Wanderlust: since the pandemic struck, I have been getting my travel fix from Youtube videos. My favorites are those that feature street food. You know those vlogs where people travel the world eating street food wherever they go. Yes, those. They leave me pretty hungry for things I can’t currently access.
I grew up in India, and street food was a religion. A weekly (or even daily) pilgrimage to the local vendors was as necessary to existence as the air we breathed. The vendors often came to know us by name and knew more about our social circles than our parents did.
After a particularly good (bad) round of binge-watching Indian street food videos and feeling deprived, I decided to do something about it. I tracked down some of that food right here in Champaign-Urbana. Armed with a collection of menus and my own memories of foods best eaten by the glow of kerosene lamps, I went to work. I found some great items on our local menus. Bonus: all of them are vegetarian friendly.
Photo by Tias Paul.
Special papri chaat | Ambar
Here’s a good tip: if you see something called chaat on a Indian menu, order it. The word chaat comes from the Hindi verb chaatna which means “to lick,” so these dishes are always finger-licking good. They offer a symphony of flavors that come together to make them so much more than the sum of their parts.
The base of Ambar's chaat ($4.99) was papri, ribbons of deep-fried chips similar in flavor to fried wonton wrappers. Building on this savory base, the dish included nutty chickpeas and a sharpness from raw onions. The whole ensemble was tossed together in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce and topped with yogurt and pungent black salt. I ordered this chaat at a spice level of 2 (regular), and it was plenty hot for my tastes. For those of you who can handle more heat than that, Ambar offers spice levels up to 6.
Knowing how I like my chaat, I would probably include a few notes in my takeout order next time. I would request three things. One: that the papri be packed separately to preserve crispness during transit. Two: an extra helping of the tamarind sauce to douse the chaat with some extra acidity. Three: minced cilantro to brighten all the flavors (the picture on the menu showed cilantro, but my order didn’t come with it).
605 S Wright St
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., daily
Photo by Tias Paul.
Paani puri | Himalayan Chimney
Paani means water, and puri is deep fried flatbread. Put these two together and you get a crunchy, slurpy flavor explosion. This Himalayan Chimney paani puri ($6.99) came in three parts: puffy puris, chickpea and potato filling, and a salty, sour tamarind water. Warning for those of you with sensitive noses: the smell is strong when you open the container of filling, but fear not: the paani puri tastes amazing when assembled. The tamarind water brings it all to life.
Here’s the method to eating paani puri. First, cradle the puri in your fingers and use your thumb to puncture the top. Now, you can stuff the puri with filling (go ahead and use your fingers; don’t be shy). Finally, dunk the filled puri into the container of tamarind water and stuff it into your mouth.
You’ll want to eat these bite-sized puffballs in a single bite or you’ll risk losing all the flavorful juices. If you were eating this at a roadside stand in India, that vat of tamarind water would have seen a thousand paani puris before yours. This version from Himalayan Chimney delivers everything a good paani puri should be: the spicy filling, the crisp puris, and the tamarind water completes the delicious trifecta.
134 W Church St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Su noon to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Photo by Tias Paul.
Bhel puri | Kohinoor
Bhel puri, another dish of the chaat family, is the epitome of maximalist cuisine. It is a confetti of crisp, salty, and savory elements doused with a strong hit of acid and assertive spices. Bhel puri is very special to me. It was the evening snack of choice for any self-respecting teenager where I was growing up — and not simply because our parents didn’t approve of it. With hardly a dent to my pocket money, I could treat myself to an undeniably awesome mix of flavors, and be hungry again in time for dinner. On my trip to India last year, through the glare of the polished stone floors and gleaming electric lights, I saw the same bhel vendor from when I was younger and pigtailed — and he was still surrounded by an army of teenagers eagerly awaiting their plate of bhel.
Kohinoor's version of bhel puri ($4.99) did not disappoint my nostalgia. It balanced the crunchy and savory elements (puffed rice, crisp-fried chickpea noodles, roasted peanuts and chickpeas) with fresher flavors (cilantro, tomatoes, chopped chilis, and raw onions) and ended with an assertive tang from the tamarind sauce. The roasted coriander and cumin seeds were a delightful touch that I hadn’t experienced before it bhel puri, but now, I would want it no other way. The puris (in cracker form) serve as your eating utensils. If you were eating bhel puri roadside in India, you’d use the puris to shovel bhel into your mouth one puri-ful at a time until you were scraping the newspaper it was served in. Then, you’d eat the puri too.
6 E Columbia Ave
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:30 to 9 p.m.
Su noon to 3 p.m., 4 to 9 p.m.
Photo by Tias Paul.
Mysore masala dosa | Signature Grill
A dosa is a crispy crepe made out of a fermented rice and lentil batter. It can be served on its own (plain dosa) or with spicy potatoes tucked into it (masala dosa) like a stuffed omelette. I need to preface this by saying that I hail from Northern India where dosas can be found as street food. However, dosas originated in Southern India, and I don’t know how it is served there. You'll have to forgive my ignorance on this matter.
That being said, Signature Grill's Mysore masala dosa ($9.99) is a scrumptious example of what I’ve come to know as dosa. The texture was not thin and crispy as I have come to expect, but the flavor did not suffer in any way. The sizeable dosa came neatly folded, stuffed with potato masala, and flavored with whole mustard seeds and turmeric, a traditional flavor combination. On the side, the order included coconut chutney and sambar, which was a hot and tangy lentil soup with carrots and drumsticks (moringa). I was particularly impressed with the flavor of the chutney: rich and spicy, studded with mustard seeds and whole curry leaves. It made a perfect accompaniment to the dosa.
505 E Green St
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily