The taste of childhood: Chaat


Not only is everyone’s choice of chaat determined by the city they grew up in, there are also few absolute standards for judging what constitutes good chaat

Vir Sanghvi

Last week’s article was about a trip to Bangalore. The trip was about a search for the country’s best street food, a quest that has taken me to many Indian towns and cities.

My conclusion was that while chaat was essentially a North Indian phenomenon, evolving in UP and Bihar and spreading East (Calcutta), West (Mumbai) and the North (Delhi, Punjabi etc.), it had, somehow, failed to travel very far south of the Vindhyas. When you did get chaat (in the sense of golgappas, papri chaat, etc.) in the South, it was still treated as a North Indian import. In Mumbai, on the other hand, everyone believes that paani puri is indigenous to the city and in Calcutta, Bongs believe they invented the puchka.

But, or so I argued, the street food traditions were changing. The new hub for street food, I found, was no longer Lucknow. It was Mumbai with its wide variety of street food dishes. All over the South, you can now find pav bhaji, bhelpuri, raaste ka Chinese, etc. The flavours of Mumbai (epitomised by pav bhaji masala), permeated street food all over India. The pav that dominated Mumbai streets (pav bhaji, pav keema, vada pav, etc.) was fast becoming as much of a Pan Indian street food staple as the golgappa/puchka puri.

Even raaste ka Chinese, made originally by thelawallas with soya and ketchup, had acquired a new depth after the roadside guys started adding pav bhaji masala and other Mumbai flavours. It is a controversial thesis based on not much more than my own experience and my theory is, admittedly, a work in progress; I have to visit many more towns before I can come to firmer conclusions.

But the one thing that emerged from the many responses to that article is that not only is everyone’s choice of chaat determined by the city they grew up in, there are also few absolute standards for judging what constitutes good chaat. It is all extremely subjective.

For those of us who grew up in Mumbai, there is no substitute for the local chaat (though I am not even sure that we used the word ‘chaat’ when I was growing up). I was ten years old when I had my first North Indian golgappa and it tasted wrong to me. That was partly because when we made paani puri in Mumbai, we put a little black channa and a few moong sprouts in it. Everybody in North India thought that was weird.

Even in Mumbai, there were so many variations of our city’s most famous dish, bhelpuri, that it was hard to say which one was the iconic version. The dish was (apparently – of course, this is controversial) invented by a restaurant called Vithal’s (near the old Excelsior and New Empire cinemas) which had the bright idea of taking those Gujarati staples, fine, thin sev and mamra (puffed rice), and adding them to North Indian chaat. You can argue about how good Vithal’s bhelpuri was by the 1970s when I first had it, but just because it may have been invented there, was that version necessarily the best representation of bhelpuri? Was it how all bhelpuri should taste? (Butter chicken was invented by the Daryaganj Moti Mahal but it has been decades since anyone claimed that Moti Mahal – that original restaurant, at least – had the best or even, a particularly good version.)

And almost everybody in Mumbai had a favourite bhel, depending usually on where they lived. My favourite bhel guy used to have a cart in the compound of a building in Babulnath. (One of his specialities was dahi bhel, a dish I have hardly ever seen made well anywhere.)

Much more famous than his version was the Shetty’s bhelpuri, made (I assume) by guys from Karnataka, who sent boxes of their bhelpuri all over India. I thought it had too much nimbu, but that may just be a personal preference.

My friend, Sameer Sain, grew up in Bandra and swears by the Elco chaat (which is still highly regarded) of his childhood. Despite flitting from one three-star restaurant to another and making such difficult decisions as to whether La Tache is better than Richebourg in any given year, Sameer’s favourite food is still probably to be found at Elco.

For Gujaratis of my generation, Swati near Bhatia Hospital made a seminal version of bhelpuri though that honour (of the best Gujarati style bhel) now belongs to Soam in Babulnath (not far from where my bhelpuriwalla used to be).

And let’s not forget the regional variations. How about the bhelpuri made by the UP ‘bhaiyyas’ (they wanted to be called that) on Chowpatty beach, which was one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions? Or the more Sindhi-influenced bhel at Kailash Parbat in Colaba?

All of these are, recognisably, the same dish. But they are, in terms of taste at least, also completely different. So which one is the real bhel?

Let’s not get into authenticity. But even in terms of taste, how do we judge a bhel if we don’t know what the perfect bhel should taste like?

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that bhel (and other chaat) is the closest we come — in food memory terms — to our mothers’ cooking. There are no objective standards to judge mummy’s phulkas or her sabzi. Because we grew up on it, we think it is the best.

I’ll give you my own example. Till I was five years old, we lived in Churchgate in Mumbai on a road called A Road. (They were not as imaginative with road names then as they are today.) At the end of A Raod, near the Satkar South Indian restaurant, was a guy who made channa bhatura (or chholey bhaturey as we called it in my house). He would come each day by train to Churchgate, with readymade channa and bhaturas. When you asked for a portion, he would heat the channa and would refresh the bhaturas by frying them again in a little oil so that the edges became crisp. Each plate of channa would then have two chutneys splashed on it along with a shower of onion rings.

I grew so addicted to his channa-bhatura that, long after we had moved to another part of town, my parents would send for channa-bhatura from Churchgate as a special treat for me.

Was it really such high-quality chaat? How good could reheated bhaturas be anyway? How can this kind of channa compete with the stuff freshly made by the legendary Delhi channa-bhatura guys?

These are good questions. And I have no good answers.

But for me, that is the real taste of channa-bhatura. Serve me any version that is not tarted up with chaat chutneys and I will find it lacking.

Or take the example of my wife who grew up in Calcutta. For her, chaat is inextricably linked with the happiest memories of her childhood. Each evening, a chaatwallah would visit her neighbourhood and all the children would gather around him. He would make churmur (a Cal speciality which never gets the recognition it deserves) for them and then, as they lined up, he would feed them puchkas, one by one.

As a consequence, my wife will turn her nose up at most variations on the golgappa/paani puri, arguing that only in Calcutta do they know to make chaat properly.

I took her to Lucknow where all these dishes probably originated and she said that the UP versions were very nice but you know, they weren’t in the same league as Calcutta chaat…

At some level, we are all the same. Yes, we love chaat. But no, I don’t think we can be objective about it. It is the taste of our childhoods, of our happiest memories and of our formative years.

There is no such thing, I fear, as the ‘best’ chaat. The tastiest chaat is the chaat that appeals to the child deep inside us all.

(HT Media)