Over one billion served
Crack the code of chaat, India's most revered fast food.
I'm on a mission to decipher the intricacies of chaat, the legendary Indian street food, with the gregarious Ram Sharma as my guide. Sharma, who owns Indian Grill, is a fast-talking man-about-town and a self-proclaimed chaat expert.
While one man's definition of chaat varies wildly from the next, I've been able to nail down the following commonly accepted truths: In Hindi, the word chaat (rhymes with knot) means "to lick;" they're vegetarian snacks sold by street vendors and in "chaat houses" throughout India; though there are various combinations, chaat dishes consist of salty fried dough, onion, yogurt, sev (small dried noodles) and coriander; the sprinkling of chaat masala (a piquant blend of spices, including dried green mango, pomegranate seeds, mint leaves, cumin, muskmelon, Bishop's weed, coriander and that sulfurlike substance, black salt) turns a basic fried snack into a "real" chaat; and the combination of sweet, salty and sour flavors is unbelievably addictive. The good stuff is found mostly in northern India, but there are a few chaat houses on Devon Avenue that make good on the Bombay-style version, believed to be the best in the world.
"Most people buy their masala from New Delhi because it's so difficult to make. There are just too many ingredients to deal with," Sharma says as he back-seat drives the whole ride to Devon. "But the masala has to be there to make a dish a chaat. Add some chaat masala to a plain samosa and then it's a chaat." Sounds easy enough, but it all seems confusing to newcomers once they hit the sensory overload that is Chicago's Indo-Pak home away from home.
Here, chaat is likened to an Indian version of fast food. Few restaurants offer it on their menus, and only a small number of places fry up the real deal. Those that do list chaat dishes in Hindi on a hanging menu board in Hindi, making it tough for Americans to catch on to what's what. In India, the bite-size chaat are eaten at teatime and bring families together, rich or poor. Lip smacking and finger licking are acceptable as people line the streets, choosing goods from their favorite vendors and eating while standing. But here in the good old huge-portion USA, chaat blasts its way from a tiny 30-cent snack to a gigantic $2.50 plate of delicious madness.
Our first stop is Annapurna(2608 W Devon Ave between Rockwell St and Talman Ave, 773-764-1858), one of the oldest chaat houses in Chicago, owned by the Patel Brothers (who own about half of the block). In true chaat house fashion, ordering is done at a counter, much like the way it's done at American fast-food joints. The place is packed with multigenerational Indian families, with little kids and old ladies reaching for plates and feeding their cravings. Sharma says this midday family rush is typical, but high-school and college kids pile in later. He fires off requests for exotic-sounding dishes like bhel puri, pani puri and papdi chaat, before dragging me next door to the Patel Brothers grocery store to find a box of MDH Chunky Chaat Masala ("the best masala there is"), which he insists I try straight from the box. After licking the sweet, sour, salty and tangy flavors from our fingers, we head back to Annapurna to begin the feast.
The dishes are placed fast and furiously along the counter, and I'm stunned to see that they look identical, save for the pani puri (see "Munchies manual" for more on these dishes). I was expecting a rainbow-colored variety, like Greek meze or Spanish tapas, but they were spitting images of each other. "Chaats are all vegetarian, you know? If you use meat, it becomes a kebab," Sharma explains as he constructs another delicate orb of pani puri for me. "We have to eat everything here, as chaat is no good for leftovers. They become soggy, not crispy, like they're supposed to be."
After swigs of superfresh mango lassi, we dig into the papdi chaat, a perfect example of chaat's wondrous ability to create a memorable, mouthwatering addiction. I scoop up piece after piece of small, whole-wheat crisps and swish them around in the sour yogurt, sweet chutneys and soft garbanzo beans. It is pure and utter bliss and, sadly, I'm spoiled for every chaat to come.
The next pit stop, Sukhadia's (2559 W Devon Ave between Maplewood Ave and Rockwell St, 773-338-5400), is known more for sugar-charged sweets, but it still has a firm grip on the chaat market. The owner, Juyant Sukhadia, quickly shows us to a table and cheerfully adds to the mayhem gurgling away in my belly. Here, we sample the papdi chaat and the bhel puri, which were served slightly warm rather than the room temperature chaat we had at Annapurna. As we eat, Sharma discusses the confusion over whether a regular old dish becomes a chaat with the addition of chaat masala. "You can be creative, but it will never become a chaat without masala," he insists. I just keep eating, fully into my chaat zone.
Next we head for Amrit Ganga(2629 W Devon Ave between Rockwell St and Talman Ave, 773-262-5281), another Patel Brothers–chaat house that's elbow to elbow with families eating what Sharma reports to be delicious pani puri, bhel puri and papdi chaat. I've hit my limit, but Sharma insists I try his favorite sweet ending: falooda, one of the most extraordinary drinks I've ever tasted. Imagine big scoops of saffron ice cream, covered in rose water and sprinkled with basil seeds. And just when you go in for the big slurp, up through the straw comes a bunch of noodles.
After the last unfamiliar, flavor-bursting sensation I ask Sharma how chaat houses can be demystified for the average American. He pops back with, "Just ask. And, if you're afraid to ask, then just order. They're a couple bucks each, you know? You can afford to make mistakes."
Order like a pro with this chaat cheat sheet
Samosa chaat: These crunchy, pyramid-shaped Indian potpies are stuffed with potatoes and peas. When doused with sweet tamarind chutney, they go from simply good to gimmie-half-a-dozen-great.
Papdi chaat: This must-try is basically a flat, fried dough ball smothered in yogurt and green-chile and tamarind chutneys, and then crowned with garbanzo beans and cilantro.
Pani puri: These one-bite wonders are generally served in a messy, make-your-own fashion. Take a fried dough ball, pop a hole in the middle with your finger, stuff it with garbanzo beans and potatoes, squirt in a little sweet tamarind chutney and then dunk it in jal-jerra, the spicy cumin–mint–green chile "firewater" served on the side.
Bhel puri: It looks like nachos (sans the cheese), but this sweet-and-sour mix of puffed rice, onions, cilantro, potatoes, sev, yogurt and green-chile chutney is one of the most famous chaats in Bombay.
Dahi vadi: Lentil dumplings soaked in yogurt are topped with onions, coriander, chutney and yogurt.
Aloo tikki: Simple fried potato patties get a splash of green-chile chutney and are covered with garbanzo beans, bits of sev and yogurt.
Wash them down with these much-loved Indian drinks: Addictive mango lassi, fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, falooda (saffron ice cream, covered in rose water and sprinkled with basil seeds) or the Pepsi and Sprite–like sodas, Thums Up and Limca, respectively.—Misty Tosh