As we entered the small family-run chaat restaurant, scents of various spices assaulted our noses. The fiery plates of chaat* loosen up our tongues, and there is an ever-flowing stream of conversation. Amidst the din and clamour, the laughter from our table stands out, capturing the eye of the owner. The promise of a huge payout gleams in his eye as he approaches our table with a wide smile.
Soon, our first orders arrive. A plate of bhelpuri lands in front of me. As I spoon some of the puri (white puffed rice) into my mouth, the hotness burns my tongue, but slowly the spicy flavour turns sweet upon chewing. Hard salty pieces of nipat (Indian biscuit) crunch under my teeth. The boiled soft chunks of potato are a stark contrast to the nipat. The onions, tomato and coriander have soaked up all the masala and enhance the flavour of the dish. Apart from the small portions given, the addictive nature of the chaat prompts us to go for a second round.
This time, a plate of panipuri is served. There are six mini puris on the plate, each a perfect golden orb of fried delight. The thin and brittle exterior encloses the hollowness within like an eggshell. Alone, the puris are tasteless. However, as I gently press at the top of the orb, the shell cracks, creating a small hole. Along with the puris are served two bowls. One of these bowls contains a mixture of mashed potato and lentils. I take some of this mixture and gently press it into the hole, similar to how one would pack tobacco in a pipe. Next, I pour in some paani. Paani is a green sour soup with salty bhoondhis. I pop the prepared puri into my mouth.
The shell cracks and the juicy tender deliciousness melts in my mouth.
Lastly, we ordered kadai kromaali. Chaat masala, (the ingredient that gives its name to the dish) is generously sprinkled atop a large appalam-like circular base. A mixture of diced onions and tomatoes, grated carrot and cheese is next spread across the base. The base is brittle, easily breaking off into smaller pieces.
As soon as I bite into my piece, there is an explosion of flavours. I can identify the taste of each unique ingredient. Yet, all of them merge into a perfect symphony, leaving behind a tangy smoky aftertaste even after the last bite of juicy crisp kromaali has been swallowed. We leave the place with our stomachs full, our hearts lightened and our minds brimming with long faded memories.
* chaat is a type of cuisine which originated in West India. It has spread over most of Asia since then.