For millions of children in the Indian subcontinent, closing-time at school heralds the arrival of a very special person-the chaatwala, with his handcart and colored canopy. He is at home in large cities and forgotten hamlets, among anglicized yuppies and half-clad urchins, and chaat, his brand of street food is one that few would willingly resist. Especially schoolchildren, even though they are usually instructed by their mothers to be on their guard against the unhygienic hands of the chaatwala.
Chaat is an umbrella term for a variety of street foods, mostly vegetarian. Generally, these foods are spicy and tangy, embellished with yogurt or chutney made of tamarind, mint or cilantro. Most chaat consists of a base of flour that is fried together with a stuffing of mashed potatoes and chickpeas.
Among varieties of chaat, gol-gappa is a hot favorite, and it goes by different names in different parts of India. The North Indian name gol-gappa describes its round shape, while the West and South Indian name paani-puri relates to its substance, fried balls stuffed with chickpeas, dipped in tamarind water and served on leafy bowls. The East Indian name puchka indicates the tactile sensation of squishing this pungent delight while swallowing it whole.
On a day of torrential rain, the chaatwala's wares are best sampled indoors. Pakoras -- that is, fritters made of onion, potatoes, eggplants, chicken or fish -- make a perfect complement for hot drinks. It's a different story when one traverses the breadth of the subcontinent. For then the chaatwala appears as the ubiquitous phantom aboard the bustling train, selling bhel puri and paapri chaat, These are snacks of puffed rice and crisps, garnished with rock salt, cumin, fennel and a variety of other spices.
Chaat can form a light afternoon refreshment or a full meal. Bombay's aromatic pav bhaji, for instance, is quite a tummyful, consisting of a hot curry and buns fried in butter. In Pakistan, roadside chaat is often ordered for family celebrations.
Over the subcontinent, a number of respectable restaurants do serve all these delectable dishes now, prepared in hygienic conditions. But the connoisseur will always tell you that the authentic flavor is only to be savored on the street, in the heat, dust and clutter of human life. And the young, in age and heart, would agree.
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Copyright 2004 © Malini Roy
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