For a Lucknow girl who just likes regular aloo tikki from the stall near her house, Delhi’s chaat culture is rather overwhelming. From aloo chaat to papdi chaat, corn chaat, dahi bhalle and fruit chaat, the list runs the distance of the metro. The capital is abound in chaats and local vendors who have become entrepreneurs from the taste they serve. Many have been running their business since generations. Day or night, people swarm to have a taste of crispy fried potato or papdi, with curd and special spices.
The city’s population is known for its diversity in origin, class, culture and religion. It is home to a mechanic from Bihar and students from far south. Whether it is a late evening walk home alone or a treat with friends, chaat becomes the go to option as a quick snack. It is perhaps this cost effectiveness and the love for spicy and crispy food that contributes to this popularity.
The word chaat literally means to lick, pointing towards the tangy flavour. With years, chaat became an open canvas. Pomegranates were thrown in, sev was put, sweet corns were added, continental spices were accommodated to create concepts like chinese bhel, and wai wai chaat. Menus of chaat are available in all prices and sizes now in Delhi, with big and small establishments ruling the streets.
But how did it all begin, one may wonder. Delhi-based food historian and writer, Mr Sohail Hashmi says that there are all kinds of myths when it comes that have no historical significance. The popular myth says when Shah Jahan inaugurated Delhi as capital during the Navroz festival, there was a grand celebration. Suddenly the king noticed that his personal physician, who was also a senior noble, was missing. Upon inquiries, it was conveyed to him that the old nobleman was angry. After the festival, when Shah Jahan asked, the physician said, “You did not consult me before choosing Delhi as capital. The water of the Jamuna was unfit for drinking and all the mughals will die.”
Apparently the hakim offered a solution that you have to use a lot of chillies. But chillies have side effects and so they must use a lot of fat to counter the effects of the water. This is doubted behind the tradition of eating fried food, with a lot of spices.
However, Mr Hashami said there are several problems with this story, said Mr Hashmi. First is that there were no chillies in Delhi in Shah Jahan’s time. They arrived in India only when the marathas brought them in the 18th century. The second thing is Delhi Shahjanabad was not planned to take any water from the Jamuna. Instead, a canal was brought to Delhi by Shah Jahan’s chief engineer Ali Mardan Khan. It used to flow through the middle of Chandni Chowk. There were hundreds of wells and stepwells. Never was Jamuna used for drinking water in the history of Delhi ever.
Moreover, food historian KT Achaya, in his book Indian Cuisine: A Historical companion says that vadas were first mentioned in the Sutra literature of 500 BC. The Mânasollasa of the 12th Century talks of soaking vadas in milk, rice water or curd. Curd is also mentioned in the Vedas, and curd in Tamil literature is said to have been spiced up using pepper, cinnamon and ginger. Therefore, it may be conjectured that adding curd to the dahi vada and spicing it up with various chutneys and pomegranate seeds could be an ancient habit.
Mr Hashmi added that among the large cities of India, Delhi is closest to Mathura and Rajasthan. In North India, people who intake the largest amount of chillies are the Rajisthani. And there have always been a large number of Marwari traders who have lived in Delhi making it a possible entrance for chilli in Delhi. The tradition of chaat is very rich in Mathura and Vrindavan and there are many people from there making it a reason for the popularity of chaat in the city.
The history may involve myths and mysteries. But Delhi and the entire North India is happy for this lip smacking, spicy, tangy culinary masterpiece called chaat.