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My Mother’s Love for This Dish Has Made Me Think About My Heritage

The generation gap of chaat.

I grew up in a modest neighborhood in Delhi called Vikas Puri. My mom was brought up in the nearby Tilak Nagar, a vibrant, if chaotic, area filled with Punjabi and Sikh immigrants who had moved from Pakistan. West Delhi has an unkind reputation—it’s considered loud, brash, and unpolished, while South Delhi is the posh, elite cousin with hip markets and understated luxury. Think of all the stereotypes that distinguish Manhattan from pretty much any other borough of New York.

In (almost) 30 years, I’ve never been much interested in my heritage. In fact, once we moved from Vikas Puri to the millennium city of Gurgaon, I never wanted to go back to the place that sheltered me for 13 years, not even to meet old friends who were too out of reach—remember, this was the time with spotty, dial-up internet and Delhi is more than 30 kilometers from Gurgaon. A few aberrations were a couple of visits in my 20s when I tagged along with my aunt, my uncle, and my mom, who would go back almost every month for various things they liked from their neighborhood. I saw Tilak Nagar from their eyes, a place where they had lived most of their lives. Their old houses were still there but clustered further together in the wildly growing commercial district. They pointed out the places they knew, their friends’ houses, shops that weren’t there before, and those that were. Their memories chimed in the wind of the district that was once their bubble.

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There was another thing that bonded the two sisters: their love for chaat. My mother and aunt relived old days by standing on a jam-packed street unbothered by the noise of screaming honks while a chaat vendor popped a crispy, sooji (semolina) gol gappa with his fingers, dipped it with his hands in the mint water, and topped it up with red chutney and potato-chickpea mix.

I still have notes from “Trip to Tilak Nagar” from 2014! The first sentence says, “The song playing is apt: Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum [“Where Have We Come?”].” Jokes between my uncle and aunt, nostalgic stories from their past, the frustration of not finding a parking spot. And, “Gol Gappe, very famous in this part of the city,” a young me wrote.

In Delhi (and, of course, other places in India), chaat is a way of life. Every region in the country has its own rendition of street food, but in the North, no street will be bereft of gol gappa walas. Also, aloo tikki, bhel puri, dahi poori, samosa—you really don’t have to work too much in order to find these. Chaat has universal appeal here; it’s sweet, savory, tangy, and crunchy, and it’s enjoyed fresh from the cart, right there on the dusty street, as my mother and aunt did.

But this love for chaat may have skipped a generation because I don’t enjoy it. Just as I don’t enjoy alcohol. People are baffled by both, but my antipathy towards chaat begets a stronger response and bigger gasp.

Ek kha le,” (just have one), my mother cajoles every time she’s savoring the crunch of gol gappas herself. Her avocado-eating, black coffee-drinking millennial daughter isn’t enticed. Where did she go wrong?

Not all 30-year-olds are averse to these mini-meals. Street vendors in Delhi serve people of all ages and backgrounds—chaat is a great normalizer. In Indian weddings, you’d often see a full chaat counter with youngsters and not-so-youngsters taking their turns. All dressed to the nines and licking their fingers with identical expressions of that child who tries lemon for the first time: clicking their tongue, clenching their eyes shut with the surprise of the tangy/spicy flavor, and coming back for another taste.

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Chaat means to lick. In his books, food historian K.T. Achaya referenced many components of chaat that were famous as far back as 500 BC. The legend also goes that in the 16th century, there was a cholera outbreak in Delhi and Emperor Shah Jahan was advised to add chaat to the diet, along with lots of spices like tamarind, chilies, and mint. It became a staple in the region and even now, in the historic Chandni Chowk area, there are centuries-old shops that attract food lovers from all over the world to their narrow lanes. In fact, there are walking tours organized to legendary street food stops in the heart of Old Delhi.

It’s a really big deal here. Gol gappa and paani mix are sold in supermarkets. When the lockdowns happened last year, immigrants traveled back (some on foot) to their villages and all the street carts were abandoned. Street food became non-existent in the city for a few months. So, people started sharing recipes online and making it at home—my Instagram feed was filled with pictures of samosa, pakoda, and, yes, gol gappas. There was even a pani poori (another name for gol gappa) vending machine that trended for a while. It has also gone global with the Indian diaspora (fun fact: at 18 million, we’re the largest diaspora population in the world according to the UN).

Now, the streets are charged again with people queueing up for extra teekha (spicy) paani and tikki chaat. My feelings are unchanged—absence did not make the heart grow fonder.

It’s 2021 and we’ve come too far from those gallis of Tilak Nagar. We go to restaurants where servers now wear gloves and use ladles. Some also market their switch to mineral water and olive oil. I’ve seen strange versions of gol gappas, with the paani replaced with chocolate and even vodka. The concoctions are changed as per the audience, healthy substitutions with beetroot or sprouts; baked, not fried. And, you don’t even have to stand by the side of a street cart to enjoy it—it can be home delivered through food apps.

I wonder if it’s still the taste of nostalgia that draws my mom to chaat. The flavors may take her back to the time when life was simpler: where neighbors knew everyone in the community; when kids took buses from school and munched on chaat on their way; when my mom, still a girl in pigtails, rented a bicycle and took rounds of her area with the curiosity of a child; where the family of a policeman who came from Pakistan just before the partition lived in a humble home.

Both West Delhi and Pakistan are part of my story—as far removed as I may be from my roots. With no tangible evidence (photos or documents; my grandparents died many years ago), I love hearing stories of oral history during family lunches, over plates of dahi bhalla and chai-pakodas. Like how my maternal grandmother wanted to retrieve her tin boxes when the family was fleeing Pakistan. Or, how the community in West Delhi faced angry mobs out for blood during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. I’ll never find these stories on the internet, and believe me, I’ve tried!

And, while I may never enjoy gol gappas, chaat has a huge significance in my life—it connects to my mom and her roots.