Chaat plays a central part in India’s bustling culinary life, and you’ll find lip-smacking variations of it on every street corner the length and breadth of the nation. So what is it exactly?
Difficult to define but impossible to forget, chaat essentially refers to a range of savoury snacks and morsels that you can grab and eat right there at the side of the road. It encompasses a whole spread of tastes and textures that are designed to combine perfectly into a single delicious bite, but is defined by its street-food style and bold flavours. The word itself stems from the Hindi cāṭ चाट, and means ‘to lick’ or ‘to taste’.
Although chaat at its most authentic is still to be found on sizzling food carts and stalls all over India, you can also find it taking the form of side dishes or hors d’oeuvres at restaurants, on sharing platters at dinner parties, or as a light, quick meal rustled up from whatever’s left in the pantry. Today we take a closer look at this culinary phenomenon as well as sharing a few tips on how you can bring the world’s most sophisticated fast-food into the comfort of your own home.
A Brief History of Chaat
Like most culinary staples that have developed to encompass a range of dishes and tastes, the precise birth date of chaat cannot be fixed with any certainty. There are, in fact, several different ‘origin stories’ for this rich tradition.
Some have traced its origins to the late 17th century and the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Janan. Culinary anthropologist Dr Kurush Dalal has written of how, in Uttar Pradesh at that time, royal doctors advised the emperor that the general population needed to eat a range of spicy, fried snacks, as well as yoghurt, in order to balance out the alkaline quality of the local Yamuna River. The theory is that this led to some of the characteristic flavour combinations and acidity that we see in many traditional chaat dishes today.
Other cultural critics believe that its roots can be traced back further, even into ancient times. Some have noted that descriptions of dahi vada, a yoghurt and vada dish that is still a staple of chaat today, appear in literature as far back as 500 BC. There would certainly have been a demand for quick, delicious food prior to the 17th century, but whether or not chaat can be defined simply by its convenience is debatable.
Nowadays, chaat in all its wonderful variety can be found everywhere you go in India, as well as being available in many towns and cities throughout the Western world. Most chaat dishes have developed according to regional tastes, with some such as pani puri, dahi vada, and aloo tikki now spanning the globe. But with so much variation within a single tradition, how can you define chaat, and what does it consist of?
What Does Chaat Consist Of?
It can sometimes be difficult to get your head around a culinary phrase that encompasses such a bewildering array of dishes and ingredients. When you think about it, it can be difficult to describe a dish such as ‘salad’, or ‘stew’, or ‘soup’ to someone who hasn’t encountered them before.
Although they have certain recognisable characteristics, as well as various components that you might expect to see, you’re not going to be able to accurately define them merely by listing ingredients, as these tend to change depending on the chef, the season, and the occasion.
The same is true of chaat, something which is perhaps better identified by its characteristics and taste profiles than any specific ingredients or cooking instructions.
Generally speaking, chaat will often aim to provide something which is quick to serve and eat, something which can act as a small meal, side dish, or a snack for on the go. Crucially, chaat also aims to combine a wide range of tastes and textures into a single plate. Spicy, sweet, sour, herbaceous, salty, crunchy, smooth, wet, hot, cold, and crispy can all appear!
To try to achieve this acrobatic feat of flavour, chaat will often employ the following components:
Starch Base – Carbohydrates can take the form of vada, samosa, pani, puffed rice, fried potatoes and more. These provide the base of the dish and the bulk of its calories.
Vegetables – Diced raw onions and tomatoes will often add freshness and zest to the dish, whereas boiled potatoes or peas can add a smooth texture and savoury depth.
Sauces – No chaat is complete without its sauces, the two most popular being mint-coriander chutney and tamarind chutney. The latter gives a sour tanginess to dishes which is often balanced out by the salty, crispiness of other ingredients. The former gives a fresh, aromatic lift to the plate.
Crunch – A good chaat is as much about texture as it is about taste. To help keep things varied, dishes will often employ crispy potatoes, crunchy chickpeas, or sev (thin, crispy noodles) to add crunch to every bite.
Yoghurt – Sometimes dahi, or yoghurt, will be included to add a creaminess and to softly balance out some of the sharp, salty tang of the other ingredients.
Chaat Masala – Some might argue that no chaat is complete without its masala, the characteristic spice blend used to add heat, flavour, and depth to whatever’s on the plate. Although different vendors, chefs, and home cooks will have their own favourite (and sometimes secret!) recipes, many chaat masalas contain a combination of dried mango powder, cumin, coriander, dried ginger, salt, pepper, asofeotida, and chilli. If you have a jar of this hanging around in the cupboard, you can pretty much sprinkle it on anything and you’re already halfway there to making a delicious chaat-style dish.
Is Chaat Healthy?
Although fast food traditionally eaten from a stall at the side of the road might not seem like the healthiest of options out there, there are certainly ways you can make your own chaat dishes more nutritious and less calorific.
As many of the starchy components are often prepared through pan or deep frying, try reducing the amount of oil used in the cooking process in order to make the dish healthier. Whenever you can, try baking, roasting, or air frying ingredients.
Chaat is an extraordinarily versatile tradition within which many different ingredients can be taken advantage of. If you want to boost the nutritional value of your chaat then make sure to load up on veggies, pulses, and herbs rather than just carb-heavy staples. Fresh onions, tomatoes, peas, green beans, lentils, chickpeas and other healthy additions can all be included – the more you put in, the healthier it’s going to be!
10 Must-Try Chaat Recipes
Ready to dive into the world of chaat but not sure where to start? Don’t let the number of possibilities put you off. Remember, you’re aiming for something that has a range of flavours and textures, so try mixing salt and sour, crunch and smoothness, sweetness and tang, to achieve the heady results of a premium chaat. Making sure you have a stock of chaat masala can also help you turn many household ingredients into a spicy and authentic-tasting chaat-style medley.
With that in mind, here are some global favourites as well as some regional Indian specialities to get you off the mark. Hopefully, these will get the chef’s brain thinking and those taste buds tingling.
1. Pani Puri (or Golgappa)
Perhaps the most iconic and widely loved chaat, pani puri involves a crispy, fried sphere of wafer-thin dough (puri), filled with a mix of vegetables such as spiced potato, chickpeas, onions, and tomatoes. You then pour in a spoonful of water (pani) flavoured with coriander, tamarind, or mint before eating the whole thing in one bite.
If you try to eat it any other way, you risk spilling it everywhere! In New Delhi and other regions of the North, the dish is often referred to as Golgappa.
2. Samosa Chaat
Samosa have become a relatively recognisable street food in the UK, available in supermarkets, grocery stores, and corner shops across the nation. In this traditional chaat, however, you will often find samosas chopped up, before being topped with chutneys, dahi (yoghurt) and crispy noodles.
It might not look like the samosa you’re used to seeing, but the blend of savoury spices and vibrant sauces will mean you’ll never look at an ungarnished samosa in quite the same way again.
3. Sev Puri
Similar in style to samosa chaat on some levels, sev puri is a speciality originating from Pune in Maharashtra state.
The dish swaps out samosa as its base ingredient for crispy pieces of papdi, or flat puri bread. This can then be topped with vegetables, yoghurt, chutneys, and pomegranate seeds, before being covered with crispy sev noodles for extra crunch.
4. Bhel Puri
Bhel puri is a delicious medley of puffed rice, spiced vegetables and tangy tamarind sauce, often associated with the bustling beaches of Mumbai and family picnics during the holiday season. Onions, coriander, and lemon all add zest to the proceedings, with the puffed rice itself adding texture to the mix.
As with nearly all chaat dishes, sev can be added for those who love maximum crunch.
5. Aloo Tikki
Aloo Tikki is another extremely popular chaat dish which can be found the length and breadth of India, this time with potato fritters as the base carbohydrate. These small croquettes will often be made from boiled potatoes, peas, and various curry spices, served hot alongside tamarind, coriander-mint sauce and saunth, a sweet chutney made from dried ginger and tamarind paste.
In North India, you can also find some dhabas, or street-side food stops, selling aloo tikki inside bread buns, forming a chaat-style sandwich.
6. Dahi Vada
A creamier chaat, but still one that combines the tastes and textures of other dishes.
The centrepiece of the dahi vada is the dahi – the creamy yoghurt used to cover and soften the fried vadas underneath. This will then often be streaked with coriander chutney, tamarind, and other piquant sauces to add lift to the soft base of the dish.
7. Aloo Chaat
Another potato-based medley, aloo chaat is a versatile and sumptuous fried snack, where crispy potatoes are tossed with sweet and sour chutneys, spices, and coriander leaves. Pomegranate seeds and sev can also be added for sweetness and crunch.
This is particularly popular in North Indian states, but can be found throughout the country and further abroad.
8. Papri Chaat
Papri are effectively small, crispy chips or crackers made from wheat dough. In papri chaat, they are then, you guessed it, slathered in all sorts of delectable toppings, including spiced vegetables, onions, chutneys and yoghurt.
Some people describe papri chaat as the nachos of India!
9. Shakarkandi Chaat
Shakarkandi is the Hindi word for sweet potato, and this chaat involves cubing it, roasting or frying it, and then garnishing it with all the usual chaat suspects, such as masala, chutneys, chickpeas, onions, and vegetables.
Found on street corners all across New Delhi, this is also a good option if you want to swap out some less nutritious starch bases for a lower-fat, lower-carb, higher vitamin foundation. Sweet potatoes also roast deliciously and don’t necessarily need you to apply buckets of oil in order to get the best out of them.
10. Ragda Patties
A Gujarati addition to the broad chaat menu, this involves pan-fried potato patties served with a spicy white pea curry and topped with onions, diced coriander, chutneys, and sev.
Ragda refers to the dried white pea curry itself, which sometimes has a spiced, earthy and slightly sour edge to it. This is a prime example of a regional dish becoming a national favourite.
We hope these recipes have given you some food for thought and that you’ll be tempted to start experimenting with chaat in your very own home.
Remember, all of the ingredients you need to make a balanced and tasty chaat can be readily found in supermarkets and Asian grocery stores across the UK, with many ingredients being interchangeable. What you’re aiming for is an overall balance of flavours and textures, something which can be achieved using a variety of methods. Have fun, experiment, and happy eating!