For food writer Sonal Ved, the diverse world of street foods is her playground. During the recent pandemic-induced lockdown when people were trying to perfect Dalgona coffee, the author-journalist was busy figuring out how to make a ‘lasagna’ with papdi chaat. It’s from this love and curiosity for street food that her new book,IndiaLocal emerged.
Growing up in Mumbai and in a Gujarati family that loves cooking, especially a mother who made a variety of chaats, writing a cookbook on this topic almost feels like a calling for Ved. “I started work on it two and half years ago. I missed chaats immensely during the lockdown, and started trying to recreate street style flavours with a lot of permutations and combinations. This led me to do two seasons of a cooking show, Chaats of India (on the digital food video network Tastemade). It focused on chaats, and required exhaustive research. Writing this book was a way of bringing it all together,” Ved tells Lounge.
There is a tendency to use the terms chaats and street foods interchangeably, but they are not the same. Ved explains. “A chaat is something that is served before a meal, like a Spanish tapas or Italian antipasti; whereas street food can be a meal in itself. Importantly, all chaats are street food but not all street food items are chaat,” she says. For instance, pani puri qualifies as a chaat as well as a street food dish, but a bun maska is street food not a chaat.
Ved tends to observe street food in her travels across India, and their dwindling presence made her want to document them. A few years ago, while on a shoot in Agra she noticed there were just two iconic chaats shops, others were focusing on pasta, sandwiches and Hakka noodles. “There was no connection to regional food and this was something that stayed with me,” Ved says.
As a lover of street foods, Ved wanted to take people on a walk through the gullies of India and show them age-old chaats from different states, ranging from classics like sev puri and dahi bhalle to those that tickle one’s curiosity such as dahi gujia, lentil fritters stuffed with spices and topped with yoghurt, and Bihari ghugni, a toss-up of spiced peas and chutneys. The sheer accessibility of street foods binds people, regardless of their social and economic status, Ved writes in the book’s introduction.
Her family loves chaats and gathers to enjoy them every Sunday, and over the years Ved has come up with some healthy chaats such as Vitamin Bhel, containing mixed sprouts, fruits, and vegetables, topped with sev, to make these culinary nights a little healthier. “The ‘vitamin’ in Vitamin Bhel loosely refers to the fruits and vegetables we include in it,” Ved shares. There are other recipes in the book that include sprouts such as the Dhakai chaat, where a paratha is topped with potatoes, sprouts, yoghurt and chutneys, an invention by chef Amninder Kaur.
Ved also experiments with meaty bites complemented by the chutneys and sev, which she feels can surprise many. For instance, the crispy lamb bhel chaat, which chef Hussain Shahzad made on her cooking show is something she wishes she had learned. “The lamb is tempura-fried and cooked with chutneys. It’s not a recipe you will find on the streets, it’s his vision,” Ved says.
For the food writer, a surprising revelation while writing the cookbook was that a lot of recipes were traced back to Maharashtra and not Delhi; the latter is almost synonymous with chaats. “It was unexpected to find so many recipes rooted in Maharashtra. From sukhi bhel to sev bhuri, the popularisation of these happened in metropolitan cities as these are considered quick bites. In a bustling place like Mumbai, it makes sense that many chaats have found a home in and around this city,” Ved says.
Another place whose street foods are a must-try is Kashmir. In fact, one of Ved’s favourite foods is Kashmiri Masalah Tchot, wherein a Kashmiri roti is stuffed with mashed chickpeas, grated radish, onions, spices, yoghurt and walnut chutney. She tasted it in Srinagar. Ved was fascinated by the texture and how it felt like a combination of a taco and a wrap.
One of the sections of the book, Unique Recipes from my Kitchen, is dedicated to Ved’s cooking experiments. One of them birthed her favourite Papdi Lasagna with Orange yoghurt. It has crispy flour disks layered with cottage cheese, potato and yoghurt sauce. “My chef friends joke that I have used papdi to make lasagna because I am Gujarati. There is no pasta sheet, the lasagna refers to papdi layered with yoghurt, potatoes, and spices. This format makes it convenient to serve. You set it and when it's ready to be eaten, it’s soft and crunchy,” Ved says.
The author comes from a community that celebrates chaats, and she has a knack for reimagining any dish by adding papdi, chutney, sev, sprouts and dahi. Her book, India Local, takes this further by showing how street food reflects a culture's ever evolving inventiveness with cuisine.