Have you seen the movie The Namesake?
Shortly after the main character’s mother arrives in America, she tries to make a snack with rice crispies and spices. When you think about it, rice crispies are just puffed rice. So it wasn’t all that strange.
She just wanted chaat.
The Indian Equivalent of a Burger and Fries
Chaat is comfort food. Street food. The simple cheap things that kids save up their pennies for.
Nearly every street corner in Bombay has colorful, refreshing treats for sale. It holds an important part in people’s hearts. After visiting a certain bhel poori vendor on the way to one’s family home throughout childhood, no afternoon would seem complete without the snack.
It is both a savory snack and a kid’s treat. Part fried junk food, part daily helping of vegetables.
What is chaat?
Chaat is hard to define. There are no set ingredients contained in every dish, nothing that unifies the group as a whole.
In a chaat “restaurant” here in the U.S., you will find one of those seemingly endless menus where each item seems to be a word puzzle style rearrangement of the same words (like in a Chinese restaurant).
According to Wikipedia:
Chaat is plate of savoury snacks, typically served at road-side tracks from stalls or carts in India and Pakistan. The chaat variants are all based on fried dough, with various other ingredients.
Vik’s Chaat, the oldest chaat house in the Bay Area, says:
Chaat literally means “to lick.”
Traditionally, this road side snack was served on a leaf and was so tongue-tickling that one could not resist licking the last morsels from the leaf before discarding it.
A comprehensive article at 17things give the word a totally different meaning:
Chaat means ‘to taste’ in Hindi, and most of it are small dishes. People can create chaat by combining numbers of dishes or just one for a snack.
Meanwhile, Yum Sugar gives a more broad definition:
Pronounced “chahht,” the word is used to describe any wide range of sweet or savory dishes found in the street stalls of India and Pakistan.
Whatever you call it though, it is an addictive treat.
What You Need to Make it at Home
On Indian street corners, each vendor sells only a single type of chaat. To make a meal, you need a bit more variety.
Of the infinite combinations of potato, puffed rice, raw onions, chutnies, and more, you need a little balance. Here is a chaat menu that includes some legumes, dairy, and vegetables, some fried items and some raw items, and a mix of salty and sweet.
Indian Chaat Menu
Warning: This menu requires some things to be prepared the night in advance. Not actually cooking, just soaking lentils/legumes. Make sure to plan ahead.
Dahi vada is a dish with fried dough balls soaked in yogurt and topped with sweet tamarind chutney. Bhel puri, also known as “the salad” by my friends, is an eclectic mix of vegetables, puffed rice, and sauces. Misal is a make-your-own dish with curried lentils and toppings like puffed rice, diced onions, and cilantro.
- Fill two large bowls with water and add the urad dal for the vada to one and the matki to another for the misal.
- mins 1-5: Heat the a frying pan filled with oil for frying the vada and a small pot of water to boil the potatoes. In a medium saucepan, fry the spices for the misal. Add water and the drained matki and bring the mixture to a boil.
- mins 6-10: Mash the softened urad dal into a paste and drop spoonfuls in the oil to fry. Soak the vada in water for a minute after frying.
- mins 11-18: Chop the vegetables for the bhel puri and the toppings for the misal.
- min 19: Add the vada to a bowl filled with yogurt and top with tamarind chutney.
- min 20: Mix the bhel, veggies, and chutnies for the bhel puri.
Serve the bhel puri and dahi vada first, almost like a first course. Once everyone has had a helping, remove the serving dishes and bring out the cooked matki with little bowls for all of the different misal toppings (cherry tomatoes, bhel, diced onions, cilantro, lime wedges).