October 2009: Online Extra

Indian Sweets and Snacks

By Bill Addison

“Eat it all at once,” cries my friend Asha, as she hands me a crisp, bite-sized balloon of fried bread packed with tiny morsels and an intense liquid. The flavors—sweet, vegetal, compellingly strange—ricochet around my mouth.

I watch Asha as she makes one for herself. She picks up a fried shell and gently cracks a hole in the top with the handle of her fork. She spoons small amounts of thick toor dal (split pigeon peas), cubes of spiced potatoes, and black chickpeas. She pours a bit of tamarind chutney on top, and then reaches for the cup of liquid. Made from herbs, chilies, and spices, it looks like it was dipped from the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River in Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child. It also smells sulfurous from the addition of kala namak, or black salt, a common Indian seasoning. But the taste, when combined with the other ingredients, is hauntingly appealing. Asha dips her stuffed shell into the liquid, fills it to the brim, and immediately pops it into her mouth. “Ahh,” says Asha, who spent part of her childhood in Mumbai. “This tastes correct.”

We’re at Gokul Sweets (pictured right, below) in Decatur, eating a dish called pani puri, one of the most popular snacks in India. The subcontinent’s snacks, known as chaat, differ from the American idea of Doritos and Oreos in front of the TV. Chaat is street food available all over the country but particularly beloved in big cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi. They typically comprise dominant fried components—croquettes, potatoes, spiced crackers, even samosas—that are lashed with sauces and crunchy toppings. Gokul Sweets also serves Northern curries, but I see plates of chaat in every occupied booth.

Chat Patti, a chaat shop in a strip mall off Briarcliff Road, offers such a kaleidoscope of sauces and add-ons that selecting lunch feels like choosing from among different ice cream sundaes. The staff likes to steer first timers to bhel puri (potatoes, onions, and chutneys piled over puffed rice and squiggly fried noodles) and aloo tikki (potato cakes bombarded with chole—spiced chickpeas—and chutneys). Chat Patti is the only place I’ve ever come across a dish called “disco chaat.” Maybe its mishmash of flour crisps, potato, onions, chutneys, and yogurt is the perfect pick-me-up snack after a disco nap?

At Gokul Sweets, Asha also insists that we order pav bhaji, another common Mumbai street food that combines ruddy vegetable curry and breads that resemble miniature hamburger buns. Pav bhaji reminds me of vegetarian sloppy Joes with a kick, and extra pavs (buns) are needed to polish off the generous, inexpensive helping of curry.

Then it’s time for dessert. Well, not dessert, exactly—more like sugary nibbles. The Indian culture is famous for its collective sweet tooth, and the sweep of treats at Gokul epitomizes that passion. Four cases full of confections look as if they were caught in the cross fires of a paintball war. I spy every color of the rainbow but blue. Many are fudge-like creations (some with names such as “barfi” that don’t translate well in the West) made from milk or nuts, though savory crunchies, spiced banana chips, and a kind of sweet pretzel called jalebi also mingle among the spread.

It is difficult for a non-Indian to know where to begin. Asha picks out her favorite—boondi laddu, spheres of tiny fried batter balls steeped in cardamom-scented syrup. From restaurant menus, I recognize shrikhand—thick, sweetened yogurt flavored with saffron, cardamom, and pistachios. This shrikhand tastes more powerfully of saffron than any I’ve previously tried. If it all looks unapproachable, there’s always gulab jamin, the round fried fritters drenched in syrup that are ubiquitous in Indian restaurants. True gulab jamin junkies, though, maybe want to check out Royal Sweets, Gukol’s nearby competitor known to specialize in that sweet. (On the savory side, Royal Sweets also makes a mean samosa.)

As we leave Gukol, Asha walks up to a stall just inside the entrance and pays the elderly man behind the counter one dollar for a “sweet paan.” Paan is a breath freshener in which flavorings—fennel seed, shredded coconut, and rose petal jam in this case—are wrapped in mildly bitter betel leaf. It is commonly chewed and spit out. I follow Asha’s lead, but my face soon warps into an involuntary grimace. I’m fallen in love with innumerable aspects of Indian gastronomy, but I’ve got a ways to go before I acquire a taste for paan.

Chat Patti, 1594 Woodcliff Drive, Atlanta, 404-633-5595, chatpattiatl.com

Gokul Sweets, 763 Dekalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 30033, 404-299-2062

Royal Sweets, 1766 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur, 404-327-5799

Photographs by John Autry and Charlotte Fekete