To the western traveler, India is in general a miraculous world of everyday eating. The most upscale restaurants (all three of them) I visited when staying in the region’s capital of Lucknow charged me no more than $10 and change for a feast of sumptuous north Indian cuisine. Much like Boykji, however, what my taste buds remember most clearly is the glorious variety of snacks and streetside bites that sustained me day after day at virtually no expense to my dollar-empowered bank account.
There was the Royal Cafe’s chaat basket, a dizzying mix of yogurt, crisped rice, fried potato, whole chickpeas, fresh cilantro and mint all intertwined with a ribbon of tamarind and some sprinkles of fruit and plopped into an edible bowl for $1 a pop. There were the Lucknowie kebab stands, where serious men minced and pounded mutton into savory, smoky, pillow-soft patties of flavor for our pleasure. There was the second floor alleyway kitchen in Chowk where particularly dense, fatty discs of kulcha were dished out with matching bowls of almost unbearably greasy curry for dipping. There was the street corner chaat shop that served up a burning hot chicken frankie, an Indian cross between taquito and burrito, in minutes alongside an ice cold Limca. And there was the cheery paanwala who, at a moment’s notice, could whip up a marvelous king-sized pocket of Indian sweets, nuts and spices, wrap it in a betel leaf and chuckle at the sight of two Americans attempting to hold the entire creations in their mouths. Every trip to Lucknow’s several bustling districts brought with it new tastes to send the timid eater running (without Boykji to guide me, even I wouldn’t have made it to half of these wonders).
At one point, I was punished for my lack of snacking restraint by a powerful bug that evacuated my digestive system and collapsed my internal clock for several days. Surviving on a steady diet of tea, toast, Bollywood and bed would have been fine if not for the fact that the greatest snack of all would pass beneath my window every night, taunting my sense and flaunting the fragrance of consumption before my twitching stomach.
This was the red and gold cart of Shuklaji, the chaatwala who held court in some of the more affluent residential neighborhoods of Lucknow. While other street vendors would take to shouting out the virtues of their wares to attract attention, Shuklaji would simply walk down our street at the end of the workday, softly striking an empty pot with his spoon to let everyone know that it was time for a pre-supper snack. Armed with three metal trays of ingredients, an assortment of spices and homemade sauces and a single frying pan, he made the most delicious Indian food I have ever tasted.
Shuklaji’s menu was limited to four choices, each a masterful exercise in minimalism (and each costing about 25 American cents). The first, his take on panipuri, forsook any kind of filling for a more pure experience: The short, mustachioed maestro would simply reach for a crispy puff of hollowed dough, dip it in his own brand of masala water and hand it to me for immediate consumption. He would then reach for another, then another, waiting for the signal to move on to the next course. For round two, Shuklaji would serve perfectly balanced dahipuri, filling the puri shell with slightly crisped potato, a large pinch of spices, a spoonful of yogurt, a drizzle of tamarind and a dusting of cilantro. It was probably the single best bite I took in six months abroad. It was also entirely and immediately repeatable, a virtual conveyor belt of homemade chaat operating at pennies per bite and smiling amusedly at my overwhelmed sense of pleasure. Shuklaji’s final act was a dual serving of aloo tikki and matar ki, boiled, mashed and fried patties of potato and green peas, spiced conservatively and marked with his wife’s chutneys (lime juice on the matar) for a tasty, filling ending to our nightly spoiling of the appetites.
There was no great secret to the ingredients of these foods; all of them were chaat staples. It was Shuklaji’s precise sense of restraint, applied to the proportions (no gobs of yogurt and tamarind, no overbearing chunks of chickpea) and temperature (every item served slightly warm with sauces slightly cool) that endowed his simple dishes with the power that all great comfort foods possess. Since leaving Lucknow, I’ve come across several instances of jarringly cold dahipuri and soggy, oversized aloo tikki that just can’t compete with my memories of dusk on Mall Avenue.
Boykji once returned to Lucknow for summer language studies, but when I asked him if Shuklaji’s chaat had changed at all, he informed me that the man in the red vest had vanished from his usual posts. Upon further investigation he learned that Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had run him out of the neighborhood for reasons unknown. If an Urdu and Hindi speaker with an appetite more infinite than mine couldn’t find Shuklaji on his own turf, I could just about call it quits on ever getting another chance to wave off that fifth puri. It’s a regret I’m sad to live with and an experience I will treasure until the day I die, declaring the rupees on my eyes for no one but the Chaat Man.