Mirch Masala, 8516 Reseda Blvd., No. 8, Northridge, (818) 772-7691. Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday.
Remember these two words-- chat and methai. They're two of the most tempting Indian foods to come our way in recent times.
These snacks and sweets are fixtures of urban India, more or less what pizza and ice cream are here. They're sold everywhere: on busy street corners, in jam-packed modern fast-food joints, along the beach and amid the shoulder-to-shoulder jostle of train stations. They also show up in fancy tearooms, where upper-echelon bureaucrats enjoy them with their afternoon tea.
In Southern California's Indian community, the latest fashion is to include food counters and deli cases dispensing chat (the snacks) and methai (the sweets) in grocery stores, making a combination bazaar and street-food scene under one roof. This sort of one-stop shopping is particularly appealing to the Southland's spread-out Indian population. One of the best of these new chat-methai shop-and-market combinations is Mirch Masala (the name roughly translates as Chile and Spice).
About a year ago, Mirch Masala took over a drab Reseda storefront that had housed a branch of Patel Brothers, the nationwide chain of Indian food stores. Co-owners Manoj and Madhu Kaytee and Mr. Kaytee's sister, Kanta Jhaveri, have given Mirch Masala a stylish, upscale presence unlike the usual utilitarian Indian grocery store. Hot-pink neon inscriptions cheer up the walls; sweets are packaged in pink boxes festively layered with tissue and emblazoned with a gold foil label reading "Sweets by Mirch Masala."
When the store first opened, the chat and methai were crowded into one deli case at the front of the small market, but recently Mirch Masala has expanded this flourishing part of its business and moved it to the storefront next door. In the new room, two large cases and a stainless-steel cart devoted to chat and methai are stationed next to a video rental counter that offers films in no fewer than 10 Indian languages.
One case holds the varieties of chat known as namkeen (literally, "salty"). There are mounds of spiced cashews, pyramids of puffed rice, spiced roasted chickpeas and other seasoned crunchy puffs, noodles and legumes. Among the namkeen are a variety of mixtures called chevda or chevra, the Indian equivalent of trail mix.
In the second case, meticulously arranged methai sparkle beneath flecks of edible silver foil. Squares and diamonds of colorful candies, whimsically shaped pastries and fanciful swirls of sweet jilebi all await inspection.
Currently more substantial chat dishes are prepared to order with ingredients from the cart. When a new kitchen is installed at the rear of the shop, Mirch Masala will offer an even more extensive selection of chat dishes.
NAMKEEN AND CHEVDA
Both the spicy and mild versions of these crunchy snacks can easily become habit-forming. Namkeen are eaten alone, mixed together or used to garnish more complex chat dishes such as bhel puri (described below). These should not be dismissed as junk food. Their composition of grains and beans offers plenty of nutrients, yet they have the immediate taste appeal of chips and salsa.
Bhel: salted but unseasoned puffed rice that looks like smooth Rice Crispies.
Sev: noodle-like strands fashioned from a dough of besan (garbanzo bean flour), deep-fried and seasoned only with salt.
Gathia: deep-fried ribbons of besan dough, thicker than sev , liberally seasoned with chile powder and ajwain (seeds of the plant Carum copticum ).
Spicy cashews: meaty roasted nuts enveloped in a spicy crust.
Puri: crisp, fried breads the size of ping pong balls. Customers purchase them to take home and stuff for pani puri (see below).
Chana dal: a dark brown variety of garbanzo, deep-fried until crisp and coated with a hot spice mix.
Mung dal : toasty deep-fried mung beans, seasoned mildly. When combined with sev , they make a flavorful snack mix perfect for those who don't care for hot pepper.
Dal moth: a mixture of roasted beans (largely, but not entirely, the particular small red bean named dal moth ) and sev , all lightly spiced with chile and seasonings.
Bhusa or farsan: a Gujarati (western Indian) chevda . Also called Hot Mix, this tongue-torching blend of about 20 ingredients includes sev, gathia , peanuts, several dals , crisp rice and liberal amounts of red chile powder. Co-owner Kanta Jhaveri says it's great with "evening tea" (served around 4 p.m.).
Mahalaxmi chevda: the Bombay version of bhusa/farsan , slightly milder than Hot Mix. It blends crisp rice, fried peanuts and beans, raisins, coconut and sweet neem leaves with a spicing of chile powder, turmeric and black salt.
Bhel mix: the topping for bhel puri , a typical Bombay-style chat dish (see below). Its defining ingredient is chips of papri --a deep-fried flat bread identical to a flour tortilla. Crisp rice, sev and other ingredients vary the texture.
The closest equivalent to these chats in Western cuisine would probably be salad. Vegetables--usually diced potatoes, cooked dried beans and sometimes minced raw onion--are tossed with crunchy namkeen and doused with chutneys and perhaps yogurt to make incredibly delicious concoctions. Chat dishes also include a variety of fritters and stuffed savory pastries. Mirch Masala mostly emphasizes the Bombay style, although its repertoire includes the best from Southern and Western India.
Pani puri: Mirch Masala's house specialty. Pani means "water" or "juice"--in this case, the mixed juices of cilantro, mint and fresh green chile, blended with ice water, which season this popular chat .
All the ingredients for pani puri arrive on a round steel tray called a thali . You fill the tiny, crisp-fried puri breads with seasoned garbanzo beans and diced potato, and drizzle on a homemade sweet chutney blended from tamarind, raisins and dates. Then you fill the remaining space in the puri with the ice-cold pani (no one ever said Indian cuisine was simple). All these disparate flavors and textures, and even temperatures, come together in a single crunch as you pop the whole thing into your mouth.
Bhel puri : diced potatoes, garbanzos and crunchy bhel mix tossed together and splashed with yogurt and tamarind chutney. Add as much zing as you like by spiking your chat with the accompanying hot green coriander and mint chutney.
Dahi batata puri: Similar to bhel puri above but without the beans.
Dahi papri chat: another combination of potato, garbanzo, yogurt and chutney, with a dose of red chile paste contrasting with creamy yogurt. The mix is topped with crisp chips of fried papri , the tortilla-like bread.
Pan bhaji: a Bombay specialty consisting of curried vegetables, dosed with fresh green chile, served on grilled, buttered bread.
Vada : soft, flat, irresistibly seasoned lentil fritters, available only on weekends. They can be ordered (as vada sambhar ) with sambhar, the chile-hot lentil puree that is a staple of South Indian cooking. When the vada instead come immersed with yogurt and doused with chutneys, the dish is called dahi vada .
Idli: a South Indian steamed cake of rice and lentils, served with sambhar and chutneys. Like the vada dishes, it is available only on weekends.
Methai tend to be the world's most delicious source of calcium--their main ingredient is usually either fresh cheese or long-simmered milk. Some methai resemble pastries and others are candy-like, but none are quite comparable to any Western dessert.
Gulab jamun: the best-known condensed milk sweet. Most Indian shops offer one or two varieties, but the selection at Mirch Masala goes beyond the usual syrup-soaked spheres. The gulab jamun base, which is cooked-down milk blended with a little flour, is slightly spongy and can be molded into various shapes, as you'll see in Mirch Masala's pastry case. There are the familiar deep-fried gulab jamun balls, of course, either golden in color or fried extra-dark for a caramel-like exterior. But there are also snow-white gulab jamun logs lightly dipped in syrup. Fried logs of pistachio-stuffed gulab jamun are sliced so that a circle of the white pastry encloses a circle of pistachio in each cookie-like disk. Dil bajar , a log of gulab jamun sliced open and topped with a cream filling, sports a fine spray of chopped pistachios and almonds.
Chum chum: cream-filled gulab jamun -style sweets in fanciful shapes. A drum-shaped chum chum , deep-fried, slit open with the cream filling sandwiched between the halves and decorated with a bit of candied cherry, looks like a fake eclair. Often the pastry is tinted; the cream-filled disks resemble tiny pink hamburger buns, and there's also a pale-yellow football-shaped version. They all taste much the same.
Paneer sweets: made from paneer , the Indian compressed fresh cheese. The cheese is shaped into rounds or ovals and simmered in very light syrup. Rasgula is this basic paneer poached in syrup, not excessively sweet. Ras malai is the same but drained and served in a thickened milk sauce flavored with rose water, almonds and pistachios. Ras malai is one of my favorite breakfast foods, although that is not how it's traditionally eaten.
Burfi: something between a milk-based taffy and fudge. I must say, burfi are usually gummy, tired-looking squares, and few examples of this sweet have ever appealed to me. However, Mirch Masala has one of the largest, most colorful selections. They're fluffy and fresh and nothing like some of the other versions around town that stick to the roof of the mouth.
The confection is made from milk simmered with other ingredients, such as crushed almonds or pistachios, until it thickens to fudge. Coloring is occasionally added. Among the varied selection here you'll find cashew burfi and a layered three-colored burfi cut into diamond shapes. Larger squares are tinted pastel shades and flavored with pistachio nuts, almonds or rose water.
Peda: a drier and slightly denser cousin of burfi. The appearance--round with a pistachio on top--and even the texture resemble a cookie.
Gajar halwa: a sweet, dense carrot pudding flavored with clarified butter and sprinkled with cashews and pistachios. Also called carrot halwa.
Petha: a large squash simmered in syrup. The mild-tasting squash absorbs the flavor of the sugar syrup and the effect is somewhat like French glaceed fruit--with more moisture.
Sata: flaky flour tortillas, deep-fried, dipped in syrup and lightly splashed with edible silver flakes.
Ladoo: sweets made from garbanzo flour. The dough for the saffron-colored bundi ladoo has been forced through a sieve into hot oil, quickly fried, blended with a little syrup and formed into a cookie-like ball. Besan ladoo is made the same way without the frying step. The besan is simply sauteed with clarified butter and sugar and formed into balls. These are a paler shade of yellow than the bundi ladoo.
Badam pak : a cookie made with crushed almonds, aromatically spiced with cardamom.
Jilebi: swirls of fried dough dipped in sugar syrup. Like many Indian sweets, these are direct descendants of Persian desserts. The version you see in L.A.'s Persian stores called zulabia is almost exactly the same.
Mathri: something like a savory pie crust or, as the British might describe it, a "short biscuit." Made from flour and clarified butter, it is lightly seasoned with ajwain or cumin and rather bland. Another savory recommended with afternoon tea by co-owner Kanta Jhaveri, it definitely needs a seasoned tea such as the Gujurati chai below to accompany it.
Chai masala: This Gujurati- style spice mix is used for Indian milky tea, in which tea and milk are boiled together with spices. The beverage, considered a good accompaniment to chat and methai , is loved by many Gujaratis. To make the tea, you combine one teacup of water and one third teacup milk. Add one measuring teaspoon tea and the recommended amount of spice. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer about four minutes, then strain the tea through a very fine strainer.