In the Indian Market, a Chaat and a Chew

On weekends hungry customers line up five-deep at the chaat counter at the back of Tajmahal grocery store (501 W. Belt Line Road, Richardson). Chaat, roughly translated, means snack or street food. On a recent visit to this friendly all-vegetarian spot in a shopping center lined with Indian cafes and sari boutiques, I had a chat with store owner Pramod Shah about the hottest chaat items on his menu (most cost about $3 a serving).

Bhel puri comes in a bowl heaped with a mixture of Indian cereals and savory crisps, almost like an Asian version of Chex Mix. There's puffed rice, Frito-like chips, crunchy noodles and other salty chip-and-cereal nibbles. On top of that go the customer's choices of spicy or sweet toppings, including chutneys, chili sauces and fresh tomatoes, onions and chopped chilies. You can also ask for a topping of fresh diced mango and a dusting of coriander leaves. Eat it with a spoon or just your fingers. And you have to eat it right away, otherwise it goes soggy. Messy but delicious.

Potato tikka masala is the second most popular item sold at this chaat counter. It's built in a bowl around a crispy fried potato patty (like a giant tater tot), which is then topped with chickpeas, yogurt sauce, chutneys, chopped veggies and/or chilies and finished off with tiny, crunchy noodles. The patty itself is made of shredded potato mixed with flour and spices, including coriander, turmeric and curry, then fried. Nice bite of heat in every bite.

Pani puri is No. 1 on the hit list at Tajmahal grocers. The puri are bite-sized puffs of fried dough, like tiny popovers made of semolina and fine wheat flour, salt, water and baking soda, deep fried till crisp. The pani is the filling. Spoonfuls of black chickpeas, boiled potato, onion, chutneys and chilis are poked through a little hole in the top of each puri, which are meant to be eaten in one juicy bite. At this chaat counter, cook Gautam Beda is a pani puri machine. Each $3.25 order includes six puri on the plate. On a typical weekend, says Beda, he makes and serves 5,000 of them.

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