I quickly stumped the clerk who helped me find groceries at the Indian market in Issaquah, Washington. She looked at the length of the shopping list on my clipboard, then at me, and said, “Let me find the manager.” He and I sped through the first 10 or 15 ingredients, stuff like black chickpeas, Kashmiri chili powder, jaggery, nigella seed, curry leaves, and buttermilk, before he caved.
“What are you making?”
These purchases created a whole new annex to my spice drawer. I was happily switching from being a consumer of one of my favorite foods—the Indian snack food known as chaat—to making it myself, thanks to a fantastic new cookbook. My guide was its author, Maneet Chauhan, an Indian-born chef with a set of Nashville restaurants and a slot on the Food Network’s show Chopped.
This was an exciting plunge to take: Chauhan and her coauthor, Jody Eddy, use their book Chaat: Recipes From the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India to introduce readers to what I consider the most fun food most Westerners have never had. It is also perhaps the least subtle of foods, pressing all of our buttons at once, giving whopping doses of sweet, sour, salt, and savory, along with a litany of spices, from hot to funky and multiple varieties of crunch.
My favorite, and suggested gateway drug, is bhel puri. Chop up ingredients like cooked potato, red onion, cilantro, tomato, and mango. Add spoonfuls of tamarind and cilantro-mint chutney, toss on some toasted cumin seeds and big scoops of puffed rice, sprinkle with chaat masala, itself a tart and funky spice blend, and gently stir it together. If at some point in that list of ingredients, you thought, that’s probably plenty, you’ve missed the point. Instead, sprinkle crispy, crunchy sev—tiny chickpea flour noodles—over the top.
It is fresh and healthy and the gastronomic equivalent of being in a room full of your best friends, an explosion of joy on your palate. I don’t know how your pandemic’s going, but I am 100 percent down with a bit of fun right now.
So … what is chaat again? The Hindi word for “to lick”—chaats are street-food snacks that Chauhan describes as “tangy and sweet, fiery and crunchy, savory and sour, all in one topsy-turvy bite … They often include a main element such as an idli or puffed rice, that is served with a variety of other ingredients such as chutneys, yogurt, and chaat masala.
Chauhan’s book is your passport to this joy. Chaat is classic Indian train-station food, and she reminds us that Mumbai alone has five major and more than a hundred local train stations, each with its own chaat specialties. The book, with photos by Linda Xiao, is structured as a train trek across the country, each section divided into recipes for a handful of regional specialties. While there are a few more composed shots, most of them are from Chauhan, Eddy, and Xiao’s trip there. My favorite is a passport-size shot of the chef on page 113, enthusiastically munching her way through a potato fritter sandwich known as vada pav. As she puts it, it’s “a potato fritter the size of a baseball stuffed into a flaky white bun, smeared with coconut and spicy green chile chutneys, then squished until it’s small enough to fit into your mouth.” No pretense here, just good food.