The best way to get the feel of a city is to eat on its streets. These are the greatest chaat dishes of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Not to be confused with Mumbai’s pani puri, Kolkata’s phuchka or UP’s pani ke batasha, the gol gappa is a marriage between two elements: the paper thin shell that can be made of flour or semolina and pani. Delhi’s pani for its gol gappas is sweet and sour, with more than a hint of roasted zeera. Superior versions feature a hint of heeng. Gol gappas are, expectedly larger than all the other competitors in other cities.
Anywhere else in the habitable world, dahi bhallas and papdi chaat are two entities. In this city, they’re two hearts that beat as one. They are spiced as if they were a single unit, with thick, rich curd, mint and coriander chutney and saunth or dried ginger sauce. It’s the textural difference that makes this dish so irresistible.
Kulle ki Chaat
Now sadly on the verge of extinction, is the healthiest form of chaat, featuring as it does halved roasted sweet potatoes, halved tomatoes and cucumbers filled with tiny cholas and an intensely tangy spice mix. This ‘salad’ that could only have been devised on the footpaths of Old Delhi is served at just one or two chaat stalls.
Black as the night, soft as a feather and irresistible to anyone who wants a hearty snack or a simple meal, the bhaturas have to be freshly fried to hit the spot, even as the chola has to have a faint hint of sourness of anardana.
Kachori is just as tasty when it is piping hot as when it is at room temperature. It’s just that it has to be flaky and crisp. Delhi’s version goes easy on the heeng and the dal and/or vegetable filling of the Rajasthan version and is served with a thin potato curry.
This is the quintessential Mumbai chaat made with mumra (crisped rice), sweet and spicy tamarind chutney, mashed potato, tomato, onion, and crushed fried flour, puris. You will find bhel wallahs spread across the city and most come from North India. The bhel available in Guajarati dominated areas of the city tends to be sweeter in taste.
International food shows like Masterchef Australia educated the Indian audience to appreciate the contrast of flavours and textures in a dish. Ironically, this contrast was always there in the humble sev puri! This is a dish which has a crisp puri as a base, is layered with soft boiled potatoes, then offers the bouncy bites of raw onions and tomatoes and is topped by crunchy sev. Plus this is quite a colourful dish specially once the chutneys are layered on.
This is Mumbai’s version of Delhi’s gol gappa and Kolkata’s phuchka. It can be distinguished by the use of tiny gramflour spheres, boondi, (though these are not essential) as a filling and the use of both sweet and sour chutneys.
The Marathi snack of missal which consists of gram flour based crunchy farsan added to a sprouted moth beans is a popular local breakfast dish. In dahi missal, tangy curd is added to counterbalance the heat of the missal curry to give it a chaat like feel.
Gurda Kaleji Channa
This is a dish found in Muslim dominated areas such as Bohri Mohalla in Bhendi Bazar and the Mahim darga areas. This is a unique non-vegetarian chaat where offal such as goat kidneys and liver are added to a boiled gram curry and is topped with tamarind chutney.
Anyone who is from Kolkata will tell you that phuchkas are not panipuris or gol gappas and that they are, ahem, way better. Thin crisp puri shell, sour tamarind water, mashed potato, boiled chickpea and split green chilies make up the perfect phuchka. The paani ke batashe of Lucknow come closest to phuchkas in taste.
The phuchka-wallahas of Kolkata had deconstructed the phuchka way before Indian molecular gastronomy mavens came up with panipuri foams. This dish consists of crushed phuchka puri mixed with the stuff that normally goes inside the phuchka and is blended with the spicy tamarind water.
This is Kolkata’s version of Mumbai’s bhel puri except, as the ‘jhal’ (spicy) in the name suggests, has a higher heat quotient. A distinctive dash of pungent mustard oil in this rice crispy (muri) with boiled gram, potato, raw cucumber, onion, coconut and chanachur (a spicy farsan) mix is the key flavour marker. The sight of the jhal muri maker stirring the contents of the muri in his mixing tin brings out a Pavlovian response in most Kolkatans.
This is an evolved take on phuchkas where curd (doi) is added instead of the tamarind water to create a cooling summer snack.
Bengalis love potatoes and this chaat dish with cubes of boiled potato, boiled gram and a spicy tamarind chutney hits the spot.
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.