Street Food: Let's Chaat

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No, 'chaat' is not a typo. Chaat is the name given to a category of savory street foods of India. Just like the country, chaat is a mishmash of hot and cold, sweet and spicy, crunchy and soft, appetizing and overwhelming.

While there are many kinds of chaat such as bhel puri and aloo tikki chaat, my favorite is paani puri. These hollow balls of delicate fried crisp bread are cracked on the top, filled with a knob of boiled potato, a sprinkle of boiled mung bean sprouts, a few drops of thick tamarind-date chutney, and filled to the brim with spiced cilantro-chile-lime juice.

Once it is assembled, there is no time to wait. The puri (bread) filled with paani (Hindi for water, but in this case the juices) must be gently and swiftly popped whole into your mouth to prevent it from crumbling in your hands, or disintegrating into mush. A paani puri must never be so big as to pop your jaw, but must always gently threaten to. However, it has to be big enough to silence you until you have swallowed it all.

I was speechless when I first had my first paani puri in Bombay, and not simply because I was trying to not speak with a full mouth. Paani puri is a palate-bomb. The tangy-spicy-sweet-salty chutneys grab every taste bud. At the same time the crunchiness of the crisp bread runs into the soft mashed potatoes and heft of the sprouts.

In India, road-side chaat sellers will set up stalls and hand out bowls made from origami-folded dry leaves to the crowd of up to half a dozen at a time, handing out one paani puri to each in turn. This is because each one must be made a second before it is devoured. And by the time the sixth hungry customer is fed, the first one has just about finished swallowing theirs.

Any city in the world that has Indian immigrants will have a place that serves chaat. There is Vik's in Berkeley, Dhaba in New York, Bombay Cafe in Singapore, and Chaat House in London to start with. If nothing else, most Indian grocery stores sell pani puri "kits" with the hollow bread, and chutney bases. Just add potatoes, mung beans and water.

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