These are the glory days of Indian cooking in New York City. From white tablecloth restaurants to cab driver dives, food from the subcontinent just gets better and better. Restaurant enclaves like Manhattan's Murray Hill and the West Village are full of new life, with a parade of ever more ambitious restaurants coming in to replace tired "curry in a hurry" outposts.
The food's more regionally diverse, too, and New Yorkers are taking notice, with more diners looking to local specialties on a menu beyond the well-known curries. Ten years ago you could never imagine a Manhattan restaurant devoted almost entirely to the seafood-heavy cooking of India's southern coast. Today it's buzzing.
While New York's had a handful of high-end Indian restaurants for years, the real exciting change is on the casual level. That's where you'll find new restaurants moving beyond samosas and kebabs, both to more ambitious dishes (try the massive platter of curried crab you'll find at international Chettinad chain Anjappar) and simple but elegant home-cooked specialties (Chote Nawab does a lovely "okra you would eat at your in laws' house").
This golden age deserves a new ambassador, an upgrade from the tasty-but-kinda-boring chicken tikka that's defined Indian cooking in America for decades. My vote: chaat, a dish that's almost impossible to describe but nails just about every bliss point. Salty and sweet, crunchy and creamy, saucy and tangy with a kick of spice and a blast of funk, chaat represents some of the boldest and most comforting cooking of the Indian subcontinent. And there is some damned delicious chaat in New York these days.
What is chaat? Simple: carb salad. It starts with a base: fried crackers, boiled potatoes, chickpeas, samosas, puffed rice, or some combination thereof. Often there are sauces, like a trio of tangy yogurt, fruity-sweet tamarind chutney, and a thinner green sauce with jolts of mint and chili. Toppings range from minced raw onion and tomato to more fried stuff, like teeny-tiny threads of chickpea flour called sev.* As a final flourish, cooks may add a chaat masala, a funky spice mix that varies from cook to cook and chaat to chaat, but usually contains amchur (dried and pulverized tangy green mango), cumin, and sulfurous kala nemak black salt.
* Chickpea flour shows up time and time again in Indian snacks for a few reasons. It's a ready source of protein, for one, and all it needs is water to form a batter that can be thickened for crackers or thinned out for dipping. But perhaps most importantly, it fries beautifully, to a deep and resounding crunch.
But this is a rough portrait, not a set recipe. Chaat isn't a single dish; it's a category of astonishingly diverse preparations. Even in a culture that loves its snack food, chaat stands out in India as one of the few universals. Every region has their own chaats, and every cook does their own spin. On the beaches of Mumbai, you might find bhelpuri, a chaat made from puffed rice and other crispy bits; in Bengal, the same rice is dosed with a sinus-clearing kick of mustard oil for a dish called jaal muri.
Chaat isn't generally part of a meal; it's a snack eaten in between: after school or work, in the lingering hours before dinner. In a culture that doesn't go wild over alcohol, meeting for chaat can replace meeting for drinks or coffee. In New York, streetside chaat houses are few and far between, but they're slowly growing, and you can certainly find chaat on a growing list of full-fledged restaurants across the city.
Where to Get It
Chaat's not exactly new here; Julia Moskin covered the city's chaat scene nine years ago in the New York Times. But these days we're seeing more and more chaat styles beyond a few set classics. Where can you find them? In enclaves of Indian restaurants: the West Village, Murray Hill, Jackson Heights, and New Hyde Park. There are many places to get chaat, but these six options are all exceptional.
Arguably the city's greatest chaat destination lies right on the border of Queens and Nassau counties, an unassuming table service restaurant with a dizzying selection of chaat. There are a good 30 chaats on the menu, plus Mumbai-style triple-decker sandwiches (quite tasty), dosas (skippable). It's also one of the city's few restaurants dedicated primarily to chaat, and the ingredients and preparations are reliably more careful than other kitchens.
Most impressive of the lot is the tokri chaat, also called "basket chaat" for the edible bowl it's served in. That bowl, the taco salad shell of the Indian snack world, is made of crisp, greaseless grated and fried potatoes, and is filled with mung (and a couple other) beans, potato chunks, chickpeas, crackers, and onion, then topped with a thin yogurt, not-too-sweet tamarind chutney, a bracing mint-chili sauce, and plenty of chaat masala and sev.
The sheer variety of ingredients makes each bite an interesting one, especially once you start breaking off hunks of that potato shell. But what really sets Mumbai Xpress apart is the judicious touch with the sauces, which have a fresher flavor than most other chaat houses, and which nail a perfect balance of creaminess, sweet, and spice.
Also well worth ordering: the weekend-only misal pav, a warm stew of softened fried chickpea flour nubs and legumes designed to be spooned over toasted buns like a vegetarian sloppy joe. And don't miss the dahi batata puri, a set of six hollow fried shells cracked open and filled with potatoes, chickpeas, and a thin, refreshing chili sauce.
Battering whole vegetables with chickpea flour and frying them is a common practice in India. Onions and peppers get this treatment often, as do mixed vegetable fritters. But one of the tastiest is spinach leaves, which Murray Hill kati roll and chaat shop Desi Galli put to good use in a dish called palak patte ki chaat. There the crunchy spinach leaves (which, as a pleasant surprise, do still taste like vegetables after getring battered and fried) take the place of crackers in this chaat, and get topped with that saucy trio of yogurt, tamarind, and chili-mint.
Here the sauces are thicker and richer, bolder in their sweetness but to good effect. It's a deeply satisfying dish that shows off chaat's range of flavors, though it's light on the funky chaat masala—a helpful thing for converting first-timers.
You've met the grand poobah chaat and the beginner's chaat; now here's the high-end version. Truth be told, dining at this high-end restaurant is a mixed bag, but you can have a great meal there by visiting for lunch and ordering a vegetarian thali with this chaat as a starter.
Tiny rounds of eggplant are sliced thin enough to crisp up like chips but with enough thick body to retain their juicy innards. Then they're generously topped with yogurt and an especially complex tamarind sauce (no chili-mint this time) and plenty of sev for an added crunch. Bars need to start offering this as a snack.
The West Village's Thelewala may best be known for its roti-wrapped kati rolls (which it calls nizami rolls), but I love it most for its chaats, which come in cheap, snackable portions. Pungent mustard oil rings loud and clear in the jaal muri, a light chaat of puffed rice mixed with crispy bits, cucumber, red onion, mint, and cilantro. Lime juice brings the chaat together (and tames that mustard oil a bit); the trick with jaal muri is to appreciate the crisp rice and the lime-softened rice in equal measure—and eat it quickly enough before the spicy chaat turns soggy.
Less spicy and pungent, but no less winning, is the peanut masala, a simple snack mix of roasted peanuts, red onions, cilantro, and lime. Planters should start selling it by the pint.
Jackson Heights is home to one of the city's largest Indian communities, with immigrants primarily from the country's northern states. But the demographics are changing; as more Indian families move out to the Long Island and New Jersey suburbs, Himalayan restaurants have risen up, and many of the remaining Indian restaurants are, well, showing some age.
Bucking this trend is Samudra, a new south Indian vegetarian place with a short but delicious list of chaats on the menu. There's a samosa chaat worth an order—freshly fried samosas smashed open and tossed with toppings—but my go-to is the paapri chaat, which starts with a base of crackers, adds tomato and onion, and finishes with a dousing of thin yogurt (tamarind and mint sauces come on the side to add at your pace). It's not greasy, it's not too heavy, and it's not too sweet—it'd be a mistake to ever call chaat "light," but Samudra's chaats are comparatively clean.
Murray Hill restaurant Pippali caters more to a non-Indian clientele, but it shows just how far New Yorkers have come. Look around and you'll see the requisite curries and kebabs on tables, but you'll also watch them sampling Mumbai-stye beach sandwiches and items like the batata sev puri.
Puri are little flatbreads rolled paper-thin, then tossed in the deep fryer so they balloon into hollow spheres. Pippali's cooks add chunks of cubed potato, the same trio of sauces we've seen all day, and a big dusting of crunchy sev for good measure. It's a beautiful little bite, well balanced freshly stuffed, but the big kicker is the pomegranate seeds that top each puri. Their jewel-like juice adds an extra note of freshness to the puri, a subtle cheffy touch that goes a long way.