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The return of homemade chaats

Improvised iterations of ‘dahi’, ‘bhel’ and ‘paani puri’ offer a clean break from lockdown ennui

‘Shahi raj kachori’
‘Shahi raj kachori’ (Photo: Alamy)

Want a quick fix for a persistent chaat craving? Type “chaat" into the search bar of any social media platform, from Instagram and Twitter to TikTok, and you will be bemused by the mind-boggling variety of chaats and chaat innovations people have come up with to make up for the loss of the corner chaatwalla, with ingredients like Maggi, chicken and even leftover idlis.

Recently, author and culinary consultant Saee Koranne-Khandekar posted a picture of home-made bhel on Instagram stories with two words: Emotional fuel. A Twitter user, @RajiGururaj, posted: “I am at that stage of quarantine where I am nifty enough to make chaat with khakra, for a meal." It was accompanied by a plate of khakra broken into nachos-inspired triangles, topped with some curd, freshly chopped onion, tomato and coriander, streaked with drops of green chutney and what seemed like chaat masala. If the masala is unavailable, roasted and grounded cumin will hit the right spot.

On Facebook, the buzzy food community with 5,000-plus members called Simple Recipes for Complicated Times has a top-notch time-saving recipe for dahi vada, renamed Mock Dahi Vada, by a member named Aditi De. Premixed leftover dosa batter, from the brand ID, was fried in a paniyaram pan, soaked in water to imitate the moist dahi vada texture and dunked in curd with chutneys. On Instagram, and elsewhere, Maggi bhel, with cooked and fried Maggi topped with everything from fresh pomegranate seeds and boiled chickpeas to sour raw mango shavings, has redefined both Maggi and bhel. Those not active on such platforms share their triumphs with paani puri on WhatsApp family groups.

The two primary aspects of a chaat are the farsaan (crisps) and chutneys, says celebrity chef Sabyasachi Gorai. His advice is to pay close attention to chutneys, which need to be absolutely fresh for a lip-smacking experience. Usually, there are two variations, a sweetish tamarind and the spicy mint. As a time-saving trick, he suggests making a simple coriander chutney. Take one cup coriander, add a small piece of tamarind or a teaspoon of lemon juice, one green chilli (or more depending on taste), salt and sugar or jaggery, as needed. Use this generously on a wide variety of chaats.

To reduce wastage while making papdis, cut them into squares instead of circular discs. Papdis are made by kneading dough, like one does for roti, but extra ghee or oil is needed for a crispy outcome. They can be deep-fried or baked like savoury biscuits. While kneading the papdi dough, one can sparingly add whole spices like cumin, ajwain (carom seeds), fennel or nigella seeds for flavour. A sprinkling of spices over finely chopped fresh coriander acts as garnish.

While most use chaat masala for this purpose, virtually every household has its own signature recipe. Gorai’s mother roasted and ground whole red chillies and cumin to top off chaats. In Bhopal, this spice mix is called jeera maal. “Practise restraint while adding spices," advises Gorai. Chaats are like a mini meal; their purpose is to tickle the taste buds, signal the body to release digestive juices and prepare it for a bigger meal.

Shooting an episode of the ‘Street Food: Asia’ show with Dalchand Kashyap, who runs a ‘chaat’ business in Delhi.
Shooting an episode of the ‘Street Food: Asia’ show with Dalchand Kashyap, who runs a ‘chaat’ business in Delhi. (Photo courtesy: Dalchand Kashyap)

In an episode of the Netflix show Street Food: Asia, Dalchand Kashyap, owner of the small chaat business called Mangla Chatwale in Mayur Vihar, Delhi, says, “Sabse zyada mehnaat chaat mein family ki hoti hai (a good chaat is the work of the entire family)." His aloo tikkis are already legendary in Delhi but after the show, featuring his story of running a business with his family, tourists queued up for his chaat as well.

When the lockdown was announced in late March, Kashyap shut shop and started cooking 100-150kg food every day near a temple to feed the homeless and migrant workers. He calls them musafir (travellers).Speaking to Mint over the phone last week, he said the musafir had left and he had started home delivery on a small scale, particularly puris for golgappe. During the lockdown, his friends and clients from Dubai and the US have contacted him to enquire about recipes. His advice, on the show and for those who contact him, remains the same—“As much as possible, use good and fresh ingredients."

In the boisterous food universe of social media, why has chaat become a mass favourite? It may be the thrill of making something new that’s perceived to be cumbersome and achieving an unexpected level of success validated by likes and reshares. Or, perhaps, the underlying need is to connect to the world outside through a street food, especially in these times.

Chaat has always broken the monotony of a lockdown," says food historian Pushpesh Pant, referring to the way women who are often cloistered by their families seek to break out through an unfettered enjoyment of chaat—an image bolstered by pop culture and Hindi cinema.

Pant talks about the women from the orthodox communities of Old Delhi who are not allowed to step out of their homes without a male escort, looking forward to the arrival of the neighbourhood chaatwalla in the evening. As he positions his cart of gol gappe and tikkis, their children run out to fetch a freshly made plate of chaat customized to their tastes. It is a symbolic act—in Pant’s words, “an act of bringing the street home when you cannot step out".

A similar phenomena has unfolded in the time of social distancing. Rustling up dishes intrinsically considered street food brings a taste of the outside world into the home. Pant attributes the revival of chaat-making at home to two factors—the need to repurpose leftovers and a kitchen activity that brings the family together because the outcome is delightful.

So, for example, if there’s some chhole masala and dahi left over from lunch, these can be assembled as a chaat and garnished with something crispy like bhujia or papad with a sprinkling of chaat masala. Pant says even crushed Monaco biscuits can serve as garnish.

It’s all about simplicity and reinvention—even children can join in to recreate the flavours of the street.

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