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FIVE-STAR road food

The fest offers a delightful blend of chaats

IF YOU'VE ever hopped around on one foot, eating spicy chaats in the gullies of Commercial Street, or burnt your tongue with aloo tikki in a crowded Delhi market in winter, or teased out jhaalmuri from the depths of a rolled up paper cone in Kolkata or rushed through sev puri off a soggy square sheet of paper from the back of a bicycle in Mumbai ... and wished the chaat were not so spicy, not so piping hot, not so suspect, and that you could sit down and relish it, then chaat at a five-star is an indulgent solution.

The Monsoon Chaat Festival at Le Meridien caters to chaat cravings in a season where even the most adventurous will stay off roadside foods. Ten chaats, three desserts, and a drink come in a package deal costing Rs. 200 plus taxes — available every weekend (Friday included) till June 27.

There are three counters, one a `hot chaat' counter which innovates with traditionally favourite snacks, one with the classic favourites, and the third is the pani puri and dessert counter. The counter with the innovations serves variations of chilla (a roti from the Rajasthan region) and aloo tikki. This weekend it was paneer chilla and banana aloo tikki. The paneer chilla will appeal to the staunchest South Indian who dismisses chaat as a North Indian fancy. Also called the North Indian dosa, the chilla uses dal as its base, likening it to an adé. Dal-based items are often heavy on the stomach, but Chef Sandeep Ghosh's team makes a light and tasty chilla, even managing to fill it with grated paneer and not have people ending their meal and declaring truce.

The banana aloo tikki isn't as successful, with the raw banana's characteristically chewy and starchy qualities overwhelming the familiar taste of soft potatoes in the classic tikki.

But the rest is all good news. The pani puris are especially adventurous. There are seven types of panis in flavours like grape, orange and cola as well as the more conventional khara, meetha variety. Although the thought of grape in the puri doesn't sound inviting, the experiment works, and the grape leaves a pleasing after-taste.

For those looking to eat typical roadside chaat minus the jaundice threat, Le Meridien has stuck to traditional favourites. The intent of the festival was to provide "authentic chaat with a little variation" and so all-time favourites like puchka chaat, bhalla papri, churmur chaat and jhaalmuri have been left largely untampered with. While the chef's team is especially competent with curd-based chaats, it tends to be particularly partial toward ginger, possibly as a substitute to spice.

Ghanendra Singh, Assitant Manager, Food and Beverages, dates the origins of chaat back to 16th Century India, to a need for spicy food to wipe out an epidemic. Delhi was overrun by cholera, and the desperate emperor Shah Jehan went helplessly from godman to quack, in a futile attempt to stem the rising tide of deaths. Finally, someone told him to make a food with so much spice that it would light a fire inside the eater, killing the cholera. And so, by order, the streets of Chandini Chowk near the Red Fort were filled with vendors selling spicy savouries — chaat — which the population of Delhi was forced to consume.

For diehard foodies who draw on this story to justify how chaat is not serious food, Le Meridien offers three heavyweight desserts every weekend. This is where they excel themselves. Dry fruits cooked in ghee on a non-stick pan with a thin coat of honey — a deceptively simple dessert, but very tasty. The rasmalai and peetha paan on offer were also light but substantial, offering a perfect finish to an unusual expedition. For more information, call 22262233.

Ambience: Unobtrusive
Service: Attentive
Wallet factor: Worth it. being unlimited
Speciality: Pani Puri and chilla


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