The ubiquitous idlis and paniyarams are now in competition with the North-Indian chaat items. Savour some lip-smacking varieties by the street side

It’s five in the evening and this small kiosk on Alagar Koil Road is buzzing with activity. Inside the hovel-like space, Raj juggles ladles, dishing out a range of chaat items. Customers, young and old make a beeline for the stall. “Oru masala puri,” asks a young boy and in no time, a delicious-looking dish arrives. The aroma kindles taste buds and the carrot-shavings and onions are even more enticing. “I make seven types of chaats but masala puri is my signature item and many regular customers come asking for it ,” smiles Raj.

With an extra dash of garam masala and coriander powder, the masala puri is a spicy concoction that melts in the mouth. Crushed puri soaked in peas masala and topped with onions make the dish a hit. Apart from the idlis, paniyarams and parottas that rule the roost in Madurai -- a city so synonymous with street side food -- the chaat items as new-comers from the north, have become all-time favourites among the locals.

“I am in the business for seven years,” announces Raj, who came to the temple town a decade back from Pattukottai. “I learnt to make chaat in a north-Indian bakery where I worked initially and later improvised the dishes.”

Like the ‘phuchka’ of Kolkata or the ‘golgappa’ of Delhi, Madurai’s own ‘baani-boori’ stands out with a strong tangy taste that comes from a liberal dosage of tamarind extract. Crispy puris stuffed with mashed potato and raw onions are filled with the pani and once inside the mouth, they crackle leaving a piquant after-taste. “The pani has to be made freshly every day. The puris are made from maida and rawa that is kneaded and oil-fried. They remain crispy for two days,” explains Raj, who sees around 50 customers a day. “In the north, they add a variety of masalas in the pani. But, we guys just go with coriander and pudina.”

Chaat makers Santosh and Dev have been running a stall in Andalpuram for three years. They say the difference in the pani puri from Uttar Pradesh and the local kind lies in the stuffing. “We used to add black chick peas in the north while the Madurai variety has only chopped onions and potatoes,” points out Dev.

On Gokhale Road, Bharat has just opened his chaat corner. We walk in to check out pav bhaji, the stall’s highlight. He sprinkles water and the hot tawa hisses sending up clouds of vapour. A ladle full of red glistening bhaji is poured and a dozen spoons of ghee follow. We get impulsive hunger-pangs. Soon, the pav is slit and laid on melting butter and toasted till it turns golden brown. Chopped onions and a slice of lemon make every bite worth the wait.

“Making of the bhaji is vital. Potato, cauliflower, peas, onions and tomatoes go into it. And the consistency is achieved by mashing the ingredients together. It’s seasoned with pav bhaji and garam masalas,” points out Bharat, who has been in Madurai for a year now. Even though, he is from Uttarakhand, he picked up the technique from his companions who all migrated to the town from Uttar Pradesh (U.P), Delhi and other places.

On the southern bank of the Vaigai, a number of pushcarts line up on Town Hall Road. By 7 p.m, it’s hard to get past the thronging crowd to place an order. Rishi Pal Singh’s stall is one of the sought-after places.

“I came here in 1973 from Aligarh in U.P. Madurai was not aware of chaat then. And I was one of the firsts to open a stall,” he claims . Clad in a lungi and a checked shirt, he looks every bit a true-blue Maduraiite. Senthil Kumar, a localite who has been in the stall for 15 years says the mushroom bhajia moves well among the customers at the stall.

Little away, Ajab Singh from Mathura is lighting his stove for the evening. Samosa puri and gobi puri are the much-acclaimed choices at his outlet. Ajab who has made Madurai his home for two decades says, “What I make is not the original chaat. Dahi puri, tikki and pakodi which are typical chaat items don’t appeal to the local palate.” He adds that the peas curry or ‘patani kuzhambu’ with more spices like cloves, pepper, cumin, cardamom and ginger is what keeps the shop full.

Rickshaw driver Jayaram, a regular to the stall for three years, says, “It’s a quick satiating bite for the evenings and it is light on the pocket too.” For Kumar, a cook, it is a ritual to have a mushroom bhajia at the stall. He says, “I am bored of idlis and dosas. These are spicy and just a bite wakes you up.”

In Tirunagar, Manoj who has been around for five years initially started out as a conventional parotta shop owner. As the demand for chaat items grew , he decided to spice up his menu. “I only have masala, bhel and pani puri. Customers come back for the unique taste,” he says. The magic masala is made of peas, green chillies, coriander and ‘porikadala podi’ which Manoj says is a trade secret he learnt in Bangarpet near Bangalore.

The growing popularity of chaat among the city people is not just a mere fad. The north Indian snack is here to stay forever now sharing space with the parottas and paniyarams.