It was a year ago today, or maybe tomorrow. I was in Bodh Gaya biking around in stifling heat, visiting the beautiful Mahabodhi temple, meditating under the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment, doing “hot yoga” in my guesthouse room cooled to 105 degrees.
I’d acclimated past my heat-induced headache and profuse sweating, and was beginning to appreciate the place–especially after the sun went down which, fortunately, happened relatively early, like 7:00.
It was probably my third night in town (that would be May 12th), and my second dinner at Sewak Tea Stall. I pointed to the chickpea curry simmering in a 24″ flat-bottomed wok. The man tending it mounded the chickpeas into a circular, bundt cake shape, maybe to keep the chickpeas somewhat firm above the bubbling sauce.
“Chaat?” he asked.
I said yes without really knowing what I was agreeing to, and I watched as he assembled a dangerous collection of flavors and textures on a metal plate: a pair of hand-smashed, salty, crunchy, fried, potato-filled samosas; amply ladled with the spicy chickpea channa masala; sprinkled with a handful of raw onion, a five-finger pinch of a salt and masala spice mix; and topped with sweet, tangy mango chutney. Placed in front of me with a chai, the whole affair was less than $.50.
I closed my eyes as the first sweet, salty, crunch met my tongue. It was amazing.
When I opened my eyes, I’d been joined by two boys. Possibly brothers. They spoke their english word, “hello,” and then gestured that they were hungry.
I hesitated for a moment, then gestured at my plate. “You want?” I asked. They both nodded eagerly.
I ordered two more plates of chaat which arrived just as I finished my plate. But I sat with the boys as they ate.
And as three more boys arrived.
I bought three more plates and watched as they, too, dove into their dinners. I wondered if they enjoyed it as much as I. My wide-eyed appreciation of new flavors vs. their narrow-bellied hunger.
There’s a scene in the 1980s The Razor’s Edge where Bill Murray’s character gives a couple of Indian children coins, and then more children arrive. A moment later he’s running away from a begging herd of children chanting “rupees, rupees…!”
Fearing this fate, I bowed to my small herd and mounted my bicycle. $2 poorer, and wholly satisfied, I pedaled the two miles back to my guesthouse–already imagining my next chaat.
But I didn’t have another chaat in Bodh Gaya, and then I didn’t find it on a menu again until weeks later in Dharamsala. And it was different. I suspect the word chaat is roughly the hindi word for acid reflux inducer, and means, more or less, “snack.” Usually consisting of grease and salt and chutney; crunch and sauce and heat; it was always addictively tasty, but never quite the same as that first discovery.
Curiously, the closest I’ve come to this original chaat is back at home in Boulder at an Indian fast food place that opened a couple months after my return. Tiffin Wallah has “samosa chat” on their menu and I tried it one afternoon with Melissa. There it was! The brilliant combination of flavors, the crunch, the burn, the sweet… and the re-gurgling call to cool the alimentary canal with a mango lassi.
Tiffin’s seemed the most fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of my first chaat. So I went again tonight. No boys this time–not even the ones I manufactured–but it’s just as well. It takes much more than $.50 to fill a belly in this town.