Chaat Masala

Many years ago (late sixties) when I was a student in Birmingham a new up market Indian restaurant opened in New Street, one of Birmingham’s main retail thoroughfares. It was in my mind anyway rather ludicrously named the Gaylord Indian Restaurant. This was an eye opener as far as Indian eateries go. Little sign of flocked wallpaper, no oriental knickknacks, just a cool European look to it. They did specialise a bit in tandoori, like a lot of other restaurants but what tandoori. Their chicken tandoori straight from the tandoor was beautifully made and was to die for. The rest of the menu was pretty good too. There were excellent with vegetables, the bhindi was great.

What really hit me as I had never come across it before was their chaat masala. It looked like a fruit salad but containing some vegetables such as cucumber and potatoes with fleshy mangoes, peaches, apple, and soft pear. Surprisingly it was served as a starter when it most definitely looked like a dessert. Perhaps this is where my fascination for the dish started.

The dish was very pretty, looking as I said like a fruit salad

The taste was astonishing, or should I say tastes : it seemed to have all the five primary tastes – salt – sour – sweet – bitter – umami.

Starting with the salt (black salt), well I got to learn that this sulphuric almost eggy tasting salt is called Kala Namak and can be found in any ethnic Indian, Pakistani or Bangla Deshi store. It is pinkish grey to black and is extracted in the Himalayas and salt ranges in North West Pakistan. It is the sulphury taste that gives the umami flavour.

The sour and the sweet flavours come from amchoor which is dried mango powder as well as the fruit acid from the ingredients.

Some of the bitter flavours come from the spice of cumin, coriander, fennel (saunf), black pepper, asafoetida, ginger, ajwain or carom seeds (sometimes called onion seeds but they are not from the allium), sometimes powdered mint. Some people add chilli, cayenne or fresh chopped green chillies. I don’t think you need the heat of chilli but it is a matter of taste.

I think the first taste to hit one is the eggy taste of the salt, then the amchur comes through, more so if fresh mango is in the dish. Then the fruit.The potato and cucumber seemed to add a cooling touch to the spiciness as does raita.

As soon as I got home I was determined to emulate this dish. Fortunately Birmingham was not short of Pakistani stores. I asked one shopkeeper about how to get the ingredients for this dish as I hadn’t a clue then what was in it. He pulled out a small cellophane packet with a premixed masala which gave away the ingredients. And being a good salesman he got me a packet of mango powder and a packet of black salt. All I had to do was remember what the fruit and vegetables were.

I have been making it ever since being as faithful to the Gaylord recipe as I can. Sometimes I make my own masala (mix) sometimes buy the ready mixed. More satisfying to do it your self of course. If you make curries you will already have the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds. If you are a foodie you might even have the asafoetida (a warning here, use it extremely sparingly it has a resinous kind of tang that can easily completely overpower a dish).

People new to this dish wiIl possibly be better off with a premix (check date when packed). If you are making it yourself roast the seeds coriander, cumin, fennel and ajwain seed separately and grind in a pestle and mortar ( for ease I actually use an old German manual coffee grinder for spices, the sort with a little drawer at the bottom – find one at a car boot sale)

The proportions of ingredients are entirely up to you but this might be a recommendation for beginners:-
4 tablespoon coriander seeds
4 teaspoon roasted cumin powder
1.5 teaspoon ajwain/carom seeds
2.5-3 tablespoon black salt/kala namak/rock salt
5 red dried chiles, stems removed (optional)
3 teaspoon dried mango powder/amchur
a cautious pinch of asafoetida (less than a 1/4 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger powder
1.5 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried mint (optional)
2-3 teaspoons Kashmiri red chili powder/paprika (optional, for a nice bright colour).

Ideally keep for one month but it will last three months but slowly losing pungency.
People on the subcontinent use for more than chaat masala salad. It can be used to sprinkle over cooked food, delicious with just sliced cucumber on a hot day.

By the way I went back to the Gaylord a week or so later to resample the dish only find that they had added mayonnaise or some salad cream gunk. When I complained they said it was to suit English tastes more. They didn’t last that long.

Picture to follow

About Richard Stokes

Richard Stokes. Childhood spent in Milford-on-Sea. Now lives in Bridport (recent move). Educated in Art Schools - Winchester, Birmingham and Portsmouth. Worked as art administrator: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Midland Group, Nottingham; West Midlands Arts, Birmingham; Gateshead Garden Festival; Arts Council; Minories Art Gallery, Colchester; West Midland Arts. Also involved with the former Limpets Restaurant. Keen sailor.
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