Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi, is the place to indulge in that extremely addictive culinary tradition known as chaat. And with good reason too--Chandni Chowk was where this unique style of north Indian fast food was born. The story goes that centuries ago, when Chandni Chowk was in its prime, a wide canal known as the "Nahar-e-Bihisht" (the Stream of Paradise) ran through it. The canal provided water for the city of Shahjahanabad, whose inhabitants used it for everything from washing their clothes to preparing the dinner.
The Nahar-e-Bihisht was, unfortunately, not quite as paradisal as some would have liked to believe; the court physician, a Hakim Ali, after an inspection of the water, decreed that it was foul enough to kill off much of Shahjahanabad. Alternate sources of water were scarce, so the solution which was proposed by Ali was a simple one: add copious amounts of spice to the water before consuming it--spice enough to kill off any germs which happened to be lurking. What was born was chaat--spicy, tangy--and so mouthwatering that I’m yearning for some even as I type!
Anyway, for the uninitiated: a note on chaat. What it’s all about, what goes into it, and where you can get it.
Firstly, chaat’s a very wide-ranging term for a host of dishes--all of them the snack variety which you eat standing on the pavement, trying to keep the sauce off your shirt while you get jostled on either side by friends and strangers vying for a second helping. Chaat can run the gamut from deep-fried spicy potatoes to chopped fruit sprinkled with spice--and a lot in between. Not all of it is hot enough to blow the top off your head: in fact, it’s a combination of spice, sour and sweet which makes chaat what it is--irresistible.
Secondly, the essential ingredients are many. These include boiled potato, boiled gram, chopped onion, mint chutney, puffed rice, tamarind chutney (delightfully sweet-and-sour), whisked plain yoghurt, chopped cilantro, and a host of edible things you may never have come across: little deep-fried squiggles of savoury gram flour batter; tiny coins made of savoury pastry; and golgappas--crisp hollow spheres, deep fried to a luscious golden, then punctured with an adept forefinger, filled with potato, topped up with a generous spoonful of a spicy liquid, and popped into your mouth before the whole thing disintegrates down your front.
Chaat is a Delhi institution, and chaat-sellers are ubiquitous: they pop up everywhere, from the fashionable environs of Greater Kailash’s M-Block market to the bureaucratic alleys of Shahjahan Road. Small-time guys will usually have a folding table or a push-cart on which they’ll mount an array of vessels containing the ingredients they use. Larger shops will have a food warmer, and a large iron griddle to fry "aloo tikkis"--delicious potato croquettes which are served with a generous dose of mint or tamarind chutney.
If the idea of eating at a roadside stall scares you--well, hygiene is never an issue with most of those guys--try some of these places:
Eatopia (Habitat World, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road): Very clean, plastic-glove-and-disposable-plate chaat. What’s good is that the chaat has all the authentic flavour without the fear of germs--and the area (a food court) is itself a smart, clean place where the staff’s friendly, fluent in English, and helpful. Another advantage of eating at Eatopia is that all their chaat is made with mineral water.
Haldiram’s (Various locations: check out the one on Ring Road, Lajpat Nagar): Like Eatopia, Haldiram’s too is the modern version of a chaat eatery--nice and clean, and with a larger selection of chaat. They also serve a mind-boggling selection of Indian sweets, just in case you want to douse the fire after a spicy round of chaat.
Bengali Market (Near Connaught Place): Bengali Market has a number of good chaat-shops, not as sleek as Haldiram’s, but good nevertheless--and easily accessible from Connaught Place, the heart of Central Delhi.
If you don’t give a damn--or are immune to "Delhi Belly"--then the entire city’s your oyster: go where you want, and you’ll find a chaat-wallah!
Chaat--depending upon what you’re eating and where--typically costs less than Rs 30 a plate. At any rate, however, you should be able to eat well within Rs 100.