my mother was not fond of cooking. i do not recall her toiling over the stove for hours to make wondrous things for her three always ready to devour anything children. yet, she had a sense of what makes food fine, good, just right; also, this feel for some dishes. and when she made them or gave instructions to the cook and had them prepared, it was always delightful.

her chicken roast, with nothing but salt and pepper to season, its taste still rouses memory. there’s an alu dum, or slow cooked potato curry, she’d made one day in kolkata, because someone was coming for dinner, that was so good, i keep trying to replicate the taste even now. alas, without success. when i’d asked her how she got it to look and taste the way it did, she’d casually said, oh, just remember to fry the potato well, then fry the spices till it’s all really nicely done; no raw smell; masala sticking to the bottom of the pan and needing constant scraping… what spices, i’d asked? she’d reeled off a list of things, nothing unusual.

and that chicken chaat. how many times as a kid i’ve polished off enormous quantities of it, unable to stop at just one or two helpings. it would be made for tea time or when we had guests in the evening. i don’t think i’ve had chicken chaat at anyone else’s home. it was one of her signature dishes, she who really was not into cooking.

chaat is spicy, tangy, sharp tasting, fun, even funky food. it can be hot and sour, or hot, sweet, and sour, or just sweet and sour, it’s always an explosion of tastes. chaat is classic street fare, but you also get it in five star hotels these days. there’s all kinds of chaats out there: papdi chaat, dahi kachori, bhel puri, sev puri, dahi bhalla, churmur (only in kolkata, i think), golgappa in delhi, paani poori in mumbai, phuchka in kolkata.

chaats possibly were first created in northern india, in lucknow and delhi, but i am not too sure. just that, i feel, you get the best chaat in delhi… some say, no one can beat lucknow in this matter. must go to the city some day and find out.

but this one is not about those chaats. this is about a delightful chicken dish that has all those chaat traits, the tang, the sizzle, the crunch, the twist. i remember my mother mentioning, embassy restaurant in delhi used to serve a mean chicken chaat. did they come up with the idea? maybe.

chicken chaat is like a chicken salad with a dressing that’s combined to bring a chaat level of taste… nothing subtle or understated here, and yet the balancing must be right; the layers of flavour and taste; a freshness and a vigour in it; the delicate, even bland, chicken and potato spiked with the right amount of spices; the energy of fresh lemon and/or lime; the crispness of greens and the pungency of fresh chillies and onion; the aroma of cumin and pepper and coriander and mint; all scrumming together, ready for play. all set to make you feel the kick, and reach for the next bite, not pass out in pain.

my mother always used white sauce to bring the ingredients together. she would melt a little butter in a saucepan, throw in flour, milk, and salt, and make the sauce. it’s pretty simple.

however, if you want to make a kosher chicken chaat, this just won’t do. you can’t use any dairy products, since meat and dairy are not to be mixed. we keep kosher, and that’s always a bit of a challenge when it comes to indian cooking, since we use yogurt and ghee with meat all the time. even milk and cream. when i first started cooking indian meat dishes that were kosher compliant, it was a little brow scrunching. how would one get that taste without key ingredients? no ghee in the biryani? no yogurt in the chicken tikka marinade? no splash of ghee on the mutton curry right at the end along with a dash of pounded garam masala?

a lot of brow scrunching, actually. even some sighs.

yet i found, it’s not so tough once you start mulling over things. there are always replacements, some pretty adequate too. in time, you don’t miss the ghee in biryani that much, or the yogurt in your marinated dry chicken masala. you even start liking the slightly altered taste.

so, when the longing for chicken chaat came along one day, also a desire to see if my daughter liked it as much too, i decided to try a substitute. i am not mad about mayonnaise, especially the bottled kind, but since you don’t need too much of the sauce like ingredient, i gave it a try.

and happily, it worked.

though, i have to say, one must add only as much mayo as one really really needs.

there are several chicken chaat recipes on the net, none exactly like my mother’s though. think she fixed the taste and feel, the ingredients, the texture, the spice levels, the colour and look to her liking. i’m not complaining.

and i wonder at times if she knows how much her granddaughter likes chicken chaat, and if she approves of my little tampering with the recipe.

chicken chaat

1 chicken, boiled, deboned, diced to small pieces

4 or 5 potatoes boiled, diced like the chicken

2 large onions, finely diced

6/7 green chillies, finely cut

a bunch of coriander leaves, chopped

a bunch of mint leaves, chopped

6 to 8 stalks of spring onion green, finely chopped

juice of 2 lemons (we took a lime and a lemon this time), you will need almost all of it

4 to 5 tbsp mayonnaise, adjust so the salad binds together nicely

2 to 3 tbsp roasted cumin powder

pepper and salt to taste

optional: roasted coriander powder

to make, take all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well, but toss gently as otherwise the chicken might shred too much. you can also add the chicken a little later if you. the important thing is to check the taste and add what you feel is necessary. chillies, roasted cumin powder, pepper, and the lemon juice, play with the quantities till you get that sparkling taste that hits you a little. as i said earlier, this dish is not about a subtle, mature taste. it’s playful. it’s the kind of thing you’d like with a coke, or even a cup of mint tea.

have it at room temperature or chilled.

roasted cumin powder is a fabulous aromatic ingredient. all you need to do is roast cumin seeds on a skillet over a low heat. when the colour begins to turn and a nutty fragrance wafts, take it off the fire, cool it, and powder it. you can keep this powder in an airtight container in the freezer. lasts a few week. but freshly roasted and ground is the best. be careful while roasting, turn frequently. as cumin seeds reach the point where the aroma releases, they tend to brown faster and might burn and get bitter if not taken off the skillet in time.

you can roast and grind coriander seeds the same way. i am going to add a little roasted coriander powder next time and see how it tastes.

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