The chef Maneet Chauhan likes to think of chaat as an emotion. A single bite can be jolting, pucker-inducing and refreshing all at once, balancing sweet with salty, tangy with spicy, crunchy with creamy, demanding you come back for more.
The word chaat, she points out, is derived from the verb chaatna, “to lick” in Hindi and Urdu.
“You are licking your hands when the food is really good. That is what chaat is,” said Ms. Chauhan, who has devoted a whole cookbook to it, titled “Chaat,” co-written with Jody Eddy and scheduled to publish on Oct. 6.
Chaat, a genre of South Asian snacks, is more than just one dish or a set of ingredients. There are no exact ratios for making it, or a singular moment of the day to eat it.
Some variations follow a loose formula: a base ingredient, like papdi, or chopped potatoes, is layered with other elements, like chutneys (tamarind, cilantro and mint varieties are common), yogurt, sev, red chile powder and chaat masala (a pungent spice blend with a funk driven by black salt and amchur).
But more critical are the contrasts in textures and flavors. So is some kind of transformation, Ms. Chauhan said.
Chaat is about turning what’s on hand into a snack that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A samosa, for example, is not chaat by itself, she said. But chop one up and drizzle it with mint chutney, yogurt and sev, and suddenly it’s chaat.
Chaat is meant to be a sensory overload, she said. “You are hit from every aspect — colors, smells, sounds” — an experience not unlike walking through parts of India.
Ms. Chauhan, 43, who runs four restaurants in Nashville — Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Chaatable, Tansuo and the Mockingbird — grew up in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, in eastern India. She went out with her father every Wednesday to pick up freshly fried rounds of lentil-based kachori from a street vendor known as a chaat wallah.
When she traveled by train to visit family members in other parts of India, she would seek out the chaat wallahs set up right outside each station to get a taste for the local flavors. When writing her new cookbook, she and Ms. Eddy rode trains to seven states to eat chaat, sampling more than 600 dishes.
Some legends trace chaat’s origins to the 17th-century royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire in northern India, where cooks created flavorful, immunity-boosting snacks with spices and chiles after the emperor Shah Jahan fell ill. But descriptions of chaat variants like dahi vada, fritters soaked in yogurt, appear in literature from 500 B.C., according to K.T. Achaya’s “A Historical Dictionary in Indian Food.”
As it has evolved, chaat has come to represent the vastness of South Asian culinary traditions, while remaining accessible to anyone with a few rupees and an appetite.
“There are places you go in India where there will be a rickshaw wallah next to a Lamborghini, and the people are eating the same food,” Ms. Chauhan said. “It was the chaat wallahs who leveled the playing field.”
“They are the people who brought to the forefront the regional cuisine of India, because whatever they are selling is what’s available locally.”
Ms. Chauhan’s favorites include puchkas (also known as pani puri or golgappa), deep-fried, one-bite rounds filled with flavored water, chutney and some mix of potatoes, onions and chickpeas; and bhel puri (also called bhel or churumuri, among other names), puffed rice tossed with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, herbs and chutneys.
Chaat wallahs have also popularized more local specialties, like idli chaat, a South Indian variant with a base of chopped, often pan-fried idli doused in yogurt, crisp curry leaves and chutney. In northeastern India, where Chinese migrants settled three centuries ago, chaat wallahs sell Chinese bhel — deep-fried noodles tossed with scallions, onions, carrots and chile sauce.
Ms. Chauhan said chaat wallahs have influenced her as a chef far more than anyone in the restaurant industry has.
“With chefs, a lot of the times, everything is measured,” she said. But for chaat wallahs, many of whom hail from families with generations of vendors, “everything is instinctive. It’s the magic in their hands.”
She tries to channel that spirit into the seasonal chaat she serves at Chaatable, where dishes have included a cucumber-and-watermelon chaat dusted with chile powder and a squirt of lime juice, and strawberry chaat served with a tangy rhubarb chutney, mint and lemon raita. She has made chaat out of cornflakes, sesame sticks and tortilla chips.
“You can throw anything at me, and I can make a chaat out of it,” she said.
In that vein, her cookbook includes a recipe called Chaat Party, a buffet of fruits, vegetables, fried snacks, herbs, spices, yogurt and homemade chutneys — tamarind, green chile and mint-cilantro — that allows guests to build their own chaat.
It’s a recipe made for entertaining, an activity that is somewhat limited during the pandemic. Still, at home in Nashville with her husband, Vivek Deora, and their two young children, Ms. Chauhan has been hosting chaat parties with relatives over Zoom, even mailing her sister a “chaat kit” of prepared ingredients.
“I do think that chaat helps me form those guidelines for myself” as a cook, she said. Making any great dish, to her, is like making chaat — not following a specific set of rules, embracing contradictions.
“That imperfection is something which makes me very excited,” she said, waxing passionate about the wayward scattering of cilantro over the top of some kinds of chaat, and the way the spices and chutneys are messily tossed with everything else.
She paused and laughed. “I always get very emotional when I am talking about chaat.”