David Boyk is a grade-A eater, Bollywood enthusiast and South Asian History grad student at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been mentioned several times in the history of this blog as “Boykji.”
Wherever you go in Indian cities, you’ll meet people who want to sell you fried things. It’s usually a good idea to cooperate.
If you happen to live outside of India, you’ve probably had samosas, the most common kind of these street snacks outside of India. Other types of chaat (literally, “licks”) include pani puris, fried shells of spicy water that explode in your mouth; aloo tikkis, potato pancakes that are often covered in tamarind chutney and chickpea sauce; and many more.
What you don’t always see in this combination is fruit. From one point of view, that might be a good thing – in India, eating peeled fruit on the street, like drinking spicy delicious water on the street, is a good way to not leave your room for a couple days. And while Indians do eat lots of fruit, they do it mostly the way Americans do: they buy it, peel it, eat it, and that’s it.
Near the glistening new Metro station in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar, at the edge of the bathroom-parts market that borders the wedding-card market, one stand is fighting all that with kulle, also called kulliya or simply “fruit chaat.” This stand, Hira Lal Chaat Corner, actually has a competitor across the street, but I’m a man of loyalties. After reading about kulle on the blog Eating Out in Delhi, I walked straight there from my hotel behind Jama Masjid, a magnificent mosque built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and ordered a plate.
The owner of Hira Lal told me that while his grandfather had founded the chaat shop, he himself had invented kulle. Tasty items that stand alongside his creation include aloo tikki and pao bhaji, a snack from Bombay consisting of a thin curry accompanied by what is basically a hamburger bun. Unadorned aloo chaat – chunks of fried potato splashed with lime (also better in India than in the U.S.) and tossed in a bit of masala is also a highlight.
None of these snacks, of course, are as tasty as the main event. Despite its name, fruit chaat is only about half fruit. Depending on the season, the dispenser of deliciousness will give you a mix of potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, bananas, mangoes and other delicacies. They’re all split open and filled with boiled chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, a black masala and plenty of salt.
It’s totally unlike any fruit experience I’d ever had, even when I’ve tried savory spices on fruit. People have previously tried to convince me that salt is good on watermelon; this is a lie. Other times, I’ve had Mexican and Indian preparations of fruit and cucumbers with maybe a little salt and chili powder rubbed on – much better, but still not on the level of Hira Lal’s kulle.
Ultimately, if you’re going to play this game, you’ve got to go all in. Start with bursting gems of pomegranate and chewy chickpeas. Then salt and masala – not just salt, but black salt. Sulfur salt. It’s an acquired taste. It’s hard to say what-all is in the spice mix aside from cumin and black salt, but it’s spicy and aromatic; packaged masalas for fruit (which also produce a crazy, delicious drink when mixed with soda) also contain things like cinnamon, ginger, pepper, and powdered cantaloupe and chili. The spices provide a radical contrast to the sweetness of a smooth banana. A cucumber’s mild crunch provides a great pairing, too – when matched with the warmth of a good salt, kulle illustrates the phrase, “cool as a cucumber.”
As good as banana and cucumber can be, silky, tongue-coating mango is the way to go when it comes to fruit chaat. In summer, mangoes appear all over India in a dozen or more varieties, depending on location and the time of the season. Many kinds of produce in India are not as good, to be honest, as what I can buy from a good grocer in California. Indian apples, for example, can be mealy, and Indian tomatoes are usually bland. Other produce is consistently better: Onions and bananas are substantially tastier in India than anywhere in the States.
Mangoes are not like any of these. Mangoes in India are so much better than their cousins in the U.S. that I don’t eat them when I’m not in India, and the mango kulle at Hira Lal Chaat Corner makes a very convincing case for my conversion.
Hira Lal Chaat Corner (sign in Hindi)
On the north side of Chawri Bazar
Between Hauz Qazi Chowk and Nai Sadak
(Near the entrance of Gali Lohe Wali)
Open 7 days a week until 10:00 p.m.