Chaat—a catch-all category of snacks served in pockets of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh—mirrors the organized chaos of a bustling South Asian streetscape. Hawked on roadsides, train platforms, and even truck stops, the highly customizable treats, remixed in countless forms across the region, are delicious jumbles of five seemingly contradictory flavors: sweet, sour, tangy, spicy, and crunchy.
Though no one can confidently point to its origins, chaat is an ancient snack that’s generally made up of carby foundations such as fried flour crackers or puffed rice, topped with zingy sauces, thinned-out yogurt, diced veggies, and, of course, chaat masala—a funky spice blend that’s heavy on black salt and dried mango powder. Chaat was consumed in copious amounts during the 16th century in Mughal India when a widespread cholera outbreak prompted the masses to make especially spicy versions, laced with red chiles and coriander, in an attempt to kill off harmful bacteria.
While it’s no longer used for medicinal purposes on its hometurf, the craveable snack—it’s named after the Hindi word for “lick”, after all—is cropping up on menus all over America, currently home to about 5.4 million South Asians. Here’s a breakdown of six popular chaat varieties and where to enjoy them in the U.S. and Canada.
Be prepared to get a little sloppy when scarfing down on these crispy semolina shells, stuffed with cubed boiled potatoes, chickpeas, spices, and piquant mint-and-tamarind water, which will definitely dribble down your chin (pro-tip: place the whole thing in your mouth for a minimal mess). Found in various parts of India, the translucent orbs have different names depending on where you land: In the east, where they are sometimes topped with shredded hard-boiled egg bits, they are phuchkas, in the north they are gol gappas, and in the west and south, they’re known as pani puri.
This hearty street food sensation, especially popular in the Indian capital, upcycles an already beloved snack: the almighty samosa. The savory potato-filled pastry is crushed then layered with dollops of slow-simmered chickpea curry, yogurt, mint, and tamarind chutney. Chickpea noodles and a smattering of pomegranate seeds add a delectable crunch, making for complex carbohydrate bliss.
If you’re a sweet-and-sour fan, this airy street snack is a must-try. Typically crammed in newspaper cones and ubiquitous across Mumbai, on India’s western coast, the versatile appetizer combines puffed rice, diced potatoes, chickpeas, coriander leaves, and chopped green chiles. Order it any time of day wet or dry (sukha); the former is dressed with mint and tamarind-date chutney. To really dig in, ask for a side of puris, or flat wheat crackers to scoop up the puffed rice mixture—or eat it like a canapé.
It’s sometimes considered South Asia’s answer to nachos, but papdi chaat, with origins in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is inimitable. Sure, its formidable base—deep-fried flour crackers, aka papdi—bears the faintest resemblance to tortilla chips, but that’s really where the similarities end. With no exact ingredient ratio, the crackers are liberally layered with chickpeas, boiled potatoes, spoonfuls of yogurt, chutneys, crispy chickpea noodles, and dustings of red chile powder and the aforementioned chaat masala. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to wolf it all down before the papdi succumbs to sogginess.
Spice skeptics, take note—this cooling hors d’oeuvre is for you. Typically served in India during the spring festival of Holi, the celebratory dish consists of deep-fried lentil fritters which are treated to an indulgent yogurt bath for four to six hours. Once the fritters are melt-in-your-mouth soft, the dish is gilded with an assortment of colorful garnishes including red chile powder, cumin powder, and chopped cilantro leaves.
Spinach leaves get the chaat treatment in this exceedingly crispy New Delhi appetizer. Coated in nutty chickpea batter then fried to perfection, the golden greens become tasty vehicles for finely chopped onions and tomatoes, tamarind-date chutney, and sweetened yogurt, resulting in the ideal prelude to a full-blown Punjabi feast.