Chaat Baat

When I was forwarded yet another link on Vik's Chaat House in Berkeley, I have to admit rolling my eyes. Over the years, I've read enough gushing pieces about the glorious aloo tiki, the wondrous pav bhaji, the pioneering nature of the place etc etc to feel I could crank out a copycat piece while whistling RD Burman classics, picking lint out of Virj's hair and dunking a Noni's biscotti in ginger tea, all at the same time. It would go something like this:

It is an early morning Sunday in Berkeley, California and Declan McManus is late. "Gotta get there soon," he mutters to himself while circling for parking in the warehouse area of this laid back college city. You would think he is trying to make a protest on time. Or perhaps attend a nondenominational service in the local Buddhist temple. In fact he is not doing either. By the time Declan arrives panting outside the doors of Trader Vik's, the line has spilled out into the parking lot.

Vik Patel first set out his stall outside the University of California college campus in 1985. He remembers the initial reaction as one of bemusement. "At first, the students would look at the stuff I'd piled up for them," he says. "They would ask, 'how am I supposed to eat this?' I told them it was an Indian delicacy. That they would offend Shiva if they didn't partake," he guffaws.

Now, there is no such problem. Chaat, the Indian version of small plates, has swept the Bay Area. In upscale places like Haldi, you can find small shrimp, fried in butter and turmeric, nestling on a bed of coconut flakes and sev, made of grated, fried potatoes.

Then I actually read the piece and it was nothing I had envisioned. Encomiums to chaat aside, two lines really rang loud and true:

When Vinod Chopra moved to California in the early ’80s, chaat was virtually unheard of in America. There was what Americans call Indian food and Indians call Punjabi food — gooey sauces and garlic naan.

Thank you.

An argument can be made that what passes for Indian culture in the rest of the world is derived in great part from Punjabi culture but that's a post for another day. For now, here's some chaat porn. Yum!

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- April 26, 2010 10:56 PM // Bay Area , Food