The snack that earned a spot at the table

(Katherine Frey)
By Steven L. Katz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Savory, sweet, tangy, salty, spicy, often crunchy, addictive, eat it in a minute: That, in a mouthful, is chaat.

The street food so popular in India and Pakistan provides an irresistible combination of flavors, textures and aromas. Indian vendors sell chaat (in Hindi, "to lick") hot or cold, often specializing in their own particular version.

Their chaats have at least three components: a main ingredient such as chickpeas, diced potato, mixed fruit or a vegetable (meat is not used there, in part because the street vendors lack refrigerated storage); a special spice blend or seasoning called chaat masala; and condiments, one of which is cooling, such as yogurt with mint or cilantro, and another that is a sweet tamarind or date chutney.

Chaat masalas are largely responsible for the snacks' intensity of flavor and the cravings they engender. They contain Indian spices such as black salt, mango powder, red chili powder and roasted cumin powder - all within reach at Washington area Indian markets - as well as the savory blend known as garam masala that is now widely available in the spice aisle.

Among the more popular chaats, there is pani puri, a small cuplike vessel made with semolina flour and filled with chickpeas, diced potatoes and spiced water. Bhel puri is composed of puffed rice, puffed lentils and chickpea-flour vermicelli, perhaps topped with tomato, onion and a yogurt-based mint or cilantro sauce and a sweet tamarind chutney, then seasoned with a special chaat masala. It can be formed into a large bite-size cake or served simply in a heap. Samosa chaat is a triangular potato- or vegetable-stuffed pastry that has been neatly cut into pieces, surrounded perhaps with chickpeas and seasoned with chaat masala, yogurt sauce and dots and stripes of chutney.

In India, the hustle and bustle of the street adds energy and atmosphere to the chaat experience and establishes the rhythm of the preparation. But even when the chaat is delivered via platter to a white-tablecloth restaurant in downtown Washington, a single bite can capture the complexities and traditions of food and culture.

Chef Vikram Sunderam says that although he can't work that street energy into the scene at Rasika in Penn Quarter, he does prepare first-course chaats "a la minute" with the intention that they are to be eaten right away. It's not surprising that the restaurant's signature dish since Rasika opened in 2005 is palak chaat: crisp, flash-fried whole spinach leaves seasoned with roasted cumin powder, black salt, red chili powder and tamarind-date chutney.

"We want to start you off by stimulating a taste for the blend of flavors and qualities that characterizes Indian cooking," the chef says. Sunderam makes traditional chaats, such as a bhel puri cake with puffed rice, as well as his own avocado banana chaat and one that starts with chicken tikka.

At Masala Art in Tenleytown, owner Atul Bhola and chef Surinder Kumar offer several chaats as appetizers. Bhola will patiently walk you through how they are made, including how to hand-press your own gram, or chickpea-flour, vermicelli. His best story arrives with an order of dahi bhalla, deep-fried balls of pureed split black lentils bathed in seasoned yogurt, then drizzled with chutneys.

There is no single way to serve this dish, except perhaps to Bhola. As a young man visiting the northern Indian city of Jammu to see his grandmother, Bhola was directed toward the vendor who made her favorite dahi bhalla.

"His legacy lives on," Bhola says. "He is alive in the dahi bhallas his grandsons sell. I watched him make the same thing day after day, and I am sharing it with Washington."

To help educate their customers, chef-restaurateur K.N. Vinod and co-owner Surfy Rahman have created a separate street-snacks menu at Indique Heights in Chevy Chase. Each item's description includes its city of origin in India.

In October, the restaurant celebrated the Indian festival of lights known as Diwali or Deepavali by setting the scene on its terrace with vendors selling chaats and other street foods.

Vinod's aloo tikki are deliciously thick, lightly fried potato cakes stuffed with seasoned peas. At Indique Heights, they are served atop spiced chickpeas with tamarind and cilantro chutneys. "It's a substantial dish," he says. "The filling may change from region to region, but it's quite a popular street snack in the northern part of India. Now you see it in all the major metropolitan centers."

Unlike with the crispy kinds of chaats, elements of Rasika's chicken tikka chaat can be made in advance, then brought together quickly. Masala Art's balls of dahi bhalla can be fried and cooled, then frozen for several months. And the aloo tikki patties from Indique Heights can be assembled and refrigerated, to be fried just before serving.

That makes the possibilities for chaat even more immediate: from the street to the chefs' kitchens, to your table.

Have chaat questions? Chef K.N. Vinod will join today's Free Range chat at noon:

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