If you’re anything like me when you travel, there are days that are so crammed full of ossuaries and herbariums and legendary halls of taxidermy—not to mention all those buttresses and boutiques—that somewhere around 4 pm, you hit what I like to call the shambling stage. You are trudging aimlessly in circles, searching for something—what was it?—before you realize you have missed lunch, and your blood sugar has dropped so low you’re edging on the un-dead.
It is snack time, or, in India, chat time.
All throughout India, there are snack stalls, or chatwala, dotting the busy streets, selling every kind of deep fried, spiced snack imaginable. The hindi word chat originally referred to a specific spice-and-herb-laced salad used to pique the appetite with a blend of fresh fruit and smoked cumin, but now the term includes nearly any Indian snack imaginable, from crispy bombay duck to fried vegetable dumplings to meaty bits just off the grill.
Open day and night, in the poshest neighborhoods or in your local alleyway, chatwala serve as community mainstays—both culinary and social. In the evenings in Delhi, men gather around a chatwala’s grill, as paneer (pressed cottage cheese) and lamb tika char over the glowing coals; young children chase one another trying to snatch a bite of their friend’s hardboiled egg sprinkled with a special masala, or spice blend; and people at the market catch up with the mobile chatwala that bring tea and prantha (wholemeal flat breads) to the sellers’ stalls.
Chat vary wildly depending on the region. In Kashmir, I could hardly resist the savory smoke drifting through the streets, and ate a few ears of bhona bhutta, a fire roasted corn dusted with pepper, nearly every day. In Rishikesh, a strictly vegetarian city, I made my lunch a mixture of mathari, a savory pastry-dough cracker delicious with sweet chutney, shakkaravellikayangu bonda, dumplings filled with various veggies, dipped in chickpea batter and fried, and a pomelo sprinkled with chat masala. In Delhi, where I sweat my weight in water every day, I took refuge in a cold, ten cent glass of sugar cane juice about every half an hour.
Though many people shy away from eating street food when they travel, I deliberately sought out the chatwala as a way of staying safe in my eating habits. Chatwala that have a local following are often better bets than midrange restaurants—chatwala ‘kitchens’ are right there in the open, where you can see that your battered cauliflower is spending a few solid minutes in boiling oil before making its way into your hands, a luxury you don’t get with restaurants. Plus, most of the spicy, flaky-crusted samosas (potato fritters), palate-searing chipas (potato chips), and other chat are seasoned with spices like turmeric and black pepper which act as antioxidants and slow down spoilage. However, shy away from street food that includes fresh herbs like cilantro and mint, as they are likely to spoil quickly in the heat—a recipe for stomach disasters.
This October, I found myself in Mumbai during their international film festival, a best-of-the-best of both world cinema and Bollywood, attended by both the international jet set and the cinema-obsessed locals, it brings the energy in the city—and around the chatwala—to a whole new level. No trip to the cinema—especially not the Desi (native) cinema—would be complete without a few greasy newspapers filled with masala kaju (spiced cashews), katrika bajji (eggplant fritters), or shrimp from the Arabian Sea. As I sat munching my spiced cashews while watching the latest in Bollywood blockbusters, I thought of Julie Sahni’s description of munching at the movies in her beautiful essay for Savoring India. “My cinema snack of choice, the one on which my generation grew up, is chipas, the cayenne-laced potato chips that make the mouth burn with the same melodramatic intensity as the Desi cinema. With each betrayal of the heroine, I would take two quick bites of my chipas and join her as she cried her heart out. I never knew if the tears that cascaded down my cheeks were due to sympathy for her plight or the spicy heat let loose on my palate.” Either way, the Desi—or any experience in India—isn’t the same without a good chat.