Every Tuesday, my mom does her version of a fast, which means not eating salt. She does it because her late mother used to fast on Tuesdays and because she likes to have a guarantee of one day a week of simpler eating (she usually consumes some combination of nuts, avocado, and rice with yogurt). As a result, when I was growing up, Tuesdays were junk food days—the rare occasion when my sister and I had free rein to eat whatever we wanted, whether it was SpaghettiOs or boxed macaroni and cheese.
Now that I’m quarantining with my parents in Dallas, Tuesdays make me a little sad because it means that my mom and I won’t be putting our heads together to come up with a dinner plan, splitting up the various tasks, and enjoying the whole process with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Very often, Tuesdays are when I feel the least amount of inspiration. Thankfully for me, when inspiration doesn’t strike, there’s always chaat masala.
We all have that one condiment or spice blend in our cabinet that we can’t get enough of, that we put on literally everything. For me, it’s chaat masala. Chaat masala is a spicy, pungent, and tangy combination of spices like coriander, cumin, black salt, and amchur. A lot of spice blends are satisfying. Chaat masala is drool-inducing. And it transfers that quality to whatever it is paired with.
Chaat masala also has an incredible range. Put it on a baked potato. Sprinkle some in your grilled cheese sandwich. Add it to a soup or stew if you want it to taste like it’s been cooking for hours. Stir it into a salad dressing. Oh, and if you haven’t sprinkled chaat masala on fresh watermelon, you are really missing out.
This past Tuesday, after a particularly long day at work in which I had barely had a chance to eat lunch, I was starving by the time 6 p.m. rolled around. I opened and closed the fridge several times, unable to determine what I could make in less than twenty minutes that would still feel like a hot, nourishing meal. I took out a random assemblage of ingredients: a tomato, an ear of corn, a knob of cheddar cheese, an avocado, some bread. My dad microwaved the corn, and I toasted the bread, chopped the tomato, and grated the cheese. At this point, I still had no idea what I was going to make.
And then I thought of the chaat masala. I buttered the corn and doused the cob with chaat masala. I melted cheese on top of the toast, layered it with tomatoes, and . . . also doused it with chaat masala. I sliced the avocado in half, and guess what I did? I sprinkled it with chaat masala. The alchemically wonderful thing about chaat masala is that it does different things to different kinds of food. It served as a salty juxtaposition to the sweetness of the corn. It brought complexity to the creamy avocado. It intensified the sharp, savory flavors of the cheese and the acidity of the tomatoes. Chaat masala doesn’t just hit all the notes—it amplifies them.
I don’t buy a ton of spice blends (1) because I already have a lot of whole spices and (2) because a lot of blends end up sitting in my cabinet forever, losing their flavor and aroma and essentially just turning to sawdust. But I don’t have that issue with chaat masala. It holds front-and-center placement in my cabinet because I use it so frequently. I cook with it, garnish with it, serve it on the side just in case I want to add a little extra verve to my dinner. And right now, when I am so deep into cooking fatigue, I like knowing that I can reach for that container of chaat masala on a lazy Tuesday evening and sprinkle it on whatever I happen to find in the fridge. Just because you’re not feeling lively doesn’t mean your dinner can’t be.