A familiar sight along any pedestrian thoroughfare: barefoot cooks bantering the day away, pausing in their soliloquies only to stir the puffed rice used in various types of chaat or to poke the gulab jamun to better saturate the fried dough with syrup.
One interesting aspect of eating in India is the blurred distinction between street food vendors and restaurants. While there were plenty of one- or two-person outfits selling out of pushcarts or baskets, much of the food eaten outside comes from places like this: open to the street for passersby to grab a quick bite while leaning against the front counter, sometimes also sporting a few tables (or cable spools or overturned crates) for folks who want to linger. It was not at all uncommon for us to find ourselves eating with silverware off reusable plates while dodging honking tuk tuks and mooing cows.
Chaat means “to lick,” but it might as well mean “to mix.” Many of the chaats we tried were combinations of ingredients that required stirring, swilling, churning, and mixing, as in this mirchi kachori: chopped lentil cakes known as kachori topped with dahi (yogurt), peppery tamarind water, and flecks of coriander (cilantro).
As the sun sets in Varanasi, many walk to Dasaswamedh Ghat to watch the nightly religious ceremony known as the evening aarti. After it ends, the chaat shops along nearby streets do a steady business in snacks like papdi chaat. Fried bits of dough (often made with carom seeds) called papdi are served with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt, tamarind, and coriander (cilantro). Toss papdi chaat well, and as with a bouillabaisse each bite will yield slightly different treasures.
Chaat Wallah Making Pani Puri
To make pani puri, a diminutive puffed pastry known as puri first gets popped. Into the resulting hole goes chickpeas, peanuts, onions, potatoes, and a mixture of dry spices known as chaat masala. All that gets dipped into mint chutney and tamarind water. This young man kept making pani puri and silently handing them to us, and we kept eating them, nodding and smiling, the most pleasant assembly line we’ve ever participated in. If it wasn’t for a friend pulling us away, we’d probably still be standing on that Mumbai street, chowing down.
To eat pani puri, you shove the whole thing into your mouth, even though it almost can’t fit, your lips barely able to close over the precious cargo. Then you crush it, teeth to teeth, with all the power you’ve got. The resulting explosion—of tongue-tingling pani (flavored water), of spice, of crunch—might just knock you over.
The layers and layers of sticky flavor in this bhel puri were truly magnificent, and served as a taste touchstone for the rest of our trip. “Is this as good as that bhel puri?,” we’d ask ourselves over plates of really delicious food, then shake our heads, sadly. The mixture of sev (fried noodles made from gram or chickpea flour known as besan), chilies, puffed rice, and chaat masala we scarfed down on a hot street became Mumbai-in-a-dish, sensual and overwhelming and utterly unique from one bite to the next.
Dahi Batata Puri
Another Mumbai specialty, another dish full of wildly competing flavors, all excellent. Crushed puri hang out with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, chopped coriander (cilantro), and green mung beans, and everything gets sprinkled with garam masala and covered with an almost sour yogurt called dahi, the kind of fun party that anyone would be happy to be invited to.
Fried Rice Chaat
No doubt this mix of crunch and chew has a fancier name, but we were told “fried rice chaat,” so “fried rice chaat” it is, a combination of rice, coriander (cilantro), peas, and broken pieces of sev (fried noodles).
A platter of imminently portable samosas rests in the street, preparing to meet the deep fryer. In this battle, the stuffed triangles must protect their insides from drying out while letting their outsides brown and crisp. Can they do it? Yes, they can.
After cooking, the samosas are stored in a big bowl along with mirchi vadas and kachoris. These goodies constitute some of India’s most popular snacks, after chaats, of course.
Every samosa we sampled came packed with some variation of the following: aloo (potatoes), mattar (peas), and jeera (cumin). Vendors keep magazines and newspapers on the counter, tearing off a page to wrap up each samosa or kachori (deep-fried lentil cake) for takeaway.
Vendors of masala papad roam the streets with these baskets strapped to their backs or balanced on their heads, calling out, "papad, papad."
Our papad, about the size of a homeplate in baseball, broke noisily. A liberal sprinkling of garam masala, the omnipresent spice mixture, formed the red squiggle. Cost: five rupees, about ten cents at the time.
In Jaipur, a palm-sized chili (mirchi) has been stuffed with potato, then dunked into batter, deep-fried, and served for breakfast. The piquant result proved far more invigorating than caffeine.
A second after we snapped this photo, we cracked the kachori in two to reveal brick-red innards, lentils dusted with garam masala. Wicked hot!
Imagine a grilled cheese minus the cheese hooks up with a masala dosa minus the dosa. Together, they make masala toast. Nothing we ate seemed so utterly Anglo-Indian, a blend of British and indigenous, as fiery potatoes sandwiched between two pieces of toasted white bread.
In Jodhpur, our pakoras were more onion-flavored batter than batter-dipped onions. (The batter is made from gram flour, a chickpea flour also known as besan.) Alongside came not mint or tamarind chutney but ketchup.
The vada pav is to Mumbai what pizza is to New York City. Just about everyone eats it and just about everyone has an opinion about how it should be made. Our vada pav arrived steaming hot and wrapped in newspaper, a soft white roll bursting with a deep-fried, yet mushy potato cake. It was extraordinary.
The word pattice derives from the word patty, and the two we tried in Mumbai were shaped like hearts, filled with makki (corn) and potatoes. We splashed them with the accompanying mint chutney (top), which managed to be both cool, in terms of temperature, and incredibly hot, in terms of spice, and ragda, a thick soup made from smushed peas.
Vada in Sambar
A fried donut made from lentils known as vada floats in a little lake of sambar, a super-spirited vegetable soup made with pigeon peas, bay leaves, and sambar powder (generally consisting of such ingredients as chilies, coriander seeds, tumeric, and lentils, among others). Vada and sambar often form a breakfast quartet with coconut chutney and a steamed lentil or rice cake known as idli.
In the United States, masala dosas are usually available at lunch and dinner. Not so in India, where this lightly fried crepe gently packed with potatoes and chilies is often eaten for breakfast. Fine by us, as we could eat it more or less all day long.
A paratha is an unleavened whole wheat flatbread often stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower, paneer (cheese), or mixed vegetables, as here. We preferred ours dipped in achar, a relish made from pickled vegetables, including chilies, so sharp, it never failed to bring tears to our eyes. The other usual accompaniment, raita, is made from yogurt and cucumbers, and soothes like a mom’s washcloth to the forehead.
The Portuguese brought the white rolls known as pav to Mumbai. The DIY version pictured above featured lavishly buttered pav and bhaji, a curry made from mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers and heavily seasoned with coriander (cilantro), alongside a few raw onions and a wedge of lime.