I’ve made many a trip to India as I was growing up. And on every one of those trips, every single one, I’ve had a serious bout of food poisoning. It’s like a standard travel procedure – check-in, board, fly, land, exit, and Bam! Food Bug Attack. It’s usually brought on by spice, unfiltered water, a roadside indulgence prompted by the whiff of something irresistably yummy and deep-fried. Sometimes, even a fancy restaurant where we’d shelled out 500 rupees for a simple bowl of daal. It took very little to provoke my digestive wars. As I’d lay belly-flat on my bed, willing those excruciating tummy cramps to go away, my gateway to the land of spicy, juicy, and deep-fried goodies would slam shut in my face. Total abstinence from all things tasty, resigned to a bland diet of rice, yogurt and nasty congealed tapioca globules (sabudana) that supposedly has tummy healing traits in addition to its nauseating qualities.
And that’s when I decided, one rainy tummy-churning night in Hyderabad, that I’d had enough. I threw caution to the winds and declared that if I had to fall sick anyway, an inevitable result no matter where I ate or what I ate, that I’d go all out and eat whatever I wanted. Why deprive myself of the best grub that India has to offer and then fall sick anyway – a double loss by my perverse logic – when I could have my cake and…well, fall sick anyway. At least there was some victory in that.
Victory usually included an all-out chaat binge. Chaat/chat refers to Indian roadside snacky treats that contain every lethal, tummy-blasting element – spice, flavored (and questionably sourced) water, deep-fried dough noodles (aka sev), all with a dose of roadside grime that could sneak its way into your bowl if the chaat maker was less attentive to the needs of his pansy-tummied foreign patrons. Chaat is also available at average and even poshy restaurants, though there’s something adventurous, thrilling…even naughty…in having it from a roadside stall, especially since I’d been outright forbidden from approaching them as a child.
I had some phenomenal chaat at Swati snacks in Mumbai on my last visit a few months ago, though the experience of eating at the Swati stall in the INOX foodcourt felt pretty tame. So this trip, I needed my roadside chaat fix. Tummy rebellion would have to be dealt with later.
The roadside cart of choice was Laxmi Chat Bandar, run by Krishna in Banjara Hills (for those who’d venture out to find this cart, and it would be totally worth the trip, you’d have to take the left road forking off from the route to the City Center mall). Yin and I were ready to embark on a tasting tour of everything the cart had to offer, until we were interrupted by some urgent phone call demanding that we get home this very minute. Fine, ‘this very minute’ would just have to be after I’d engulfed a plate of dahi papdi chaat, my favorite chaat concoction ever. Deep-fried crunchy flour discs (papdi), mushy spiced chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, onions, coriander, yogurt, sweet-sour tamarind chutney, green chilly sauce for those who can brave it, and tons of crispy sev on top. One mouthful of Krishna’s papdi chaat later, this food truck had rocketed to #1 on my ‘best-of-chaat’ list. It was like sinking your jaws into a tangy chutney and chickpea sandwich slammed between crunchy layers of deep-fried dough.
We returned a few days later, this time with a bigger group of six, all ready to chow down on multiple plates of hot and cold chaat. Pouring rain, big slushy mud puddles, and the little roof tarp they’d used to cover the stall – which collected bucketfuls of rainwater in its folds, and every now and again, emptied its grimy water onto innocent chaat eaters who’d hold onto the tarp ropes to steady themselves in the rain – didn’t deter us. We munched our way through plates of pani puri (hollow fried dough spheres, stuffed with potatoes/chickpeas, and dipped in tamarind and spicy green chutneys), aloo chaat (warm potato mixture, yogurt, tons of spice, cripsy sev), dahi puri (similar to pani puri, though covered with tons of yogurt, carrots, onions, and coriander), and my all-time favorite, dahi papdi chaat.
A few folks in the group strayed to the cart next door as well. It was like watching a thin white-bearded sorcerer and his helpers at work, crouched over a pot of bubbling oil, dunking in gram flour-battered eggs (anda bhonda), potatoes (aloo bhonda), and giganitic chillies (mirchi pakoda), and then fishing out the hot deep-fried orbs every few magical minutes or so.
I’m happy to report that all five of my accomplices on this face-stuffing chaat expedition returned home in the best of health. I, on the other hand, had gorged on a plate too many, and had a painful evening full of those awful tummy cramps that implied doom for the rest of my India trip.
Was it worth it? Of course it was! What’s a little pain for some chutney-busting papdi chaat? What’s more, I was back to my pain-free, gluttonous self when I woke up the next morning, totally convinced that I’d have to return again on my next trip. After all, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.