I break out into a virulent rash the moment somebody tells me that the best chaat in town is the one that you get at Shahjehan Road. Having cut my teeth on the different kinds of chaat that you get in north India - from Benaras to Haridwar - I know a thing or two about chaats. And Prabhu's chaat at Shahjehan Road, let me tell you, occupies one of the lowest rungs in the ladder to chaatdom.
When I first came to Delhi I remember how disappointed I was with Bengali Market's golgappas. The golgappas that I had in Meerut were called pani patashas - and were a different thing altogether, for the water in each little puff was sublimely sweet. I went off Delhi's chaat then, and continued to boycott it till a friend told me to try the chaat out in Old Delhi. I was told that the bylanes were dotted with little stalls there that sold the most delicious of golgappas and papris.
Since then, I am a convert. The real chaat of Delhi is not to be found in Shahjehan Road or Bengali Market - but in the walled city. In these many years I have had chaats made out of spicy whole potatoes in a light peppery gravy and chaats made of mashed samosas in a green and white tart chutney. And, of course, the usual chaat consisting of paapris, dahi vade and pakori and boiled chholey.
But one of the best chaat counters in Delhi is the 70-year-old Ashok Chaat bhandar in the Old City. It's just on the Hauz Qazi Chowk, at the mouth of the Chowri Bazaar. There are two Ashoks there, but my favourite is the one on the left side of the Chawri Bazaar road.
I suppose I love the chaat and golgappas there because they remind me of the delicious stuff that I ate as a child. The mint-flavoured spicy water in the golgappas at Ashok is not just tart like that in some of the New Delhi chaat shops. Instead, it is both sweet and tart - two flavours that together give a kick to the golgappas stuffed with roasted and spicy potatoes and mixed with a sweet saunth chutney.
But whenever I go to Ashok's, I first ask for a plate of his spicy chaat. Half the paapris are put in a whipped yoghurt mix, and the other half in the sweet saunth. These are then arranged on a plate and garnished with home-made masalas. Red chillies are never used in the chaat that you get in old Delhi. Instead, they use black pepper to add to the pungency. At Ashok's, the main ingredients are pepper, black salt and roasted zeera. Some of the masalas used are closely-guarded secrets - which the owners of Ashok refuse to divulge despite all my teary-eyed entreaties.
To this they add a dollop of curds, a smattering of saunth and a spoonful of green chutney. And finally they top it with thin spicy slivers of roasted kachaloo.
Ashok's has other kinds of chaats, too. There is the usual chaat with soft dahi vadas or the dahi-pakoris, which are baby dahi-vadas. I like their kalmi vada chaat -- crisp flat and thick paapris made out of ground lentils. Another all-time favourite there is the potato chaat. They take a whole roasted potato, spice it up and then cut it into little chunks. To this, they add all the seasonings that go into the paapri chaat. Incidentally, they get their roasted aloos and kachaloos from certain families in the area whose sole job is to do just that.
Once the tongue is nicely set ablaze, you can saunter down to Mianji's kheer shop, which is 200 metres down the Lal Kuan road from the Hauz Qazi Chowk. Tart and sweet - that's what a gastronomical journey is all about!