I’m finally coming to terms with something I’ve always suspected about myself: my favourite food in the world is chaat. Give me caviar, give me white truffles and give me the greatest hits of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, and I’ll probably be diverted for a while. But after a brief flirtation, I will return to my first love: chaat.
This was brought home to me last week when I attended a glamourous private party in Bombay catered by Marut Sikka. Most of us know Marut as a TV chef and a restaurateur but I suspect that his real income comes from private parties. Marut’s skill lies not just in the excellent north Indian food that his own team of chefs can be depended upon to turn out but in his ability to source the best chefs and dishes from around the world.
At this party, for instance, the food was truly spectacular and the highlight should have been the dishes created by chefs from Le Calandre, the celebrated Italian restaurant (three Michelin stars and a regular spot on those slightly silly lists of the world’s greatest restaurants). And yes, the Italian food was amazing.
But it was not my favourite cuisine on the menu. Even as waiters circulated with outstanding Lebanese, Gujarati and north Indian dishes, and the Calandre team showered white truffles on their risotto, I huddled at the bar with two friends and ordered plate after plate of the chaat.
What made the chaat so outstanding that it was unlike the sort of thing we normally see in Delhi or Bombay. Marut had found a third-generation chaatwallah from the Kesari Chaat Stall in Benaras (it is located near the Dus Ashwamedh Ghat on the Ganga) and had persuaded him to come to Bombay and to serve his entire menu at the party.
One of my friends is a TV big-shot who prides himself on his foodie skills (though he has a misplaced admiration for his local Bihari cuisine and little understanding of the complexities of Gujarati food!) and even he and his wife were stunned by the quality of the chaat. The secret of good chaat, he said, is that UP has the best chaat in India but that it does not come from Lucknow as is commonly supposed but from Benaras. The thing about the people of Benaras, he added, is that they are naturally shy and reluctant to leave their city and show off their skills to the world.
I was too busy polishing off the chaat to think very deeply about what my friend said. I concentrated instead on a delicious palak papdi chaat, freshly made so that the fried palak was still crisp and brittle. A tomato chaat was made from tomatoes that had clearly been simmered for hours. A kachori chaat had lots of delicious, crunchy little kachoris, dressed with dahi and chutney. A tokri chaat comprised little baskets of fried potatoes. The rui dahi bhalla consisted of bhallas so light that they reminded you of fluffy balls of cotton. And on and on it went as I demolished the entire Kesari Chaat menu.
The next morning, I thought back to the conversation about Benaras vs Lucknow and began to wonder if my friend had been right about UP being the centre of the chaat world. I’ve been to Lucknow several times and though chefs keep trying to force pulaos and curries on me, I stick to the chaat. (I am fortunate in that I have two good friends in Lucknow – Sharat Pradhan and Sunita Aron, among the city’s most celebrated journalists – who are dedicated chaat lovers and know all the best places.)
On the other hand, I’ve only been to Benaras on a foodie trip once to shoot for my A Matter Of Taste show and my lasting memory of that trip remains the Malayon, the ethereal early-morning dessert about which I have often written. I thought back to that trip. Had the chaat really been outstanding? Well, actually, it had but because the focus on the show was milk desserts we had concentrated on Malayon.
I phoned Marut and asked him what he thought. He agreed that UP was the centre of the chaat world. But he thought that, within UP, there were many chaat traditions. He gave me the example of what we call paani-puri in Bombay. In Lucknow and Kanpur, they use the term ‘batasha’ or possibly, ‘gol-gappa’. In Benaras, on the other hand, they call it a puchhka and the taste of the paani is subtly different from the Lucknow version.
Marut thinks that there are strong foodie links between Benaras and Calcutta, which is why the term ‘puchhka’ is used in Bengal as well. He reckons that perhaps chaatwallahs from the Benaras region moved to Calcutta and seeded the city’s flourishing chaat scene.
He may be right. The more I thought about it the more chaat seemed to be a UP thing. The Calcutta tradition is essentially a morphing of Benarasi recipes to suit the city’s Bengali and Marwari clientele. This is why Calcutta’s puchhkas are tarter than the Benaras version. In Delhi, on the other hand, the chaatwallahs probably came from Lucknow and Kanpur and gave the city its own gol-gappa, which I regret to say, is easily the least interesting example of the genre.
Neither Marut nor I could work out which part of UP Bombay’s chaatwallahs originally came from. We know for certain that chaat was transported to Bombay by UP Brahmins, most of whom used the surname Sharma. (Take a poll of the chaatwallahs at Chowpatty and Juhu. You will find that most of the long-established ones are still called Sharma.)
It is a tribute to Bombay’s culinary genius that the UP chaat tradition was able to successfully mate with the Gujarati snack/farsan tradition so that a new chaat culture was born. The Gujaratis took the principles of UP chaat (something fried, lots of crispy things for texture, chutneys, dahi, potatoes, etc.) and created new dishes. The most famous of these is bhel puri but there are many others.
The Bombay dahi batata puri has its roots in UP chaat but is very much an individual dish in its own right. Ragda pattice is a Gujarati adaptation of that north Indian standby, tikki with channa. And Marut reckons that Bombay’s pani-puri, which is the local variant of the gol-gappa/puchhka/batasha chaat is probably the best expression of this dish. (I love Bombay but here I disagree with Marut: my money is on the Calcutta puchhka.)
The more Marut and I talked about it, the more convinced we became that we could trace nearly all genuine chaat dishes to waves of migration from UP. This explains why it is so difficult to find a chaat tradition south of Bombay: the UPites did not venture further down the Peninsula.
It is funny, though, that at a time when every state is doing so much to put its cuisine on the map, UP takes so little credit for being the home of chaat. Kerala may brag about its spices, Goa may trumpet the virtues of vindaloo and so on, but UP seems to have surrendered all claims to chaat, which is now seen as a pan-Indian favourite rather than a regional cuisine.
The public image of the food of UP leads only to the Awadhi haute cuisine of Lucknow and to pots of steaming biryani or animal fat kebabs. I love Lucknawi food as much as the next man but I doubt if it has been as influential or as popular as chaat. And yet, the chaat geniuses of Benaras, Lucknow, Kanpur and other UP towns get almost no recognition at all. Their wonderful tradition is disparaged as being ‘mere street food’.
But India lives and eats on its streets. And that night as I turned away all the fancy food that Marut and the Michelin-starred chefs had cooked and stuck to the Benaras chaat, I pondered the injustice. In America, they celebrate the hamburger and the hotdog; pizza is Italy’s global calling card; and Britain is known for fish and chips. So why, oh why, do we in India not give chaat the respect it deserves? Why is it without honour even in its home state?
I say this not just because chaat is my favourite food. I’m sure that millions of other Indians are also crazy about chaat. So, for once, let’s give haute cuisine a rest and stand up for what we really love: the cuisine of the Indian street.
From HT Brunch, January 13
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch