At Rasika in downtown Washington you can order a dish of baby spinach -- each leaf lightly battered and quickly fried until crisp -- drizzled with yogurt, tamarind and date chutney, sprinkled with minced red onions, tomatoes and cilantro. It is fragrant and pungent, warm and cooling, sweet and sour -- all at once. It's the restaurant's version of palak chaat, and in addition to being a bestseller, it's an exemplary rendition of an Indian chaat. "If I ever took it off the menu, I would lose my job," executive chef Vikram Sunderam says with a chuckle.
Chaat comes from a word that in Hindi and Urdu means "to lick" or "to taste." Accordingly, chaats are a category of snack and street food. Eaten at all times of the day, they are generally served as small plates or large bites. "You can make a chaat out of anything," says chef and author Maneet Chauhan. Her 2020 book, "Chaat: Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India," changed the way I look at snacks and meals.
The genre is wonderfully broad and defined more by the flavors and textural characteristics of each dish than specific ingredients, cooking techniques or occasion. Chaats lean vegetarian, but can also be made with fish or meats. They can be entirely savory or mostly sweet, but are often a little of each. Sunderam and Chauhan agree that texture is a key element in any chaat. "There must be some crispiness," Chauhan says. "You want a balance, so that when you bite into something soft, behind it there is something crunchy," Sunderam says.
"Growing up in India, one of my favorite things was the seasonality of fruits," Chauhan says. "When you go to buy fruit from a street vendor, they'll always ask if you want it plain or made into a chaat. It totally changes your perception of what fruit can be."
If you order your fruit to be made into a chaat, vendors will commonly dress ripe mango, melon or other cut fruit with lime juice and chaat masala, a dry spice blend that adds savory, sour, smoky and spicy-hot notes to each bite. (Chauhan notes that vendors in Mexico do the same thing, using lime juice and Tajín to add acidity, spice and heat to sweet, ripe fruit.) Often, an element of crunch is added as well.
These last lazy days of summer have me craving fruit chaats, but I don't live in India. So I asked the experts for help on how to create a good one.
"The ripeness of the fruit is essential in fruit chaats," Chauhan says. "Then, the other elements just add to it -- it's a party in your mouth. You take a first bite, and it's announcing itself: 'Hello! I'm spicy! I'm savory! I'm tart! I'm sweet!' The flavors should be unexpected, to keep you guessing, to keep you wanting another bite as you put the puzzle of tastes together."
This Peach and Tomato Chaat is designed with that in mind. Lime juice, fresh ginger, a touch of fresh chile and a bit of sugar or honey form a dressing with chaat masala that helps pull the juices out of the ripe fruit. If you can't find chaat masala, you can skip it, because the honey, ginger and tamarind paste offer a similar sort of pungency. Whatever you do, don't skip the crunchy bits. They'll keep you coming back for more of this firework of flavors.
Peach and Tomato Chaat
- 4 large ripe peaches, halved, pitted and cut into wedges; juices reserved
- 5 plum tomatoes, chopped and juices reserved
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
- ½ small red onion, diced
- 1 Fresno chile, thinly sliced (optional)
- 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, finely grated
- 1 teaspoon honey or granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon chaat masala, optional (see note)
- 2 tablespoons seedless tamarind paste (see note)
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ cup chopped roasted peanuts or cashews
- ½ cup sev OR crushed potato OR corn chips (see note)
In a large bowl, combine the peaches, their juices and the tomatoes and their juices. Add the lime juice, zest, onion, chile, ginger, honey or sugar, and chaat masala. Toss to combine and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes, to encourage the flavors to meld.
Drizzle with the tamarind paste and top with the cilantro, roasted nuts and sev or crushed chips and serve.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Note: Chaat masala, tamarind paste and sev can be found at Indian markets or online. If you don't have chaat masala, you can use a pinch each of ground cumin, ground coriander, ground fennel seed, ground ginger, ground black pepper and dried mint plus a big pinch of salt. The tamarind paste adds the essential sour note. Sev are small pieces of crunchy noodles made from seasoned chickpea flour.