There are few genres as tedious as that in which a middle-aged immigrant waxes nostalgic for the food of their youth/home country and tells you that you can’t get good versions of it where they live now. So I hope you’ll excuse this post.
I left India in 1993 to come to graduate school in the US. Through the 1990s Indian food in the US was an unmitigated disaster: like a bad analogue of Olive Garden’ish Italian food or airport Chinese food. Pretty much all that was available was a bad copy of North Indian Mughlai food made for the most part with pre-fabricated sauces and substitutable meats; with buckets of cream and nut pastes masking the lack of actual experience or care in the kitchen*. None of this was much of a loss for me. This genre of food is restaurant food even in North India–no one eats it at home; and what I mostly wanted to eat I could make for myself at home. I was a decent enough cook when I arrived in the US and necessity made me much better. The ingredients for home-cooking–in my case, Bengali cooking (Indian food is intensely regional)–at any rate were available in Indian stores in Los Angeles.
But there were and are three broad genres of non-home cooking that I love and could not and cannot replicate at home: kababs, Bengali sweets and chaat. Of these, the first two genres remain all but complete blanks in the Indian restaurant world in North America. That Bengali sweets are not very good or available here is not much of a surprise–given that it’s hard to even get good Bengali sweets in South Asia outside of Bengal and Bangladesh (though there are some exceptions in cities with large Bengali populations such as Delhi). That nobody can make a kabab (or more than one or two kinds of kababs) worth a damn is more surprising given the American love affairs with meat and grills and the fact that kababs arrive here through multiple immigrant pathways. But the fact remains that you can get better frozen seekh kababs in Delhi than you can made fresh in almost every Indian restaurant in the US.
Chaat, however, has been having an extended moment in the US for the last decade or so. The New York Times has published articles on it and every Indian restaurant trying to escape being identified with chicken tikka masala seems to now have chaat of some kind in the appetizers section of its menu. It’s not difficult to see why chaat should suddenly become appealing to nouveau(ish) Indian restaurants in the US and the people who eat at them: its flavours are very different from the curry house staples, much of it tends to be light, and above all it is associated with street food, which in the post-Bourdain foodie era is important. It’s not just the Indian restaurants with pretensions to seriousness who are trying to escape the stigma of curry house associations, after all, it’s also the people who eat there. (The restaurants will, of course, generally have tikka masala on the menu anyway–whether they call it that or not–and the average American foodie will order it anyway.) In other words, I’m suggesting chaat has been one of the vectors of novelty in Indian cuisine in the US in the last decade.
For most South Asians there is something a little incongruous about this. This is because chaat is indeed street food, or at least very casual food in South Asia; it is eaten as a snack and never alongside actual “meal” food (nor are samosas or pakoras or bhajis for that matter). Presenting it as appetizers in a full-on meal or putting it on the menu at all in formal restaurants is a bit of a new idea. But there’s nothing wrong with new ideas per se, and it must be said that some new places in India too now are doing this kind of thing (see Café Lota, for example–though there a normal person would just eat the chaat and nothing else). The bigger problem is that chaat doesn’t take well to being refined and so for someone like me who craves chaat in the US the emotion evoked by the versions at most of the fancier restaurants that serve it is most likely to be anger.
That’s part of it. The other part is that chaat relies on freshness and very high turnover. As a result the versions available in casual Indian snack places in major American cities also tend to disappoint–with paapdi and the puris in paani puris not being properly crisp, and bhallas soggy from sitting in dahi for hours, to cite only two common problems. This is not to say that there are no places in the US where you can find decent chaat. You will have to go, however, to enclaves with a concentrated South Asian population: Surati Farsan Mart in Artesia (just outside LA) is quite good, though being Surati tends to the sweet end of the spectrum in almost everything. There are other contenders surely in the Bay Area and New Jersey (though the venerable Vik’s in Berkeley was rather sad already in 2006 when I was last there).
Anyway: all this to say that when I go “home” to Delhi I pile on to chaat in a rather major way. And yes, we are going to come finally to the waxing nostalgic part.
Now, you are not going to find consensus on this, but for me the apotheosis of chaat is found within the triangle formed by the following vertices: puchka, paapdi chaat and alu-tikkis. In fact, you are not even going to find consensus on whether alu-tikkis or puchka (also known as paani-puris in Bombay and gol-gappas in Delhi) are strictly speaking chaat; but let’s not worry about that: in my father’s chaat house there are many mansions and I am willing to accommodate pedants and even misguided Bombayites who think that bhelpuri and pav-bhaji should occupy higher places in the hierarchy.
And of my trio, puchka is king. Dissertations could be written (and may have been) on the exact differences between puchka, paani-puri and gol-gappas–they have to do with the flour used to make the crisp shell (the puri), the size of said shell, the texture and mix of things that go into the shell, and the tanginess of the flavoured water (paani) into which the stuffed shell is dipped before you jam it into your mouth, bite down and mainline the goodness of the universe. These are important differences but for the sake of time let’s just state the most important one: the Bengali puchka is the best. That said, where there is no puchka to be had, a gol-gappa or even a paani-puri is only a slightly inferior substitute. And indeed, as my parents now live in Delhi gol-gappas are what I eat when I am in India (though, confusingly, some places now call them paani-puris).
What I am forever chasing, however, is the memory of the puchka on the streets of Parnasree, the southwest Calcutta neighbourhood in which my Thama (my paternal grandmother) lived and which we visited every summer in my childhood and teens (save for two years in the late-70s when we lived in Baghdad). My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian air force, and while my parents had grown up in Calcutta (for the most part–my father’s family were partition-era refugees from Mymensingh in East Bengal, now Bangladesh) my sister and I did not. Calcutta was an annual trip to visit relatives, and above all it was a trip to visit my paternal relatives who were generally younger and definitely far more badly behaved than my maternal relatives (my father is the eldest of five, whereas my mother is the youngest of eight).
My grandmother’s house was not very large and was somewhat packed even when we were not in town (two other uncles, and eventually their families, lived with her–the house was rented; they had the ground floor). Nor was (or is) Parnasree a fancy part of town–and if there could be said to be a fancy part of Parnasree my grandmother did not live in it (I don’t mention my grandfather much because he died when I was five and I only have two mental snapshots of him). It was not much more than reclaimed rural land at the time and there were large mossy pukurs (ponds/lakes) everywhere and their scummy surfaces were not very easy to tell apart from those of the open drains. Into these pukurs went the cherry red balls from the neighbourhood’s weekend cricket games (my father and uncles all played) and into the drains went the tennis balls my cousin and I played cricket with in front of my grandmother’s house.
I remember all this vividly. My grandmother was not poor, of course–even in 1970s India there were many rungs below in the economic hierarchy–and none of this bothered me as a child. I only tell you all this because when I say or read or hear the word puchka (or all the other chaat names that form a synecdochical chain with it) this is the scene that flashes before my eyes: Parnasree and the puchka-walas walking down its not very formal streets with their livelihoods on their shoulders and heads, and children and adults hailing them and gathering around them in a circle to eat puchka.
The puchka-wala would have woken up early in the morning and with his wife would have prepared the crispy shell and the various stuffings. All of it would have been packed into the ingenious device that played the part of both carrying case and serving table. (You can get a sense of the set-up in the second image on this page.) He would then set out on his beat, hoping to be hailed at every corner. The customers would gather around, tell him how much money they each wanted to spend–he would keep track of these amounts in his head as well as any preferences cited by each customer (quite a feat as new customers would join the service in progress), give each customer as they arrived a “bowl” made of dried leaves, and then at the speed of light, or so it seemed, start sending the puchka around in a circle. It didn’t seem to matter how many customers he had at any given moment: you didn’t have much time to get one down before the next one arrived (and you didn’t want to have one go down the wrong way or hold up the service). The price is a good index of the Indian economy over time. I remember puchka being as cheap as 12 pieces to a rupee (I even want to say 16, but that may have been too cheap in Calcutta in even the mid-70s). Later it was 10, then 8, then 6. This winter I paid 50 rupees in a sit-down place in Delhi for about 8 pieces.
I don’t mean to suggest that this kind of thing is a relic of the past. Puchka is still quintessential street food in Calcutta and everywhere else in Bengal (and elsewhere), and the puchka-walas are still out there (though I am not sure if their more upscale counterparts from my youth, the ice-cream handcart-men are). As I say, I only tell you all this (there will be no pictures or descriptions of any of this below) to give you a sense of why puchka and chaat mean so much to me–it was the first food I remember eating that was not made in our house and eating it was an experience tied vividly to a sense of place. And really I am telling myself this, because I’ve never before formally thought about it, let alone written any of it down. Later, of course, there are other Delhi associations: eating chaat on the even filthier streets near Delhi University, getting off the bus to eat alu-tikkis in Sundar Nagar, eating alu-tikkis in the evenings on the streets of Sector-21 in Noida, eating sweet potato-chaat from the vendors siting in the paan-stained corners in Connaught Place’s Inner Circle.
None of the chaat I eat now when I go back to Delhi quite compares. Some of this is because with my American family in tow, and also a digestive tract colonized by more delicate American bacteria, I now eat chaat in more formal settings than I ever did before; some of it, inevitably, is because nothing ever compares to the taste of memory which preserves more than the flavours of food.
Anyway, it’s still very good chaat. And I am glad to say that whatever contradictory cultural manifestations globalization and the “liberalization” of the Indian economy in the last two decades have wrought, nothing is going to end the North Indian love affair with chaat. McDonald’s and Subway and Pizza Hut and even Quizno’s (!) can open as many franchises as they like, and they can all be full (of course, each have been Indianized in turn), but chaat is still the most popular Indian fast food–still sold on the streets, and very popular as well in the shiny new chains that most middle-class Indians now eat it at.
The pictures that follow are from more formal places for the most part but they don’t all have the same cultural valence–I’ve tried to give a sense of this in the captions. Only a very small slice of Delhi is covered here, and only very, very few of the famous places. Leave alone all the south Delhi landmarks I did not venture on this trip into Old Delhi or central Delhi where many would tell you the best chaat can be found. I am similarly sorry that I cannot offer a wider photographic overview of the vast world of chaat (and related snacks) but I very selfishly chose to eat only what I wanted to eat.
Please click on the first thumbnail to launch a slideshow with detailed captions.
*This, by the way, is still the situation in the vast majority of Indian restaurants in the US–and being told this is something that seems to offend some American foodies, who through lack of a proper context for evaluation make overly broad claims for newer Indian restaurants that serve only slightly improved but much better packaged versions of the same slop. To paraphrase something Salman Rushdie said (in the context of American pop culture) at a lecture at the University of Colorado in the mid-2000s, if you give people seventh-rate stuff long enough they begin to think the third-rate is great. Probably applies to the whisky world as well.