There’s one outing I always try to make happen whenever I’m visiting my parents in Dallas: going out for chaat. This excursion is a typical weekend afternoon activity for many South Asian families, and we are no exception. Chaat—a category of spicy, tangy Indian snacks—may well be my favorite kind of food.
Chaat is fun to go out for because it is really an interactive experience. You place your order, you get called as every individual dish is ready, you devour your snacks one by one, and you repeat. One of my favorite things to order at chaat places is pani puri, fried puffs that are filled á la minute with potato, onion, chickpeas, and minty water—you throw them back like a shot. Chaat isn’t technically very hard to make—it’s mostly just assembly. But truly excellent chaat means that all the components are crafted with care: the tamarind and cilantro chutneys are homemade; the chickpeas are carefully boiled until al dente rather than drained from a can; the spices are freshly toasted and ground.
For this reason, my mom doesn’t really do chaat at home. When I attempt some version of chaat back in Brooklyn, I take all of the shortcuts—canned chickpeas, bottled tamarind chutney, non-homemade yogurt. If I’m too lazy to make cilantro chutney, I’ll just chop up the herbs and add them directly. It gets the job done.
The only time I expect to have chaat in Dallas is either when we go out or on Thanksgiving, when my aunt Rachna makes her unmatched version of bhel puri, a crunchy, spicy, puffed-rice-based dish doused in onions and chutneys and crunchy sev (Rachna once sent me the recipe, and it was multiple pages long with all the sub recipes).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came down for dinner last night, and my mom, who had just made her first trip in ages to the Indian grocery store, was making tamarind chutney from scratch, and had laid out papdi (a type of fried cracker) and bhujia (think: savory, crunchy sprinkles made of chickpea flour). This could only mean one thing: chaat. As instructed by my mom, I whipped up some cilantro chutney, chopped the boiled potatoes, and finely diced the onions. She turned our kitchen island into a chaat station, laying out the papdi and pakoris (also fried, but round), and the full assortment of accompaniments: chickpeas, cilantro chutney, tamarind chutney, thinned out yogurt, red onion, potato, bhujia, toasted cumin, and red chile powder. And then she made us each a bowl of chaat, refilling as we finished one round. It was as close to the going-out-for-chaat experience as it gets.
This was one of those punishing 90-degree days in Dallas, where just walking out for a few minutes makes you want to take another shower. Chaat was the perfect, cooling panacea, and quarantine was an ideal opportunity to take the time and do right by the whole process.
We capped off the night with saffron-pistachio ice cream (a classic flavor, also from the Indian store), and a few episodes of The Americans. I feel like in quarantine, there are days where I feel fine and days where I feel anxious, but there have been very few days where I have felt genuinely happy and hopeful. Yesterday was my first happy and hopeful day in a long, long time. Who knew that all it would take was some really great papdi chaat?