A recent Brown in the South dinner—a collaborative series featuring acclaimed chefs of Indian descent who call the American South home—during Chow Chow (chef Katie Button’s food festival in Asheville, North Carolina) got me to thinking about chaat. I feasted on chef Farhan Momin’s chora chaat, a combination of crispy Anson Mills Sea Island red peas, tamarind, apple butter, cilantro chutney, diced onions and heirloom tomatoes. It was simultaneously sweet, spicy, crunchy and salty—ticking all the boxes in what I personally think of when it comes to a satisfactory bite.
After this dinner I was eager to further explore and write about chaat, as it was a food memory I so wanted to share—but I quickly learned I had no idea what chaat was. And neither did the handful of friends and strangers I asked along the way. I scrolled through my phone contacts and immediately texted Cheetie Kumar, a core member of Brown in the South and chef at Garland, just down the street from my house in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I don’t think I understand what chaat is,” I embarrassingly admitted. “No rules” she says. Think of chaat as more of a descriptive word. “Chaat is a category, like pintxos or dim sum.”
“I always tell new cooks, in Indian food it’s always done this way except when it’s not,” says Kumar, when helping me understand what chaat is. Ingredient-wise, there aren’t that many rules. It’s more about the multi-textured components and chutney. It can be hot or cold and almost always spicy, sweet, herbaceous, salty and sour. Kumar reminded me that Indian food is super diverse and that the culture itself is built on assimilation, modification and rule bending. In the end, chaat is chaat—and is an open book, as long as it satisfies the senses in the aforementioned way.
Now that you’ve hopefully got a better idea as to what chaat is, check out a few additional tips and pointers, as well as several tempting (and simple) ways to chaat it up at home.
RECIPE: Easy Mango Chutney
More About Chaat
Chaat Means “To Lick”
“Translated from Hindi, ‘chaat’ literally means ‘to lick,’” says Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale & Masala House and Chaatable in Nashville, Tennessee. “Chaats are traditional Indian street foods made with layers of bold flavors and textures for a result that is very lick-able, if you will. They can be warm, cold, sweet, spicy or tart and can be made of anything — fruits, veggies, lentils, samosas, you name it.” The most important factor? An “addictive, lick the sauce off the bottom of the plate quality,” Kumar says.
It’s Very, Very Easy to Make
“Think of making a chaat like making a salad,” says Chauhan. “If you can make a salad, then you can definitely make a chaat.” It’s similar in that you’re tossing different ingredients into one bowl and there are only a few things to keep in mind. “I always keep tamarind chutney, mint chutney, yogurt sauce, chaat masala and roasted cumin,” she adds. “If you have those five ingredients, then you can make a delicious chaat out of anything.”
It’s Mostly About Lots of Textures and Flavors
“What makes chaat fun to eat is that it is fun to make,” says Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi. You can chaat up just about anything imaginable as long as layers of textures and flavors exist. “There has to be a crunchy element, something sour, something sweet, something salty and something hot,” Bhatt adds. Chaat masala is a must and if adventurous, he notes, you can make your own. “I prefer to buy mine from my friends at Spicewalla or MDH.”
Chaat Masala is Not the Same As Chaat—But a Crucial Part of Chaat
Translated into “snack spice,” Chaat masala is a spice everyone should keep handy in their spice cabinet as it’s wildly versatile. “Chaat masala is a spice blend (a.k.a. masala) usually containing some mix of cumin, coriander, dried green mango powder (amchoor), black salt and asafetida (hing.),” says James Grogan, Spicewalla’s Director of Operations, noting it is a key player in chaat.
Chat masala is also great in non-Indian dishes. Grogan recommends trying it on fruit, in a lemonade, on a tomato sandwich, and even root vegetables. “Or do as Priya Krishna does and literally put it on everything.”
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Simple Ways to Chaat it Up At Home
“If you have made Chex mix you can make chaat,” says Bhatt. Turn it into a lickable, applaudable snack by squeezing a generous amount of lime juice and and drizzle of cane syrup or honey and add in minced red onion, boiled potatoes or cooked chickpeas, minced jalapenos, chopped cilantro and mint. “Now add a generous pinch or two of chaat masala, toss everything together and viola!.”
Chauhan is a fan of making potato chip chaat. “Take potato chips and add boiled peanuts, canned garbanzos and the five essential chaat ingredients mentioned above,” says Chauhan. “Eat as soon as possible or else the potato chips will become soggy.”
“Ingredient wise, the world is literally your deep fried oyster,” says Kumar, who notes how adding chutney, sev (seasoned crunchy noodles) and cilantro to the already palatable, fried Southern snack is a brilliant way to chaat it up. It’s a simple way to add heaps of flavor to a anything fried.
“Chaat for me is an expression of what's in season at that moment,” says chef Christian Hunter of Sorghum & Salt in Charleston, South Carolina, who currently has a crispy potato chaat with feta, chutney and a butter sauce on his menu. Because of chaat’s wide range of ingredients and layering of flavors Hunter is able to add seasonal ingredients to his ever-rotating chaat dishes. “I like to have a lot of contrast in my chaat at the restaurant,” he adds. “Every bite should be an explosion of flavor—sweet, heat, sour, fat, spice and crunch all play a good role in chaat for me.”
On the Sweeter Side
Chauhan notes fruit chaat is a favorite pastime in India. Take mixed fruit and add lemon juice and chaat masala and top with tamarind and mint chutneys. Think a delicious treat on a hot summer day or a perfect end to a filling meal.