Even by hour 36 of the long flight from LAX to Dhaka, my family still hadn't ended the debate. Should we risk it? Passionate arguments were whispered across the tiny aisle as we unwrapped our preportioned stir-fried beef in oyster sauce. Our attempts to keep the discussion to ourselves proved futile, and eventually, the mostly Bengali-speaking cabin erupted into a town hall meeting, with each opinion more persuasive than the last.
"I know the best chaatwalla in Shyamoli! It's very clean, he only uses bottled water!"
"Don't take the risk of the street, there's a great dhaba in Gulsan!"
"Wait until your last night; then by the time you get sick, you'll already be back in the States."
The debate, of course, was over if, when, and where we would eat chaat, the broad term for the various snacks sold by street vendors across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Regardless of the logical rebuttals, our answers were ultimately yes, right away, and the first place we could find, respectively.
What's a Chaat?
"Chaat" is the moniker used to describe a set of South Asian snacks that are a powerhouse of flavor and texture. They manage to mesh together salty, sweet, spicy, tart, and more without skipping a beat. They are impossibly compelling, somehow featuring everything crave-able in a single checkered paper boat.
Deep within the bewildering assortment of chaat lies a rough outline that defines it as a dish. The foundation is usually a starchy component, such as crisp puffed rice or fluffy lentil-and-rice dumplings. That base is then topped with anything from hard-boiled eggs to fried lentils to radiant, ruby-colored pomegranate seeds. The only requirement for an ingredient to make its way into a chaat is that it has to bring some serious punch to the party.
Every chaat is made slightly differently, not just from city to city and vendor to vendor, but also according to each patron's taste. Extra chili? No problem. Not a fan of raw onion? You got it.
I've never turned down panipuri chaat, a rendition with crisp fried shells stuffed with spiced potatoes and filled to the brim with a fiery and bright tamarind water. It's meant to be eaten immediately, in one bite, and never fails to satisfy.
My father is a fool for bhel puri chaat, a crunchy combo of puffed rice, roasted peanuts, fresh cilantro, and razor-thin slices of Thai green chili. It's all tossed together with pungent mustard oil and served up in an inky newspaper cone, ready for a walk through the teeming market. There are heartier chaats as well, such as the greedy samosa chaat, in which a samosa is smashed open and buried under warm stewed chickpeas, cool yogurt, perky chutneys, and a fistful of sev (wispy fried threads of chickpea batter).
Although "chaat" is the word used to identify these various bold snacks, more importantly, chaat is a social event. Going out for a chaat is akin to a happy hour, where the versatile bites are enjoyed in between meals and after work with cups of sweet, milky tea and peppery gossip. In addition to the street-corner carts, there are also mini food courts devoted to chaat, where manifold vendors, armed with their arsenal of spices, brawl for your business. Menus fly, fryers bubble, and the diner always wins.
Chaat is pervasive throughout South Asia, though some scholars believe its origins are in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home of the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra. During the time of their dynasty, Mughals held court in Agra, which quickly developed into a bustling commercial hub for traders throughout the empire. As a result, stalls sprouted within the city selling poori, paratha, kebab, and chaat to travelers and merchants. These culinary traditions likely spread from the imperial city to other regions, where the dish evolved into the many forms found today.
The Key to Chaat: Chaat Masala
At first glance, the dizzying array of chaats can seem overwhelming. Chaat is so diverse that you can refute almost any statement made about it, but the one thing they all have in common is the balance of salty, sour, spicy, and sweet flavors. Each component in a chaat will bring at least one of these qualities to the table.
The real heart of chaat, though, is the spice mixture called "chaat masala"; it finds its way into every iteration, whether sprinkled liberally on papris* or stirred into chutney by the spoonful. All on its own, this single spice blend adds salty, funky, spicy, and sour flavors to anything it touches. It's such an essential chaat flavoring that merely sprinkling it on sliced fruit or mixed nuts can conjure the chaat experience.
For more on papris, see below.
The components that make up chaat masala are best understood by the qualities each adds to the whole.
Funky and Salty: Kala Namak
The key element in chaat masala is pungent and funky kala namak, which also goes by the name of Himalayan black salt. Not to be confused with black lava salt or Hawaiian black salt, kala namak is a mined salt that is actually pink in color and owes its unique, eggy aroma to trace amounts of sodium sulfate, along with a few other impurities. On its own, the sulfurous aroma can be off-putting, but when skillfully incorporated into dishes, kala namak adds a bossy bit of savory funk. It is the backbone to chaat masala, with no real substitute.
It can be purchased in its most rustic form as large, dusty mahogany crystals, or you can find it ground into a fine, millennial-pink powder, ready to dissolve into any chutney. Besides its prevalence in chaat recipes and spice blends, it's traditionally used in savory buttermilk lassis and cooling cucumber raitas. It's also a staple in vegan cooking, making tofu scrambled "eggs" taste closer to the real deal.
Pucker Up: Green Mango and Tamarind Powders
Every chaat packs intense, tongue-prickling pucker. You need a forceful sour punch to cut through the richness of deep-fried doughs and balance the sweet chutneys. It's the biting acid that keeps your mouth watering and taste buds wanting more. The tart element in a chaat can come from the addition of lime juice or diced ambarella, but a good chaat masala should also offer up plenty of acid.
Most often, chaat masala gets its sour and fruity punch from green mango powder. This tart spice is made from unripe mangos that have been sliced and dried before being ground into a fine powder. Many packaged chaat masalas also include citric acid, a shortcut to that Sour Patch flavor. I prefer a blend of green mango and tamarind powder for my chaat masala. Tamarind powder is made by drying the sticky pulp found inside the russet pods of the tamarind fruit. It offers up a pleasant astringency through the tartaric acid it naturally contains, which pairs well with green mango powder's sour-candy zing.
Bring on the Heat: Chilies, Black Pepper, and Ginger
The heat in chaat masala is a triple threat of capsaicin from Kashmiri red chili powder, piperine from black pepper, and gingerols provided by ginger powder. Kashmiri red chilies are mild and fruity, loaded with floral and citrus notes. The powder has become one of my go-to spices, offering up much more than just heat to whatever dish you add it to.
Some historians attribute the extensive use of spices in regions with hot climates to their antibiotic properties, which suppress the bacteria and fungi that spoil foods. It is a happy accident that we've also become attached to the way these spices get your endorphins flowing.
The Aroma Chorus: Cumin, Coriander, Fennel, Mint, and Ajwain
Cumin and coriander are the loudest spices in chaat masala, with fennel seeds, dried mint, and ajwain (which has an aroma similar to that of dried thyme) providing some background noise. Together, they add nutty, pungent, floral, citrus, woodsy, and refreshing aromas and flavors.
Mastering the Mix
Although there are many preblended chaat masalas available online or at your local Indian grocery store, nothing compares to making your own blend. Even in ideal conditions—kept away from light, in an airtight container, in a cool space in your hot kitchen—ground spices will be at their peak for only about three months. After that, they quickly deteriorate into nothing more than mildly aromatic sawdust. This is because the aromatic compounds in spices are highly volatile, quickly dissipating like a puff of smoke; when the spices are finely ground, there's that much more surface area from which those essential aromatic compounds can escape. Whole spices keep more of those molecules locked away, remaining fragrant for up to a year and waiting to be released as soon as you pulverize them in your spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
The other benefit of making your own chaat masala is that you can tweak it to your personal preferences. Chaat is all about customization, and by blending your own chaat masala, you truly can have it your way. The main spices in chaat masala are kala namak, cumin, chili powder, and green mango powder; from that starting point, the possibilities are endless. Many traditional recipes use yellow chili powder in place of red; some include asafetida, and others use garam masala (another spice blend common in Indian cooking) as a jumping-off point. Every auntie has her own blend, often with a secret ingredient or two, so treat the recipe as more of a guide rather than a hard-and-fast rule.
Whether you've decided to try my chaat masala or experiment on your own, properly toasting the whole spices will bring out the best qualities from each one. To ensure even toasting, it's best to start in a cool, dry pan, roasting one spice at a time over medium heat. Fennel seeds toast at a different rate from coriander seeds, so you'll achieve optimal flavor by giving each one some special attention. Keep the seeds in constant motion in the pan, and roast them until they're warm to the touch and fragrant. Once they're toasted, remove the seeds from the hot pan to prevent them from scorching over the residual heat.
In a pinch, I've ground whole spices with a muddler in a pint glass, but a more traditional tool is a mortar and pestle. For larger quantities, I've found that nothing beats a high-speed blender. It can quickly yield a fine powder, and you won't have to sift out any husks or seeds gone astray. A spice grinder or blade coffee grinder also makes quick work of the task, though these often require processing the spices in batches.
Chaat Up Your Life: How to Make Chaat at Home
In South Asian cities, it's difficult to walk a meter without tripping over a chaatwala, but in other parts of the world, the search for good chaat can become an endless march. If you've grown up eating chaat, the other obstacle can be finding one that tastes true to your memories. I'm never satisfied by papri chaat if it doesn't taste exactly like the one my parents would use as a bribe to take me sari shopping during my tomboy age.
Making chaat at home allows you to make it to your personal specs, but requires expert shopping, devoted prepping, and a lot of fryer oil. Even though each individual component in chaat is quite simple, there are a lot of them to make. Luckily, there are many ways to make chaat at home, whether it's for a first taste or to relive a flavor experience you haven't had in years.
The Quick and Easy Route
Given how central chaat masala is to the flavor of chaat, just having the spice mix is enough to arm you with all you need to chaat up your life. You'll still have to plan ahead by ordering the specialty spices online or hiking through the aromatic aisles at your local Indian grocery store, but once you have the spice mixture made, there are endless easy ways to use it to create a chaat experience at home.
Sprinkle it on fruit with a dollop of zesty Greek yogurt, and you've instantly made a fruity, chaat-y snack. Combine it with chickpeas, hard-boiled egg, tomato, and onion, and you've re-created a classic chana chaat. The acidity in the spice blend works well with seafood, so a dusting over lime-marinated shrimp is all it takes to make a ceviche chaat.
A favorite gas station snack of mine has always been Chex mix. The erratic combination of cereals and seasonings reminds me of bhel puri chaat, which is what inspired me to make a chaat-spiced version of the classic. I made the mix to my taste, with extra corn and rice Chex, few wheat Chex and pretzels (because who needs 'em?), and an absurd amount of chaat seasoning. I admit, it's probably more seasoning than necessary, but, as someone who's known for digging through a bag of Doritos for that one extra-cheesy chip, I don't see the point of snack foods if they don't leave your blood pressure elevated.
Feel free to turn the volume down if you prefer a sane level of salt and spice, but definitely don't skimp on the sugar. Sweetness is the one area where chaat masala falls short, and without sugar, the balance just won't be right. When you slowly toast the un-spiced snack mix in a low oven, the cereals crisp and the sugar melts into a sticky glaze, allowing the chaat masala to coat every crevice. In my first batch of testing, I tossed the mix with the chaat masala before baking, resulting in scorched, bitter spices. I've found it best to instead shower on the spices right out of the oven, while the sugar is still tacky and warm.
This hybrid snack combines easy-to-find ingredients with chaat masala to create something that has the complexity of chaat, but comes together in a snap.
Down and Dirty: Papri Chaat From Scratch
If you're feeling particularly brave, and have an afternoon (or weekend) to kill, then dive into this recipe for papri chaat. Papris are crispy chips made from a simple wheat dough. Much like nachos, the papris are topped with assorted accoutrements of complementing and contrasting textures and flavors, all of it always dusted generously with chaat masala.
Traditionally, you find the papris buried under fluffy boiled potatoes, tender chickpeas, cool yogurt, bright mint chutney, sweet-and-sour tamarind chutney, and crunchy sev. The recipe can look intimidating at first, but just like with nachos, you can save time and effort by purchasing some or all of the more labor-intensive components—like the papris, sev, and chutneys—and assembling them at home, adjusting the ratios to your tastes.
Papri dough is traditionally made with atta, which is milled from durum wheat. Durum is a hard wheat with a high percentage of protein that uniquely forms strong gluten networks without becoming very elastic, unlike bread flour, which is very elastic. This property makes it ideal for rolling into thin flatbreads and extruding into pastas. However, atta has very different qualities from the flour used to make pasta.
Grains consist of three parts: the germ, the bran, and the endosperm (the starchy part).** For pasta, only the endosperm from the durum wheat is milled into semolina flour, unlike with atta, for which the entire kernel is milled. If you don't have access to atta flour, a good substitute is whole wheat flour, which is similar in flavor.
** Read our guide to whole grains for more.
Warm water helps the dough come together easily by hand; it will become smooth and taut with just a few minutes of kneading. For easier rolling, it's best to let the dough rest for at least an hour, or up to overnight. This dough can be used to make two kinds of papris. If docked (pricked all over), it will fry into flat, crisp chips, but if left undocked, it puffs up into crunchy pockets that can then be filled.
I like to flavor the papris with nigella seeds, which add a mild peppery aroma and a touch of pleasant bitterness, but a more traditional addition is ground ajwain seed.
The nigella seeds also act as a guide for rolling the dough to the perfect thickness. If the papris are rolled too thick, they'll remain chewy in the center after frying, rather than crisp all the way through, while dough rolled too thin will never become puffed and flaky. Rolling out the dough just to the thickness of a nigella seed gives you perfect papris every time.
Making the mint chutney at home is simple and straightforward, and homemade is much more vibrant than store-bought. Fresh mint and cilantro are blended together—stems and all—with just enough water, a touch of lime, a pinch of salt, and a hint of fresh green chili. For a brighter color, you can blanch the mint and cilantro in salted boiling water and shock them in an ice bath before blending, although the chutney is plenty vivid without this step. On its own, the mint chutney may taste bland and vegetal, but in the chaat it offers welcome relief and freshness, keeping the heavier ingredients from falling flat.
It's rare to find mint chutney without its partner in crime, sweet-and-sour tamarind chutney. Store-bought and restaurant versions are often sickly-sweet, loaded with corn syrup and sugar. Instead, my homemade-chutney recipe gets its body and mellow sweetness from chewy dates and earthy palm sugar.
Tamarind can be found in many forms, from jarred concentrates to dried whole pods. Here, I've used seedless tamarind paste, which gives all the flavor of the fresh pods without any of the fuss. A quick steep in hot water softens the date and tamarind and melts the palm sugar, readying it all to be blended into a smooth chutney.
Sev are crunchy fried noodles made from a dough of chickpea flour and water. Chickpea flour, also called gram or besan flour, is a staple in South Asian cooking. It can be made from either raw or roasted chickpeas and is very crunchy when fried. It's often used to batter and fry vegetables in a manner similar to tempura.
Traditionally, the dough is very stiff and pressed through a brass extruder into hot oil. This stiff dough yields dense and sturdy sev, but it is impossible to cook without a sev extruder. I prefer a thick batter instead, which can be readily extruded with just a piping bag. The sev made from this batter has a more reserved crunch, but it's a compromise I'm happy to make if it means I can abstain from purchasing such a specific unitasker. Stored in an airtight container, sev stays crisp for a long time, making it ideal for preparing in large batches.
Putting It All Together:
An assembled chaat is a ticking time bomb, rapidly counting down before it self-destructs. Much like a carefully formed nigiri or an al pastor taco, chaat needs to be eaten immediately, before the contrasting textures all become mush and the flavors grow muddy. For maximum satisfaction, chaat is best assembled on small plates and devoured ravenously.
Layer the papris with boiled potatoes and chickpeas seasoned with chaat spice, then splatter and scatter it with yogurt, chutneys, sev, and diced raw onion for bite. Eat and repeat.
Regardless of what route you choose to take, traditional and from-scratch or an unconventional snack-mix version, there's no wrong way to chaat.