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Proustian Musings – Of Delhi’s Bazaars and Chaat

Written by Vandita Bajaj, 1st August 2020

My visit to Karol Bagh Market is incomplete without savouring the Papdi Chaat from Punjab Sweets. The place has been there ever since I can remember. From when I first saw it as a child of not more than 3, to this day, little has changed about the shop or the Papdi Chaat it serves. A cross between a store and a stall, this establishment has no doors, it is located in the corner of one of the many alleys that dot the market. To get to this gastronomic heaven is no easy feat – amidst the hustle of the market, the numerous roadside vendors make the narrow streets narrower and the cars trying to make their way through make for a not-so leisurely walk. But facing these obstacles is well worth it, for at the end of this journey is a bowl of flaky papdi doused in silky smooth white yoghurt and soused with a generous quantity of deep red tamarind chutney and piquant green coriander chutney.  

Eager customers of this tiny establishment spill out onto the street as the vendors dish out plates of food one after the other, all flowing with fascinating rhythm and cohesion. There are no chairs or tables available, just people standing with their yellow plastic plates, occupying every inch of available space. At the cash counter on one end of the shop, you pay and get your token before making your way to the vendor to procure your chosen dish.

As my mother makes her way to get this ‘golden’ token, I stand close to a display counter ogling the pile of deep fried samosas and kachoris sitting there – their smell wafting across, distinctly mouth-watering. From the spot where I stand, I have a clear view of my mother waiting patiently in the queue at the cash counter. After spending time going from one shop to another, trying to strike off as many items from our to-buy list as possible, we find ourselves in this overcrowded little joint with no respite from the sweltering summer heat. Instead of a comfortable sit-in restaurant where the waiter comes to take your order and the water is bottled, we choose to be in this cramped little space. Clearly the temptation to savour chaat doesn’t take into account much else. A cost-benefit analysis would reveal that the joy and satisfaction that comes with each spoonful is only magnified by hot weather and the less-than-pleasant surroundings.  I see that my mother has made it to the front of the queue and is quickly handed the token. The exchange between her and the man behind the counter is limited to her order, people are waiting for their turn. The line only seems to grow longer. There are old people with their grandchildren; they remind me of my own grandparents who are unable to move around as much, I make a mental note of getting something packed for them. I see my mother make a beeline for the counter that is serving the chaat, I too leave my spot and make my way towards it. 

When the token is handed over to the vendor, the culinary spectacle of chaat preparation begins.  The vendor picks out a yellow bowl from the stack in front of him. No plastic gloves are involved, yet it isn’t disgust that I feel, instead I keenly await the final product that I have come to relish. He takes a handful of the papdi and then another smaller handful when I insist on ‘zyada papdi’ (extra papdi). The smile on his face tells me that it isn’t a novel request, just like every chaatvalla has his unique style of preparation, every chaat-eater has developed their own preferences after trying a myriad different combinations and specifications. He squeezes the excess water from the bhallas before adding them to the bowl with the crushed papdi. After a liberal serve of the boiled potato and chickpea mixture is added to the bowl, cold yogurt covers everything in the bowl in its entirety. The vendor, as he reaches out to grab the bottle of the tamarind sauce, asks whether we want to be theekha (spicy), meetha (sweet) or mixed. Having tried all three variations over the years we go for the ‘mixed’. Streaks of the deep-red tamarind chutney and the poppy green- coriander chutney stand out against the white of the yogurt. The bowl is garnished with juliennes of dark purple beetroot and crispy yellow sev. Just as he hands it to us, his salivating customers, he sprinkles on top a brownish-black powder- his secret spice mix, the ingredient that makes his Papdi Chaat unique.

Illustration by, Antara Shah

In all probability this spice mix has a history of its own, of how it came to be perfected by him over the years. My mother holds the bowl as I grab two plastic spoons from the side, they are sturdier than the ones available at most places which makes it possible to break down the pieces of papdi.  We find a spot for ourselves, it’s a struggle to find one where we aren’t obstructing people or being pushed around. My mother holds the bowl with one hand and eats with the other, I hold onto the other side of the bowl as I try to break a rather large papdi into half. My attempt is not successful and I end up eating the papdi, which is bigger than my spoon, at one go. It never fails to surprise me, the papdi manages to remain crisp despite being drenched in yogurt and chutney. The bhallas are a complete contrast, they are pillowy and soft. Try as I may, there is no way to get everything in one spoonful. Each bite is different- the crunchiness and saltiness assaults you in one, and in the next one the boiled potatoes and chickpeas provide soothing relief. We eat in silence, savouring the taste but also wanting to finish up quickly and make way for other people. My mother always offers me the last bite of papdi, I halve it so we can both have it. 

Delhi is known for its delectable chaat, there is a vendor in every nook and cranny of the city and every dilliwalah has his or her own favorites. While there are a number of establishments that serve what could be called a more ‘hygienic’ and ‘safe’ version of Papdi Chaat there is something almost ‘bland’ about eating it sitting on chairs in an air-conditioned restaurant. No matter what ‘chaat masala mix’ I use or authentic recipe I get off the internet, it is impossible to recreate this dish in the comfort of my own kitchen. The chaotic streets seem to enhance the flavor, so despite complaining about all the traffic and weather, we seem to gravitate back to the roadside chaatvallahs who dish out their own version, without using measuring cups or plastic gloves…

Experience Further: For me, the joy of summer is inextricably tied to food: travelling to new places and experimenting; or returning to the familiar tastes of home. The title and the tune are evocative of alot that I associate with something as mundane, yet exciting as a plate of food. I tend to listen to this whenever I am putting something together in the kitchen.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

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