Xpert Times

Crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy — the extensive chaat variety that India boasts of, remains unparalleled till date. Be it the crowd-puller gol gappa or the humble aloo chaat, each street delicacy has its loyal fan base. What started out on the streets, with our local chaat wale bhaiyyas dishing out plate after plate of pure indulgence, has today graced the international stage.
From MasterChef Australia’s Sarah Todd whipping up bhel puri to chef Ali Stoner experimenting with air fryer papdi chaat, India’s favourite food has made a mark for itself globally, and has found its way to high-end restaurants too. But what is it about this savoury delight that is so appetising to the international palate?
According to chef Meherwan Irani, owner of the Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani in North Carolina (USA) and the James Beard Award 2022 winner for outstanding restaurant, “Chaat upends most foreigners’ perception of Indian food. Unlike most home-style cooking or restaurant-style dishes that tend to be gravy-based, or monochromatic in appearance and flavour; chaat is colourful, multi textured and with complementary flavours. There’s a sense of excitement when trying street food, like you’ve wandered into a space where traditional rules don’t apply and every bite is a delicious surprise.”
And Chef and entrepreneur Tarun Sibal is inclined to agree as well. He says, “I am not surprised that chaats are loved international too. They are an amalgamation of textures. it’s a flavour bomb and I am glad it has travelled so well. We have Indians all across the globe and that has helped too. But the sheer uniqueness of chaats, the spicy and tangy profile, and the lipsmackingness coupled with it tantalising one to have more works for chaats.”
Our chaats appeal to the foreign palate because there is also a balance of flavours, believes chef Rakhee Vasvani. She says, “We balance the spice of the chutneys by adding yogurt. Then we add a lot of crunchy elements and our Indian food is all about flavours.”
While some might find the idea of being served street food in an upscale hotel a bit ridiculous, chefs from around the globe are experimenting with ingredients to serve a dish that brings forth a full-fledged gastronomical experience. Ask chef Himanshu Saini, of Trèsind Mumbai and Trèsind Studio, Dubai, who serves a single pani puri as an appetiser in his 14-course-meal and he says, “Pani Puri is a crowd favourite. We’ve tried several variations, including flavoured waters such as arugula, cucumber, cumin, etc. We’ve also experimented with the filling by adding preserved pear, feta cheese, sweet potato.”
Experimental chaats have been grabbing eyeballs on social media with pizza sev puri, chicken gol gappas or gulab jamun chaat eliciting mixed reactions from internet users. Vasvani’s experiments are tamer as she adds her own spins to chaats recipes too and says, “Food have a very thin line differentiating it. Chutneys are just like a jam and you can add to breads or scones or you add our Indian spices like star anise, cinnamon, chilli powder, jeera, hing and use it in your chaats. I used cranberries to make a meethi chutney and used it in my chaats.”
Restaurateur Sahil Sambhi, from Molecule Air Bar, Delhi, who’s been serving unconventional chaat items like Puchka Shots, believes that since chaat has always been an integral part of our culture, and has a lot to offer, it should definitely be part of our fine dining experience too. “Leaving chaat out from the menu is like representing Indian cuisine half-heartedly,” he says.
At Chai Pani, Irani served dishes like Kale Pakoras and Okra Fries which have developed a strong fan base too. He explains, “That’s the beauty of chaat, you can interpret it in a variety of ways. I like introducing seasonality and local ingredients to our dishes. We regularly feature corn bhel in the summer, sweet potato chaat in the fall, and green tomato or brussels sprouts pakoras, green mango chaat in spring.”
Sibal’s tortilla crisp chaat with a yogurt Chantilly, beetroot saunth has earned raved reviews from patrons at his Goa-based culinary bar and restaurant – Titlie. He also created an avocado mousse papdi with raw mango salsa at Street Storyss, Bangalore. His latest creation is the Dahi Khakhra choori, which has toffee, goli and chooran which he says “takes him back to his school days.”
If one has to represent India on the global gourmet front, it has to be with the humble chaat, says chef Ashish Singh, of Cafe Delhi Heights. “Everyone wants to have street food but people have become health conscious, and don’t want to indulge at roadside joints. That’s where we come in. For example, we use brown bread in our bread pakoda, and we have retained the authentic taste, shape and flavour. We don’t use anything artificial to make the gol gappas sour.“
However, while experimenting with food is surely enjoyable for chefs, it is up to people whether the experiments are a hit or miss and Saini says, “we have to satisfy everyone while being innovative—it’s a delicate balance. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to have patrons come back and for that, I need to be accepting of what people want.”
Sweet Potato Chaat
3 medium-sized sweet potatoes
1tbsp of oil or ghee
Salt to taste
1tsp cumin powder
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 green chillies
Coriander and mint leaves
2-3tbsp roasted and coarsely ground peanuts
Dates and tamarind chutney (optional)
Pomegranate for garnish
1. Steam sweet potatoes on medium flame for 20-25 minutes
2. Roast them in oil or ghee till golden brown
3. Add salt per taste, cumin powder and freshly squeezed lemon juice
4. Add green chilies, peanuts and sweet chutney (optional)
5. Sprinkle some coriander and mint leaves.
6. Lastly, garnish with pomegranate
Inputs by chef Meghna Kamdar

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