We need to have a chat...
There's big stuff happening. Bigger than the chocolate tulip hot chocolate.
This October I'll be starting university at Cambridge, and I think I am still less than half aware of it. In the middle of all the planning and forms and shopping and organising, the significance of it all hits me from time to time. It goes without saying that I'm going to miss my family immensely, and I don't really know how to get my head around all of those emotions. But after five whirlwind years here in Mumbai, the one thing that's truly surprising me is the realisation of how much I am going to miss this city. There are many ways in which I still can't truly call myself a 'Mumbaikar', and I think that part of the process of feeling comfortable here was accepting that I would never fully fit in.
But there's one way in which I've been a Bombay girl from day one: I love chaat. Love it.
For five years, wherever I've been, I have almost always had the dahi batata puri (crunchy boules filled with chickpeas or potatoes and topped with yoghurt, sweet chutney, spices, lentils, coriander and crunchy fried twigs of batter).
That's actually rather unusual for me, because I am normally the one who wants to choose the newest, strangest looking thing on the menu. I've had it more places than I can count, and I have my personal preferences. One place puts lentils, another has delicious yoghurt, another's chutney it just tangy enough... the list goes on.
One afternoon this summer, my mum and I decided to give in to temptation and try the chaat from a stall in Kala Ghoda (hands down, coolest neighbourhood in Bombay) and he revolutionised dahi batata puri for me: warm cooked chickpeas (I usually like it cold, but this was interesting), fresh tomato, crunchy, spicy split peas, loads of coriander, heaps of handmade sev that twisted and crunched as you ate it, and – perhaps best of all – raw mango on top that added a freshness and sourness that I had never had in chaat before.
But recently, I started trying bhel puri: a chaat made with puffed rice and everything else tossed in.
I'm officially converted.
Dry bhel is light and easy for a quick snack, but the real fun of chaat lies in all the chutneys and fresh fruits and vegetables, and bhel puri's inherent lightness makes it significantly easier to eat than others.
On another summer morning whim, my mum and I stopped at the chaat stall outside Sundance (another Bombay favourite) and it now ranks up with the Kala Ghoda stall. Our idea has, essentially, been for me to stock up on enough chaat to last me the next two months until I'm home. ;) It's a fun way to explore the city, and you can't help but feel extremely happy afterwards.
So after all the taste-testing around the city, from Chowpatty to Nariman Point (and no, I'm not even including samosa chaat and aloo chaat and all the country's other varieties... in this respect, my city is the best.), I've got my list of what makes the perfect chaat (complete with my own hand-painted illustration):
Sweet tamarind chutney: Not too spicy
Mint chutney: I always ask places to leave it out, but a non-chili-laden chutney would be delicious
Onion: I'm thinking of adding caramelised onions to chaat one day too
Tomato: You need the freshness and juiciness
Raw mango: Tangy, crunchy, light and just lovely
Pomegranate: The burst of the seeds and their bright flavour add so many layers to the taste and texture
Mint leaves: This would pair wonderfully with the mango and pomegranate
Fresh coriander: Have to. Just have to.
Crunchy, spicy split peas: They counter the softness of the other components and are packed with masala
Nylon sev: It's fun, crunchy and uncomplicated. It's like the chocolate sprinkles of chaat.
Lemon juice: Subtle, but the sourness is definitely needed
Green lentils: Perfect especially in dahi batata puri
Roasted peanuts: Amidst all the light, crunchy, fresh flavours, the peanuts keep the whole dish grounded and add a wonderful wholesome feel
Roasted cumin powder: One of the best spices in Indian cooking, you can't go wrong
Chaat masala: It's an all-time favourite go-to spice, perfectly mixed and super easy
Coriander powder: It's more delicate than cumin powder and its muted smoky sweetness permeates the whole dish
So my mum and I gave it a go. We were hesitant, because we had essentially concluded that street food stalls make the best chaat, so it's somewhat futile trying to do it yourself. But honestly, this was probably one of my happiest moments in the kitchen, because we loved our bhel puri even more than the stall outside Sundance. Just enough chutney, full of peanuts and pomegranate, not too spicy, sour mango... heaven ^_^
The thing about chaat is its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.
It's quick and honest. It doesn't need to pretend to be some gourmet dish from the 5-star hotel across the street. It's usually served in recycled paper (you might spot your bank statement or exam one day...), and your on-the-go 'spoon' is a flat, fried puri that is undeniably satisfying to munch up at the end. It can be as plain or as complicated as you want, allowing each person to throw in or leave out whichever ingredients suit them, mixing and matching and experimenting. It can be as unhealthy or as balanced as you want, as big or as small.
And perhaps, this is in a way why it so perfectly represents Mumbai for me.
Mumbai is a massive, buzzing, bright and chaotic city. There's no one right way, but Mumbaikars will make sure there is always a way. There's the heaviness of the pollution and the freshness of the sea breeze; the heat of the sun and the burst of tropical fruit; the commuters who live with blinkers on, and the small shop owner who will sit and have a chat with you; the roadside banana vendor and the hip new cafe. Whether you're a multi-millionaire tycoon or a simple taxi driver, you have your favourite street food stall, your favourite childhood memories, the ingredients you love, the flavours you crave. You walk along the same bustling streets, and somewhere, nestled in all the 12 million people, you have your place. Just like Mumbai's seemingly impossible parking, someone will nudge this way, someone else will guide you another way, and you kind of slot in. And if you're lucky, you'll land up right next to a street food stall, with a pile of chaat waiting.
So, here I am, looking at the menu and trying new things. Bhel puri, illustration, cooking... university.
I don't know what's coming, but if anything, Mumbai prepares you pretty well for the unpredictable.
What I do know is that some things will always stay the same. I will find my own little place wherever I go, with a pack of chaat masala tucked in my suitcase. And when I come home, my extraordinary family, my favourite chaat, the Bombay buzz and our picturesque dining table will be waiting for more adventures.