the litmus, when our happy as a canary, crazy-cook friend Sai called me and wifey over for dinner. While all else on the dining table were flavourful, but my memory is fresh with the mushroom sauce that dripped my grilled chicken.
Chat. Or Chāt. This simple, 4 letter word, finds a huge resonance in the lives of most South Asians. The first usage would be in English and the second would be in Hindi (or Urdu). Truth is, no Indian or Pakistani, can ever survive without either.
This is no occasion to discuss the English meaning, so we steer over to the vernacular connotations of ‘chāt’. Chāt is a culture. It is about the times when people are out, no matter what the barometer reads, to stuff their faces with their favourite chāt. A good chāt goes a long way in cementing relationships, finding new love, downing after-office hunger pangs and getting over boredom. A chāt centre is also a study of brand building – be it in the way the cart owner greets new customers or by giving a little something extra to repeat customers. Remember, your local chāt-waley bhaiyya? You might not remember his name, but you still remember him as chāt-waley bhaiyya! That is branding and recall!
A good chāt can define a person, shop, locality, and city even. If you don’t believe me, as any Indori about their chāt locality called ‘Chhappan’ and brace up to not talk for the next 20 minutes because you are salivating like Garfield in front of canned tuna.
The humble chāt is a tasty mix of flavours and spices, hot and cold textures, sweet and savoury and has many, shall we say, variations to it. A chāt menu can be very exhaustive and more challenging than an agency copy test. For those that know, salivate thinking of aloo tikka chat, papdi chaat, dahi bhalla, gol gappey, sev puri, bhel puri, jhaal moori! It’s just scratching the top, really. In fact nobody has considered it seriously but there is a chāt critic in all South Asians. We are the same commentators who feel that Sachin Tendulkar should have hit the ball a little to the off-side; and the tamarind chutney in the chāt is not tangy enough.
The experience of eating chāt starts long before a loaded plate is handed over. It begins with the customer peering over to see all the ingredients laid out, in invitation. Sorry Subway, move over; we’ve been at it since Adam’s. Then it is the magic of the person who loads up goodies on the plate and sprinkles different masalas with more aplomb than Emiril. Bam! Swirl on some spicy, tangy chutney, throw on some ginger juliennes and there you have it – the perfect plate of chāt.
That modest chāt assumes different hues of taste and flavour as one travels across the length and breadth of India. Newer items get added to the family of chat. Sometimes, popular chāt items get known in 3 or 4 different names. Of course there are epicurean critics who can theorise the difference in anatomy of a Bengali ‘phuchka’ to that of a Punjabi ‘gol-gappe’ over its Western poor cousin ‘pani puri’. So you see, getting together a plate of chāt right, is perhaps, tougher than pleasing Gordon Ramsey. Should you find anybody who can make the perfect chāt, marry the person!
One of the first things I was looking for when I landed in Dubai was a good chāt. My search took long with many trials, re-trials and tribulations. I am listing down the top 5 places where you can get a good chāt.
My recommendations are:
- Elco Chat Center in Karama for Pani Puri. Bengali’s might want to drive till the border of Sharjah for some ‘Phuchka’ at Calcutta Fast Food.
- Chatori Galli for some North Indian style treats like Papdi Chaat, Raj Kachodi and Jalebi Chaat.
- Urban Tadka (Karama / Discovery Gardens) for Bhel Puri, Sev Puri, Ragda Pattice and Pani Puri with Ragda.
- Puranmal for Vada Pao, Aloo Bonda.
- Bombay Chowpatty for Samosa Chaat, Dahi Bade, Papdi Chaat.
Now, if the desi in you is doing a jig because you are yearning that sunshine back home with street feasts and unending hours of fun while hot cups of ‘chai’ keep arriving along with piping hot samosas and vada paos, then, this is news for you.
The first-ever Masala Food Fair is here. 2 days of desi picnics, street-eats, and restaurant favourites, celebrity-sighting (Raveena Tandon promises to show up – wipe that gravy) and live cooking demo by celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor! Save the dates – 20th and 21st of February at Zabeel Park, Dubai. Log on to masala.com/foodfair for more or look up #MasalaFoodFair on Twitter.
You will probably spot me there with a spoon in hand. See you there!
PS: my auto correct has resigned. It couldn’t agree with all the desi street eats thrown in here!
Also featured on Masala Magazine Online: http://www.masala.com/masala-food-fair-special-5-places-in-dubai-that-serve-best-chats-188871.html