Geeta chithi, my maternal aunt, has introduced me to a brand of chaat masala that has become my absolute favourite. Whenever she asks me what I want from Mumbai, my immediate response is a request for a couple of bottles of this irresistible masala. The brand is A-1 All in One Masala, a renowned name from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, known for its jaljeera chaat masala. Curiosity led me to examine the ingredients listed on the bottle as well as their website, hoping to uncover the secret behind the flavour I love so much.
Compared to other chaat masala brands, A-1 All in One has a succinct list of ingredients: black salt, coriander, black pepper, cumin, amchur (dried mango powder), asafoetida, mint powder and limbuful (citric acid crystals, referred to as such by Gujaratis).
Analysing the labels of different chaat masala brands is intriguing as it reveals the unique elements that contribute to each one’s distinctive taste. The foundation of chaat masala typically consists of amchur, black salt, coriander and cumin powder. Some brands also incorporate all or some of the following—dried pomegranate seeds, black pepper powder, dried ginger powder, carom seed powder, nutmeg, clove powder and asafoetida. Additionally, I have come across some uncommon additions in certain brands such as dried kachri powder (bitter cucumber), dried mint powder, green chilli powder, black cardamom, long pipal (long pepper whole), and caraway powder.
Handcrafting your own chaat masala can be an enjoyable project. Start with the base spices and experiment with additional elements.
Chaat masala has inspired variations such as sandwich masala and fruit masala. The latter includes less ginger, coriander and cumin, while featuring a higher proportion of black salt, chilli powder and amchur. Mumbai’s street food vendors often utilise a DIY shaker for their sandwich/chaat masala which is typically a small packaged water bottle with holes poked in the lid for easy and generous seasoning of the vegetable-filled bread slices.
Indian street food may be viewed as less sophisticated compared to the pricey gourmet dishes served in upscale restaurants. However, upon closer inspection (or taste), one will discover the richness of nuance, flavours and creativity. A well-made chaat exemplifies a perfect balance of textures (soft, crisp, squishy, juicy, hard crunchy, delicately crunchy), colours and flavours (salty, sweet, sour, spicy and umami).
Chaat masala, the ubiquitous finishing spice in all things chaat, epitomises the essence of umami flavour. Umami arises from the combination of the sulphurous aroma of black salt, the astringency of amchur and the toasted spices. This is one of the reasons why chaat is irresistibly addictive and finger-licking delicious.
Although chaat masala is an essential component of north and west Indian cuisine, its reach is not as widespread in the east and south. In the east, particularly in Kolkata, street food delicacies like churmuri, phuchka, jhal muri and dahi vada receive a sprinkling of bhaja masala, typically consisting of only four ingredients: cumin seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and green cardamom. Notably, souring ingredients like amchur, anardana or kachri are absent in this masala. In the south, some homemade dishes incorporate a finishing spice known as mel podi, which comprises red chillies, coriander seeds, chana dal, fenugreek seeds, black pepper, asafoetida and red chillies, bearing a close resemblance to sambar podi.
A YouTube search led me to a Pakistani home cook’s video on making chaat masala at home. She suggests adding two surprising ingredients to the masala: a spoonful of store-bought chaat masala (almost like Inception) and MSG or chicken powder. These additions contribute to increasing the glutamate or umami content of the mix.
So, what are some dishes other than chaat that can be seasoned with chaat masala? Think of it as an umami booster for any savoury dish. Some ideas that come to mind include butter-chaat masala popcorn, cole slaw with a chaat masala-mayo dressing, and salad dressing made with chaat masala, lemon juice and olive oil.
In his 2020 book Ottolenghi Flavour, chef Yotam Ottolenghi presents a recipe for chaat masala potatoes. I can hardly contain my excitement for the rest of the world to discover the magic that is chaat masala.
1 raw mango
1 ripe mango
1 small onion
1 medium tomato
A handful of coriander
2 green chillies
1 tsp chaat masala
Half lemon, juiced
2 tsp mustard oil (optional)
Peel and finely chop the ripe and raw mangoes and onion. Chop the tomato, coriander and green chillies finely. Combine everything in a bowl. Add chaat masala, lemon juice and mustard oil. Toss well. Serve as a condiment with a meal or along with crackers.
Makes 12 pieces
12 puris (gol gappa puris)
Half cup diced boiled potato
3-4 tbsp cooked black chana
3-4 tbsp finely chopped onions
1 cup thick yogurt (whisked)
2 tbsp green chutney
2 tbsp tamarind chutney (optional)
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp chaat masala
2-3 tbsp fine sev
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander
Stuff each cracked open puri with a bit of potato, chana and onion. Add one-two spoons of yogurt in each puri. Top with a drizzle of green and tamarind chutneys. Sprinkle chilli powder and chaat masala over the puris. Top with fine sev and coriander. Serve immediately.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.