Indian street food: that’s as vast and varied a subject for exploration as any you might encounter in your travels. Whether you know moong dal from samosas or pav bhaji from chole, though, Chetna Makan’s book Chai, Chaat & Chutney offers ways to explore this aspect of India through stories, recipes, and photographs.
Makan knows her stuff. She grew up in north central India, in Jabalpur, with a mother who encouraged her interest in preparing food from a young age. Training for and working in fashion design saw her moving to Mumbai and exploring the crossroads of food that city offers, as well as making other travels in her native country.
In 2003 she relocated to England, where among other things she began working on ways to re create and to create new ways to share her favorite foods of India. This led to a runner up slot on the top television program The Great British Bake Off in 2011, and to winning The Great Christmas Bake Off competition in 2016. These also led Makan to write her first book, The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes with Flavours of the East.
That book is mainly focused on baking. When she began to think of her next book, though, Makan knew she wanted to share her passion for Indian street food. But how to present such a wide ranging subject?
Makan realized that “the four biggest cities in India broadly represent the four corners of the country, and the street food culture from each city offers distinctive, mouthwatering dishes. For this book,” she continues, “I have chosen my favourite street food dishes — the food that has stood out to me on my travels. All of them have a memory or flavour that is special to me.” That said, she has also taken into account choosing recipes — and explaining them — in ways that make the foods and their preparation accessible to home cooks in the UK and North America. That includes, on occasion, suggesting ways to make a dish vegan, lighter in fat, or vegetarian while still retaining the taste of Indian street food.
Makan’s book Chai, Chaat & Chutney is divided into sections featuring the street foods of Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi, along with a section on chutneys and masalas. Each city chapter includes a brief introduction to the character of the place and its food. Many of the recipes are presented with headers in which Makan shares a personal connection or memory about the dish, too.
In Chennai, for instance, you may learn about preparing the stuffed pastries that are samosas, as well as the technique of making plain dosa and ideas on what to fill a dosa with. The south Indian dish upma is light and savory, while rice and daal papdi make a crisp snack, which Makan advises enjoying with any of the chutneys explained later in the book.
Chennai is in south India; Kolkata is in the eastern part of India. “Kolkata is one vibrant city, unlike any I’ve ever visited,” Makan says, pointing to the contrast of ancient architecture with modern, bustling city. Several Kolkata dishes have become known and loved across India, but, she points out, “the majority of the street food here remains true to its Bengali origins.” Among the dishes for which she shares recipes are bhaigan bhaja, a spicy yet simple to make pakora with eggplant/aubergine, and the feast of flavour and texture that makes up potato, paneer, and chickpea curry. Do you know how to tell the difference between egg chop and fish chop when you’re enjoying Indian street food? You learn that, as well how to make what Makan notes as perhaps the most delicious of all curries, egg curry.
In Mumbai, Makan says, “There’s no escape from people, but every face here tells a different story.” The same could be said of the recipes. Vada pav brings together potatoes, chili, turmeric, and other spices with soft bread rolls into a tasty sandwich, and there’s also the vegetable toast sandwich, a Mumbai dish that’s now well known and loved across India and beyond. Tomatoes, onion, cauliflower, and green pepper are the ingredients which carry the varied spices in another pav/bread roll dish, pav bhaji. Had you thought of the words chocolate toasted sandwich in connection with Indian street food? You’ll find out about how to make this Mumbai treat too.
Mumbai is in the west of India. Delhi lies to the northern part of the country. Chinese dishes are popular in Delhi, and so are local dishes such as alu tikki, potatoes stuffed with lentils and spices. The deep fried flatbread bhatura is something you will learn of, as is chole, a northern curry with which it is often paired. You can also explore how to make phirini, a rice based dessert enjoyed in the colder months in north India, and carrot halwa, a warm pudding also enjoyed in winter.
To accompany dishes from all across India, there are chutneys. Makan offers a generous selection of ideas, including chutneys based in tamarind, tomato and dates, coconut, and peanut, along with a range of masala spice blends with which you may wish to experiment, or which may inspire you to create your own.
Mention must be made of how well Chai, Chaat & Chutney is designed and photographed. The work of studio photographer Nassima Rothacker and location photographer Keith James along with art director Juliette Norsworth bring the country and the recipes to vibrant life in support of Chetna Makan’s words. Whether you choose to try making any of the recipes or not — and you will– you will come away from Chai Chaat & Chutney feeling as though you have been on a trip to the four corners of India.
–> update: Chetna Makan has a new book out: Chetna’s Healthy Indian
Intrigued with the food of India? You may enjoy seeing what I had to say about three places to enjoy Indian food in the city center of Glasgow, which has several times been named the curry capitol of the UK. Perhaps you’d also enjoy reading about songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s trip to India, and the recording which came out of her experiences.
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