India: It’s Time For A Chat

the newspaper it is wrapped in describes anti-american riots from the week beforehand!
A wonderful masala roll of spiced potatoes wrapped in a sorghum flour flatbread from a street vendor in Srinagar, Kashmir

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.

the newspaper it is wrapped in describes anti-american riots from the week beforehand!

A wonderful masala roll of spiced potatoes wrapped in a sorghum flour flatbread from a street vendor in Srinagar, Kashmir

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.

These are ridiculously delicious

A Chatwala making momos, a kind of dumpling, on the street in Delhi, India

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.

sssshhhh don't tell, the steam is actually incense

Starfruit and roasted potatoes being sold on the street in Delhi

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.

Kashmiri Corn

Corn from the himalaya mountains in the Kashmir Valley

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.

I am a hot and spicy Momo, I just had to take a picture

Momos are a popular street food in Delhi

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.

Kashmiri food cart

Food cart in Srinigar, Kashmir, sells deep fried chick peas and other snacks

Erin Brown
Erin Brown is an art-dealer-turned-nomad who calls New York City home, since that is where the storage unit with her life's belongings in it resides. She has been rambling since 2005 when she up and left to work on Lake Baikal in Siberia for a month at the age of 19, and hasn't been able to sit still ever since. Erin has lived in Moscow and Paris, been hopelessly lost in the Balkans, herded goats and studied cheese making in France, scaled minor mountains in the Himalayas, farmed strawberries 500km above the arctic circle in Norway, nearly met her doom falling through shoddily-covered manhole in Kazakhstan, and systematically figured out which restaurant on curry row in NYC has the best butter chicken. A stalker of spice markets and frequenter of food carts, Erin is a passionate foodie who is more concerned about what's for lunch than the major attractions in any city. When she is not eating, cooking or writing about food, she writes art criticism and runs a social media marketing business.

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