An occasional chaat day at home is great fun but getting that perfect alu tikia is the biggest hassle.

I am a golgappa maniac. Since I was about seven, my mother would take me to Bengali Market on Saturdays for chaat. We always stood outside on the pavement, all the better to micromanage the masalas. It was far too spicy, but gradual induction eventually worked. I was started on just the empty golgappas, then with some dahi and sonth, the sweet chutney, and eventually the whole nine yards, additional red chilli powder and all.

The next course was usually papri, after which we would go inside the shop to sit at the laminated tables and eat more solid stuff, usually alu ki tikia. They always serve it with two chutneys, one green, tart and runny, made mostly of fresh green coriander, and the other sweet sonth, with imli and roasted zeera. They put two hot tikias on a leaf pattal, break them roughly to reveal the peethi filling and then pour the chutneys over. I prefer them untouched, with a crisp unbroken crust. I was surprised to find that some chaat walas also add beaten dahion top, which is what they do in western U.P. My daughter loves this – must be her genes. I like them with hot gravied chana.

Now Bengali Market is too far to drive to on a weekend and there is no other time of day when chaatfits. So sometimes, on a Sunday, we assemble it at home. No golgappas– you need diligence vastly greater than mine to make those – but bought papriand homemade chutneys. And chana-kulcha. The kulchas are bought too, and the chana made at home; the only snag is remembering to soak them the night before.

The big hassle is alu ki tikia. What is a perfect alu ki tikia? Symmetrical, round, each the same size, about three inches across. And an even golden brown. Crisp on every surface. Tasting of potatoes and mild spices.

And what are mine like? All different shapes and sizes, but that's not daunting, this can be mastered with practice. The difficulty is the crispness. The professionally made ones are crisp, but a bit leathery. They lie there on the edges of a huge tava, getting slowly heated and developing a golden tint and a chewy crust. When a customer has to be served, two are pulled in from the edges to the puddle of oil at the centre and then they're finished; fried till they're brown and crisp. The re-used oil probably adds to the colour and flavour. Much though I like them, I have to deliberately ignore the oil and ask for a metal spoon because the little wooden one that comes with the pattal often snaps when dealing with a particularly tough tikia. And the ones I attempt in my kitchen either start disintegrating or sucking up oil. Apparently they should be fried with very little oil on a flat heavy bottomed pan, and adding corn flour starch helps both to bind and to make them crisp.

But no matter what, their crispness is a matter of luck. Adding salt might make them soggy, which is perhaps why they keep the mashed potatoes bland and fill them with a salty peethi just before frying. Alternatively one could keep them on low heat for an hour or so to develop a professionally tough exterior.

I've been checking out supermarkets and stocking up on frozen foods; it's that time of year when the cook goes home, for far too long. So coming upon McCain's frozen alu ki tikkis was a godsend. Not because of the taste, which is mildly spiced and good but most cooks can do it but because of their texture and how beautifully they fry. I have a phobic reluctance to deep-fry on account of the left over oil, which I don't know what to do with. But these can also be baked or shallow-fried. And each one is perfect; evenly shaped, golden orange, and crisp in a tender way, not a bit dehydrated and tough. I made several the other day and brought them all to the table together. By the time we picked up the last one, it was still as crisp as new.

The combination of alu tikia and chana is eaten even around Mumbai, where they call it ragda pattice. For years this name foxed me; which is the ragda and which the pattice? So I called Dhanu, a born and bred Mumbaikar, and she explained that ragda was the stew of chana-like matra, which was mashed, ragdo'd, and pattice was patty, plural. Thence ragda pattice!

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

Khatte Chane

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup kabuli chana/chick peas

2 cloves

2 tbsp tamarind

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 tsp whole peppercorns

2 large onions, grated

1/2 tsp haldi

1 tsp ground dhania/coriander

1-2 tsp red chilli powder

1 tbsp ginger juliennes

1/2 tsp kala namak (black salt), optional

1 tsp dry roasted cumin, ground

Salt

Method: Wash and soak chana overnight in a large pot of water. In the morning, drain away all the water and pressure cook chana with about 1 cup water, salt and cloves. Reduce heat after full pressure is reached (one whistle) and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile soak tamarind in a cup of water. In a large pan, heat oil and add peppercorns. Stir in grated onions, add haldi and sauté for a few minutes, till lightly browned. Add ground dhania/coriander powder and red chilli powder. Stir in ginger and simmer for a couple of minutes. When steam in the pressure cooker subsides take out chana and add to cooking onion mixture. Pour in strained tamarind water and bring everything to a boil. The dish should have a gravy and will thicken when cool, so add hot water if desired. Reduce heat and add black salt and roast cumin. Stir, taste and adjust seasoning.

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