Personally, I think of all the world’s cuisine, Indian food is among the most delicious. Though, it’s often overlooked or unexplored. Unlike other world cuisines, Indian food hasn’t gone mainstream in the U.S. There’s no Olive Garden or McDonald’s equivalent for Indian food! While this lack of a major national food chain may have hindered the spread of Indian food in America, it may also be a blessing in disguise — preserving the authenticity of classic Indian dishes like aloo chaat, tandoori chicken, samosas and paneer tikka masala in local, family-owned restaurants.
That being said, it wasn’t until I was a grown adult that I had my first exposure to Indian cuisine. I was lucky enough to try it for the first time while studying abroad in London. Here’s a fun fact: England boasts some of the best Indian food in the world outside of India. While most associate fish and chips with British cuisine, you may be surprised to learn that chicken tikka masala like this is also considered a national dish. I wandered London’s cobbled roads, and that’s where I was first introduced to the delicious category of Indian street food known as chaat.
What Is Chaat?
With its aromatic spices and tangy sauces, chaat describes an entire category of Indian street foods that offers the palate a symphony of exotic flavors and textures. It’s a group of foods without limits. The rich culinary diversity of India has led to the creation of a plethora of chaat dishes inspired by its various regions. While each may look and taste a little different, they all share a common combination of sweet, salty, crunchy, spicy and savory ingredients.
Start with starch
All great chaat dishes begin with a solid foundation. The exact base ingredient will vary but it is almost always starchy. Popular options in traditional chaat include samosas, crispy puffed rice or fried bread fritters.
Then add vegetables
Vegetables are the next key ingredient to chaat and are typically boiled or raw. Meant to add texture to the dish, raw onions, tomatoes and boiled potatoes are common additions.
Top with chutney
Generously spooned over the carb-rich base and vegetables is usually one or a combination of sweet, spicy and/or tangy chutneys. Chutneys are a staple in chaat and all Indian cuisine. They’re often served alongside Indian flatbreads like chapati bread or naan for dipping. While you’re likely to come across a wide variety of regionally-inspired chutneys as you explore the world of chaat, these are the three most common ones you’ll encounter.
- Tamarind Chutney: This classic Indian condiment is sweet, sour and spicy. It’s made from tangy tamarind, spices and a sweetener like sugar, jaggery (palm tree sap) or dates.
- Red Garlic Chutney: If you love garlic and spice, then this chutney is for you. This vibrant, fiery sauce is loaded with garlic and ground Kashmiri chilies.
- Green Chutney: Also known as pudina dhania, this chutney is made primarily of cilantro, mint, garlic, ginger, cumin and chilies. This chutney is somehow both spicy and refreshing.
Dust with masala
Next comes a healthy dusting of chaat masala ($6). While the realm of chaat may be vast, chaat masala is the common denominator that unites. It’s this essential blend of spices that gives chaat its signature flavor. Made primarily of kala namak, also known as Himalayan black salt, a pungent spice that adds a strong umami flavor and egg-like aroma to the dish.
Add a crispy topping
Finally, comes the crunch. No chaat dish is complete without something crispy and fried on top. Popular toppings include fried potato bits, deep-fried noodles made from chickpea flour called sev, or seasoned, fried chickpeas, masala chana.
While each component is relatively simple, when combined, they’re pure magic. Hitting on every flavor note that makes a food crave-able, chaat is your perfect gateway into the wonderful world of Indian food and flavors.
8 Chaat Dishes You Have to Try
The first time you visit an Indian restaurant can be an intimidating experience. For first-timers, there are a lot of new words, flavor combinations and ingredients to wrap your head around. While menus will vary from place to place, here are eight classic Indian chaat dishes you’ll want to try first.
Popular in northern India, aloo chaat is typically comprised of fried pieces of seasoned, parboiled potatoes topped with raw onion, chutney, lime juice and a generous sprinkling of chaat masala.
This popular snack is India’s version of hash browns or potato pancakes. Aloo tikki is made from mashed, boiled potatoes mixed with peas, onions and spices. The mixture is formed into small patties and then fried. Aloo Tikki is commonly served with an assortment of chutneys and yogurts for dipping.
This dish is bursting with texture. Starting with a base of puffed rice, called bhel, and crunchy pieces of fried dough strips called puri, this dish is topped with green and tamarind chutneys and often finished with cilantro, lime juice and a generous handful of peanuts and sev.
These classic Indian fritters are a street food staple. Dahi vada begins with fried dumplings, known as vadas. Commonly made from legumes such as mung beans, chickpeas or lentils, the legumes are soaked and then ground into a batter that gets mixed with spices and then fried. Once cooked, the vadas are soaked in a heavy yogurt sauce and garnished with chaat masala.
Golgappa / Panipuri
Known as either golgappa or panipuri, this dish is made from unleavened deep-fried bread, called puri. Round and hollow, once fried, the puris are filled with a variety of savory fillings. The filling typically starts with a spoonful of flavored water, called imli pani. Then, a mixture of potatoes, chutneys, onions, chilies and chaat masala follows.
Pro Tip: Eat these tasty little balls in one big bite. If you try to be dainty, you’ll regret it quickly as the tasty filling oozes out all over your shirt.
Originating in North India, papri chaat is a dish that has gone through many adaptations as it spread throughout India and around the world. Sticking to the classic recipe, you’ll find a base of crispy fried dough wafers, papri, along with boiled potatoes and chickpeas topped with tamarind chutney, chaat masala and crunchy sev.
Indian Food Images/Shutterstock
Similar to golgappa and panipuri, sev puri is made using the same deep-fried unleavened bread balls. Their difference lies in the filling. Sev puri instead layers potatoes, onions and the three famous chaat chutneys into each hollow puri ball. The puris are then liberally topped with crispy sev and often garnished with fresh mango and chaat masala.
Even most Indian food rookies are familiar with samosas. The deep-fried, filled pastries are chopped and then arranged as the base to this classic Indian chaat dish. Topped with yogurt, assorted chutneys and sev, this chaat, it’s almost impossible to not love this chaat.
Do you think you’re ready to conquer chaat at home? Try this easy recipe for chana masala chaat next.