I doubt there are many people out there in the north of India who won’t feel sorely tempted by the sight of a piping hot plate of chole bhature. Most of us walking through a busy marketplace can immediately and usually flawlessly detect the presence of freshly fried bhaturas and with the unerring instincts of an animal stalking its prey, make our way to the source, and say, “Bhaiya, ek plate lagana!”
On the face of it, a platter of chole bhature is as simple as they come a deep fried carb, a spicy ladle-full of chole, some pickle, a handful of sliced onions and there’s your quintessential platter, never mind what it’s going to do to our arteries. Nearly every part of a chole bhature platter varies from place to place and vendor to vendor.
If you choose to eat at a Haldiram’s or other such outlet, including restaurants and the like, you will likely end up eating a dish that’s technically correct in the manner of execution, but little else is usually present in these versions, including the flavours that have a million of us hooked to the stuff. No, a restaurant definitely isn’t the right place for chole bhature, nor are most of the famous names reliable any longer. If chole bhature is what you crave, it must be searched for, indeed hunted down on the streets of your ciity. Ask friends and family for the locations and description of their favourite chole bhature wallahs. Read blogs, remembering to avoid those that only have invited restaurant reviews; they are unlikely to know what they’re speaking of.
When you’ve begun your quest, you’ll begin noticing the additional notes played by different vendors, inserted into the symphony that is chole bhature.
Before I begin describing the different variations, perhaps a brief description of the base product is in order. Each platter has two primary components; a carb and a curry. The carb is always made of refined flour (maida), leavened with yogurt (among other agents) and left to ferment, usually overnight. When ready for use, the dough is usually very soft, limp and stretchy, and is rolled out into a round or elliptical shape prior to being dunked into hot oil and deep fried. A platter of chole bhature is usually accompanied by two bhature. The curry comprising chole is usually a dark and somewhat spicy, though not chilli hot concoction that goes beautifully with deep fried bhature.
Now here’s where the fun begins. What I’ve described so far is just the composition of a basic platter. Quite a few vendors add a single, large piece of a boiled potato, tossed in spices as well. I’m not sure when or why this started though it is visible in nearly platter of chole bhature you’ll find in the north of India.
And then there are the pickles, oh lord, the pickles!
In nearly every other application we’re used to somewhat aged pickles with a certain sophistication in the number and types of spices used. Not so here. They likely assemble the pickles in large vats and serve them soon after. Usually comprising carrots, raw mangoes and green chillies, these pickles taste fresh, spicy, chilli hot and oh so piquant. The piquancy is actually a required element in order to offset the greasiness of the bhaturas, that are usually dripping with oil.
The other element that quite a few purveyors of chole bhature include with their platters is green chutney, which each stall is likely to have a different recipe for, with the colour likely being the only common point. There’ll be mint, coriander, green chilies, tamarind, lemon, ginger, salt and any one of a hundred other possible ingredients.
Finally, there’s the salad; usually a handful of sliced onions.
Bhaturas come in different avatars too. Restaurants among other outlets serve a somewhat stiff, thick, bloated version that is thick and spongy in texture – these usually use yeast, referred to by street vendors as khamir. Another version is the type you’ll find in food courts; huge and round and very very crisp. Speaking for myself, I dislike both. The former usually has no particular taste or character, and the latter are usually much too oily and so overdone that one ends up eating bhatura chips. And then there are two of what I believe to be the right kind – hot and soft with the mildest upper crust and the second, warm, soft and somewhat rubbery. Don’t ask me why; I love these two varieties and heartily recommend you try them too, if you haven’t already. The last two versions use active yogurt as a leavening agent, the resulting dough should be used within two hours or may over ferment and become sour and/or bready.
So there you are; the essential platter of one of north India’s favourite foods chole bhature. Try a portion and just eat a bite with a spoonful of chole. Then add some soft, spicy potato to another morsel and try that. Go a step further with a dash of sour and spicy pickle. Venture deeper into the matrix by adding a dollop of chutney and experience how its acidity brings a whole new world of flavours to your palate. Finally, accompany everything with a slice or two of raw onion and revel in its pungent flavours and crunchy texture.
That, ladies and gentlemen is how we ought to eat a platter of chole bhature each time we come across it!