Chaat is the talk of the town in Surrey — and the popularity of this Indian cuisine is spreading

·4 min read
This chaat dish, called bhel puri, is made up of puffed rice, vegetables and tamarind chutney. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
This chaat dish, called bhel puri, is made up of puffed rice, vegetables and tamarind chutney. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Want to spice up your snack game? Let's (ahem) chaat.

Originating from the street vendors in Mumbai, this style of Indian cuisine is becoming increasingly popular among the large South Asian community in Surrey, B.C.

It's an example of India's enormous culinary diversity that isn't often seen in restaurants in the province — but it's winning more and more fans.

While the specific dishes of chaat cuisine can vary widely, they are typically snack sized and often consist of a starchy foundation (like fried bread fritters), with added ingredients such as yogurt, chutney, chopped vegetables and a mixture of spices.

The word is derived from the Hindi word for "to lick" — as one would be inspired to lick one's fingers when eating it.

"Basically it's more of a snack. … Nobody would serve chaat as a dinner or as a lunch," said Bik Singh, chef and owner of Apna Chaat House in Surrey.

Bik Singh at his restaurant, Apna Chaat House, in Surrey, B.C.
Bik Singh at his restaurant, Apna Chaat House, in Surrey, B.C. (Ben Nelms)

Singh's restaurant, the name of which roughly translates to "Our Snack House," opened in 2006 and was one of the first places to serve chaat in Metro Vancouver.

Even many Indian people were unfamiliar with the dishes on the menu — like vada pau, a kind of Indian burger featuring a potato patty flavoured with turmeric and garlic.

Customers have the option of adding chow mein-style noodles to the burger, just one example in chaat of noodles appearing in places you wouldn't expect them — even in ice cream.

"People in India, most of them are vegetarian ... So they come up with innovations. They wouldn't put [in] any meat, the only thing else they could put [in] is carbs," Singh said.

The noodle burger is now one of Apna Chaat House's most popular dishes.

"There's lots of flavours bursting into this. ... People absolutely love it," Singh said.

Apna Chaat House executive chef Harwinder Jhaj makes up bhel puri.
Apna Chaat House executive chef Harwinder Jhaj makes up bhel puri.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Another very popular item in chaat cuisine is the gol gapay.

This unique dish consists of a fried dough sphere with the texture of a cracker, filled with items like potatoes and chickpeas, with yogurt and chutney and some spicy flavoured water.

Executive chef Harwinder Jhaj in the kitchen at Apna Chaat House in Surrey, B.C.
Executive chef Harwinder Jhaj in the kitchen at Apna Chaat House in Surrey, B.C.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Chaat has become a phenomenon among Surrey's South Asian community, with many similar establishments opening there in the wake of Apna Chaat House's success, but it's relatively unknown elsewhere in Metro Vancouver.

Mumbai Local, on Davie Street in Vancouver, is aiming to change that.

The restaurant opened four years ago, partly to address growing demand from Mumbai residents settling around the globe.

"People from Mumbai love their chaat," general manager and chef Karan Koparde said.

However the more "mixed crowd" downtown has also embraced the style of cuisine, he says — despite it being notably different to better known Indian food like curries and naan bread.

While many chaat restaurants in Surrey bring in northern Indian influences to their dishes, Mumbai Local focuses on the authentic flavours of the city where the style of food originated, and occasionally gives it a modern twist.

For example, on special occasions the restaurant has served panipuri — the Mumbai version of gol gapay and Koparde's favourite chaat dish growing up in the city — with tequila and spicy mint water.

As a tribute to the cuisine's origins, Apna Chaat House imported an authentic street cart from Mumbai to sit in its dining area.

Bik Singh with the authentic chaat street cart imported from India that now sits in his restaurant.
Bik Singh with the authentic chaat street cart imported from India that now sits in his restaurant.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

"[Customers] get really excited to see something they saw back home," Singh said.

"There are people who have made fortunes with a cart like this in India. And the beauty about this is they only bring in that much stuff that would sell in a day."

Singh believes chaat has the potential for cross-cultural appeal and says one day he'd like to see a cart in Stanley Park or in front of Rogers Arena.

"Give this style of cuisine a chance and try to develop a palate for this," he said.

LISTEN | Tap below to listen to an audio segment about chaat on CBC's The Early Edition: