Chaat is more than just a dish or singular culinary concept; chaat is a whole lifestyle. In much the same way that almost anything could be defined as a salad, with minimal rationalization, everything and anything is chaat. In fact, salad could qualify as chaat and vice versa. You could eat chaat for every meal, even though it’s commonly thought of as a snack. It’s a solo savory treat and also a party starter. Everywhere you go in India, chaat is found everywhere tucked away in back alleys, hawked on the street, packed into kids’ lunchboxes, and spread lavishly across top restaurant tables.
So… What Is Chaat?
Known for its aromatic spices and tangy sauces, chaat is an entire genre of Indian street food that offers a symphony of exotic tastes and textures. The range of possibilities spans beyond conventional limits; there are no wrong answers. Every region has certain affinities or specialties, but that’s only the beginning of the story. Chaat is a living recipe that continues to evolve with every subsequent cook that puts their own spin on it.
How Can You Build Your Own Chaat?
Formulas can be simple or complex, ranging from a half dozen ingredients to a list that’s longer than your average CVS receipt. The key is to balance contrasting flavors and textures by including elements that are crunchy, creamy, spicy, sour, fresh, sweet, and savory. When crafting your own chaat, here are the basics to start with and some suggestions for making it your own.
All About That Base
Carbs are the foundation to build upon, which usually means potatoes for me. That’s why I call mine aloo chaat anyhow, but that doesn’t mean we can’t invite more players to the party. Cut carbs and swap half or all for roasted zucchini or cauliflower. Switch it up with sweet potatoes, or dig other root vegetables like parsnips, rutabaga, or turnips. Other traditional selections include smashed samosas and crushed papad.
Consider this the salad portion of the program. Raw vegetables are chopped finely for a refreshing foil to the often heavy base. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions are common. If you want a shortcut, you can always pick up some prepared pico de gallo, or any chunky fresh salsa, and no one would be the wiser.
Chutney will never go out of style. It’s like an accessory that goes with everything and pulls the whole outfit together. You don’t have to choose just one, either; stack them to make a bigger statement. Top choices include cilantro chutney, tamarind chutney, and mango chutney, which are respectively herbaceous, tangy, and sweet to make a well-rounded trio. Don’t forget a drizzle of unsweetened yogurt for a bit of creamy richness.
This is what I consider the fun stuff that really sets chaat apart from the average pile of foodstuffs. Sev, which are fine strands of deep fried chickpea noodles, are most popular. They can be a bit tricky to find in the US, so I like to use wheat-based crispy chow mien noodles instead. Crunchy chickpeas, either store bought or homemade, are another excellent addition especially for adding more plant-based protein. Don’t forget toasted nuts or seeds, pomegranate arils, and even crispy rice cereal.
The Spice Is Right
Arguably the single most important component of any chaat is the chaat masala, AKA chaat spice blend. This one is distinctive for its heavy use of kala namak, also known as “black salt” even though it’s a light pink color in real life, which contributes an unmistakable sulfur aroma. This is the primary culprit for eggy flavor in vegan scrambles, but it takes on all new life alongside a pungent blend of toasted spices. Already boldly umami, that savory taste is further heightened with the addition of Sugimoto shiitake powder. It comes alive when the powder touches moisture, becoming even more potent than a regular fresh shiitake mushroom. For best results, I like to toss the base with the chaat masala, infusing those flavors right into the core. You cal always finish it with a second sprinkle once fully assembled for extra oomph.
Want to simplify your chaat?
- Start with a ready-made chaat masala spice blend and simply add shiitake powder to amplify those spices.
- Use prepared chutney, and if tamarind eludes you entirely, try a drizzle of pomegranate molasses instead.
- Cook the potatoes in advance and store them for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge. Reheat them for 1 – 2 minutes in the microwave when ready to serve.
Don’t be daunted by the long list of ingredients. Everything is optional, adaptable, and open to interpretation. I haven’t even scratched the surface on all that chaat can be. Worry less about authenticity and focus on flavor first. There are endless ways to make chaat, and if you focus on creating a delicate balance between seemingly disparate, contrasting tastes, you will never go wrong.