Last January, I went to India to meet my fiancé’s extended family. But I have a one-track mind, and that track was street food—chaat, in particular. I was going to gorge myself on all the sour-salty-spicy-crispy goodness that one person can hold. Imagine my dismay when my future mother-in-law unexpectedly forbade me from eating street food. Clearly, she doesn’t know I have a stomach like a goat. So, like a 14-year-old sneaking a beer, I slipped away one afternoon and found a pani puri stall.
Here’s how it works: You stand in front of the pani puri wallah, and he hands you an empty bowl which you hold in front of yourself. Then, he takes a small puri—a fried, hollow crisp about the size and shape of a golf ball—and pokes a hole in it. He spoons spiced chickpeas, diced onions, and potatoes inside it, and then dips the whole thing into murky spiced water (pani means “water”). He hands the dripping ball to you, and you pop it into your mouth, crunching through the puri as the spicy water gushes out and gives way to the soft chickpeas and potatoes. Hold the bowl under your mouth to catch any drips. Repeat. It was wonderful—and worth all the trouble I got into later. But back in New York (where luckily, I don’t have minders), there are plenty of places to get good chaat (which means “lick” in Hindi) in both upscale and downscale versions.
Chaat is a broad term for savory snacks, most made from some combination of chickpeas, potatoes, onions, sev (fried chickpea noodles), and chutneys and sprinkled with the spice blend called chaat masala—a complex concoction that generally features sulphurous black salt, sour dried green mango, ginger, chile powder, dried mint, coriander, cumin, and black pepper, among other spices.
Some people say chaat is like Indian nachos, but there are too many chaat varieties to really pin it to that description. Types of chaat include pani puri, bhel puri (a mixture that includes puffed rice), papri chaat (fried chickpea chips doused in all the accompaniments), and samosa chaat (a samosa drenched in chutney and sprinkled with chaat masala). In fact, you can “chaat” almost anything. Traditionally, chaats are vegetarian, but recent innovations in North India include chicken chaat. You can even make a fruit salad, toss it with chutney, chile powder, and chaat masala and call it fruit-salad chaat. And, in fact, many people do just that.
Chef Floyd Cardoz, of Tabla and Bread Bar, opened a street cart outside Bread Bar this summer. The cart, which is now closed until next spring, served bhel puri, among other snacks. “Chaat should be sweet, sour, spicy, and have a lot of texture,” says Cardoz. “It’s something to get your appetite going. It’s not one-dimensional; it should have soft, hard, and crunchy elements, and it should be freshly mixed.”
The bhel puri at Cardoz’s Tabla street cart is a rather refined version, a crunchy toss of puffed rice, green apples, potatoes, onions, cilantro, green chilies, sev, tamarind chutney, and chaat masala. It’s very tasty, crunchy, and well-balanced, but I tend to enjoy down-and-dirty chaats a bit more than the sophisticated sorts. Here, Cardoz and I disagree: He notes that he prefers to make chaats that are light, healthy, and clean. I can see the appeal, but to me, a good chaat attacks you with enormous wallops of flavor and crunch.
The chaats at Khodiar, a scruffy newsstand–lunch counter, are decidedly more down-home. Khodiar is prolific in its cooking, offering Gujarati food and, oddly, a section of Latin-American dishes alongside the new counter devoted to chaat. The best snack here is sev khaman chaat. Khaman (a Gujarati dish) is a fluffy, savory cake, usually made of chickpea flour and spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds. At Khodiar, the moist, yellow cake is broken up into cottony bits and topped with crunchy sev noodles, sharp, green coriander chutney, halved green chilies, cilantro, and chaat masala. The mustard-seed-studded cake is delicious all on its own, and when it’s augmented with the other ingredients, each bite hits every taste bud in your mouth.
Khodiar also mixes up a very respectable bhel puri. “This is like spicy cereal,” exclaimed a friend who is an enthusiastic newcomer to chaat, crunching on the puffed rice. We also tried papri chaat—a deluxe, marvelously unhealthy mix, made of fried chickpea crisps tossed with various other fried tidbits, chickpeas, onions, and potatoes, and drenched in chutney and yogurt. Khodiar’s papri chaat is decent, but too light on the chickpeas and potatoes and heavy on the fried papris.
Trying to replicate my Mumbai pani puri bliss, we ordered the pani puri, but the puris were stale. Nevertheless, this bustling fast-food joint is worth a try, if only for its vast array of chaats, perhaps the largest in Manhattan. There are 31 snacks in all, ranging from the common—bhel puri and samosa chaat—to the hard-to-find, like sev khaman chaat and garlic pani puri.
About 10 blocks north of Khodiar, you can find Manhattan’s ultimate bhel puri and papri chaat at Sukhadia’s Gokul. Sukhadia’s is based in New Jersey and is best known for its mithai, or Indian sweets. The Sukhadia in midtown offers Gujarati vegetarian dishes, a large selection of mithai, and an entire “Chaat Corner,” devoted to the crunchy snacks. The bhel puri here is gloriously unsubtle—enormous bursts of sour, sweet, and spicy flavors and crunchy-crisp textures, almost overwhelmingly delicious. It drives all analytical thoughts out of my head; I’m just a happy reptilian brain, spooning big heaps of chutney-soaked puffed rice, cilantro, chickpeas, and potatoes into my mouth.
Midtown is fast becoming a chaat corridor; just one block away from Sukhadia’s, Indus Express is fabricating a half-dozen versions of the snacks. The chaat experience here is much like getting a salad at Pax—you stand in front of the sneeze-guard and watch the counterwoman tong up the ingredients, which are seemingly left over from the salad days, and toss them together. I was very worried that she was going to put tofu in my papri chaat. Oddly, all of Indus Express’s chaats include green bell peppers—a first—and lots of ripe mango, which makes the chaats slightly too sweet.
Down in Curry Hill, Dhaba is a new, fancied-up North Indian spot that’s decorated with brightly hued bolts of silk and which serves nine different snacks, listed on the menu under “Chaat Bazaar.” The papri chaat here comes in a judiciously smallish serving, the round crisps arranged nicely in a careful, overlapping circle, sprinkled with what is clearly high-quality chile powder and luscious whole-milk yogurt. The bhel puri features tiny diced potatoes and very good chutneys. But somehow, these genteel chaats leave me cold. The deep, funky undertone of the chaat masala is tamed, and there’s nothing exuberant or compulsively snackable about them. But more restaurateurs making chaat means we are closer to having a chaat stand on every corner, so I won’t complain too much.