It’s Time We Had a Little Chaat

decked with sevEveryone keeps asking me what amazed/thrilled/amused/enthralled me most about India. The culture? The colors? Extraordinary sites steeped in ancient history? The traffic? Usually I say traffic—I mean, lawlessness barely scratches the surface of describing the bright yellow rickshaws and motorbikes triumphantly steered by sari-clad women.

And oh, the honking. All that melodious, soothing, blaring into the eardrum of your soul honking. Discovering new depths of sound saturation has been crossed off my bucket list, yay.

But naturally food reigned triumphant over all. Despite the family emergencies and various stresses that cropped up while there, food was my saving grace and ever-nurturing companion through thick and thin. And once I uncovered the presence of chaat, my fluttery soul tethered its wings in satiated bliss. You see, as far as I can recall, chaat (a sweet and spicy mixture of yogurt, chutneys, and/or potatoes, garbanzo beans, crispy fried dough/bread/noodles, onions, and so on) has been a coveted treat in my household. Whenever we made a trip to the “Little India” hotspots in southern California (shout out to Cerritos! Holla!) or even to our local Pakistani/Indian vendors (India Sweets & Snacks, I still ponder over your choice in paintings), chaat always found a way into our sights, mouths and tummies. Occasionally in the car ride home too.

I just cannot get enough of the tangy mixture of bread and lentil patties dolloped with tart milky yogurt and tangy spicy chutney. Oh but not just any typical chutney. Yes, the green coriander chutney might be there, but no no no, this dish is brought straight to celestial status by the sharp tamarind chutney that is an absolute MUST! If you haven’t tried it, then go out. Now. Find a place that is known for good quality Imli ki chutney and feast with a samosa, chaat, or anything really. And if you don’t like it? Then something malfunctioned in your brain and it must be rewired, or you’ve not had it the quality of which my mom makes.

Yes that is how I got hooked, I admit. My mom makes the BEST tamarind chutney. Crazy tart. Crazy spicy. Crazy sweet. My own sweet drug… tamarind is actually horrible for your teeth if you suck on the pure stuff, which is exactly what I used to do while my mom would make the chutney. I can’t help it; I enjoyed making my mouth scrunch up into a sour-ridden ball. So worth the eons of dental work that lie before me now… kidding kidding. Not eons, just decades.

Anyway, back to India. It actually took a week before I even dabbled in their many versions of chaat, but once I did there could be no turning back. I tried mixed chaat (mixed as in loaded with mostly everything!) in three locations. Well, I tried various kinds of chaat various times in three locations, and happily documented all of them for your viewing (and my reminiscing) pleasure. I’m happy to report that every dish was phenomenal in its own way.

Kailash Parbat, the unassuming but quite classy restaurant near our home, offered the most unique varieties and the tastiest presentation and best dahi (yogurt) consistency.  Their chaat-building station offered the delight of watching grandmasters whip up all the goodliness together before your eyes (nevermind that the waiters loom over and watch your every move, so maybe you don’t get up to watch the chefs. Maybe you just sit and hide in the corner and hope the creepy waiter will stop staring.  Seriously. That’s one cultural trait I experienced everywhere).  Their Spicy Okra chaat intrigued me from the menu to the table and really hit the mark.  Overall, everything was superb.

holy moly, who knew that would be delish!

Gangotree (the go-to place in Madras for chaat) totally OWNED the tamarind chutney and the overall flavor of the ingredients. Everyone told the husband he HAD to take me there if I was such a chaat-afficcionado and somehow we actually made it happen (the second week was tough because we were dealing with his mom falling ill, but thankfully she is fine and so are my tingly tastebuds).  I’m so grateful we tried this place. The sweets weren’t exceptional, but the chaat ruled supreme.  The perfect hole-in-the-wall type of joint with as much flavor written int he walls as in the food.  I loved it.

BTW The husband is an uber-fan of bhel puri, which is puffed rice with the same kind of mixture (on the left above).

Shree Mithai only placed third because they didn’t have mixed chaat—only papdi chaat (only crispy wafers, no dough balls, potato, chickpeas etc).  But there’s no denying that with sweets, there is no contest.  The gulab jamun and rasmalai saturated my insides with dazzling flavors, and their other sweets melt in your mouth. It is my one major regret that I did not have a chance to buy loads of sweets from there to bring back.  Seriously, that is a major fail, and any native of Madras will tell you as much.  *hides in shame* Look out for some shots of sweets on our FB page in the near future.

We had many treats at Shree, including the samosa pictured above and the vada pav, which is basically a potato sandwich. The husband almost cried when he bit into it, as it flooded him with happy memories of a childhood stuffed with vadas…

We both also dabbled in the art of the panipuri (or golgappa)—fried hollow puri (kind of bread) that forms a sphere that you can fill with potato, onions etc and top off with spiced/masala-fied water and tamarind chutney.

No matter how you swing it, the spicy chutneys and chopped chilis and coriander are matched beautifully when unified with yogurt, and make this kind of treat something worth singing about.

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