Throughout the states of India, you are guaranteed to find an abundance of mouth-watering chaat, available at roadside stalls and from mobile vendors in the cities and towns. Chaat is the term given to the seemingly endless menu of savoury snacks that India is famous for. Ideal for picking up on the run, this tradition of fast food may initially seem like simple snacks of convenience, but the flavours and popularity of these tasty little morsels mean they have worked their way onto the menus of some of London’s best Indian brasseries. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an Indian eatery that does not showcase some samples of Indian street food – that’s how integral chaat has become to Indian culinary culture.
One of the most popular examples of chaat is vada, a type of fritter, unique in its versatility and embraced throughout not only India but by the rest of the world too, with variations popping up in countries as far off as South Africa. However, it is in South India where vada experience the most love – they are considered a household staple and breakfast favourite, and are the snack of choice when travelling through transport hubs such as railway stations. They also form an essential element of the Hindu festival menu and are considered to be a particular favourite of the Hindu god, Hanuman.
To the Western eye, vada resemble small, savoury doughnuts or fried patties. They are created from a rich, stiff batter of fermented black or Bengal gram. The batter is spiced up with traditional, Indian seasoning such as cumin, chillies, black pepper and curry leaves with some recipes calling for the addition of baking soda to boost the fluffiness of the finished product. The batter is then shaped into balls or patties and deep-fried until golden brown.
As well as making a filling and satisfying snack between meals, vada are also an excellent accompaniment to a main course. They are best consumed when fresh and are a perfect match for the range of dips that South India is famous for, whether your preference is a mild dahi or a fiery coconut chutney.
The versatile vada
The beauty of vada is that it can be consumed in so many different ways. The two principle versions, both originating in South India, are the medhu vada and the masala vada. Medhu vada are cooked in rings with a hole through the centre whereas the masala vada is flatter and often created using lentils.
Over in Karnataka, the vada of choice is maddur vada. Maddur vada have a particularly brittle texture and are flavoured with plenty of onion. The Bengali speciality is dahi vada – the vada are coated in thick, beaten yoghurt and seasoned with exotic spices. Keerai vada is one for those that enjoy their vegetables with the addition of leafy greens mixed into the lentil batter whilst keema vada is the suitable option for carnivores with minced meat worked into the recipe.
Last but not least, the Maharashtrian favourite, vada pav deserves a mention as it is one of the most recognised versions of vada in India. The vada is sandwiched in a bread bun and served up with a selection of chutneys.
Each region of India has its own favourite version of the versatile vada – how would you eat yours?