a fitting name, as chaat brings about the undeniable urge to lick your lips, your fingers, and whatever bowl/plate/banana leaf the snack is presented on.
The 5 Essentials of Chaat
All chaat are snacks, but not all snacks are chaat. To be considered a chaat, a snack must contain five essential components.
- Carbohydrate base: Wadas, chips, puris, samosas, etc.
- Vegetables: Roasted corn, chickpeas, potatoes, beans, etc.
- Sauces and chutneys: Tamarind-date, mint-cilantro, raita (a yogurt that’s been thinned for drizzling and accented with lemon and chili).
- Crunchy toppings: Puffed rice, crispy thin potato strings (aka sali), crispy chickpeas, peanuts, etc.
- Chaat masala: An umami-based spice mixture of dried mango, mint, salt, cumin, coriander, ginger, asafoetida, and black pepper that brings tang, heat, and funk.
The combination of these elements achieves sensory perfection — bright, crunchy, funky, bombs of flavor that will leave you craving more long after your stomach says stop. Every Indian region and city has their own versions of chaat. In Mumbai, where I spent most of my formative years, chaat vendors can be found on almost every street corner. From city parks to school gates, train stations to office courtyards, there’s always time for chaat.
When I was growing up, chaat was always an excellent way to mark the end of a school day — whether it was grabbing a sagging paper plate of sev puri, or newspaper cones of sukha (dry) bhel before hopping onto the school bus, or being greeted by a freshly made bowl of bhel puri from my mom. Bhel puri is a style of chaat that mixes puffed rice, flat wheat crackers (puris), and peanuts with raw, diced red onion, tomatoes, coriander leaves, and green chili. It comes in various styles: Sukha-style bhel puri is served dry (without chutney); wet-style bhel puri incorporates green and tamarind-date chutney for a not-quite-soggy yet not-quite-crunchy texture that I fully adore; and sev puri is a version of bhel puri served canape-style, always topped with chutney.
After moving to the United States for college, I found myself regularly craving chaat, but ordering some as an appetizer at a restaurant every now and then wasn’t enough. I wanted to satisfy my tastebuds with chaat — and happy memories — whenever the craving hit. To help me make chaat at home, I turned to the experts, seeking out Indian chefs in America who could teach me how to recreate these moments of savory-sweet bliss.
Chef K.N. Vinod, of Indique and Bombay Bistro in the Washington, D.C., area, taught me that there is no wrong way to make chaat, as long as you adhere to the essential components. His papri chaat is now a staple in my household. Chef Heena Patel, of Besharam in San Francisco, inspired me to create dahi wada at home, which is something I thought was impossible. And I came up with a version of dahi batata puri that’s one of my favorite ways to kick off a dinner party. I’m now my own chaat vendor, and thank God for that. A life without chaat is a flavorless one.