KLue Issue 106 August 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
The huge contributions of Malaysian Indians to the country's culinary culture bely the relatively small size of their community. Who among us doesn't experience the occasional belly-grumbling craving for a spicy banana leaf feast? Come late afternoon, is there any corner of the Klang Valley in which one can not find that streetside snack staple, deep-fried pulse fritters?
But man cannot live by turmeric fried fish and crispy vadai alone. The world of Indian Malaysian deliciousness is large and, in some instances, woefully uncharted. Two specialties that fly below the radar are chaat and palagaram.
On a Sunday evening, as the weekend draws to a close, a steady trickle of north Indians and Pakistanis pass through the entryway of Brickfield's Restoran Chat Masala. The humble shop's menu is packed with same-same standards like saag paneer and 'Indian Chinese' dishes but its short list of 'chaat specials' at the bottom right-hand corner is a chowhoundy find. In Hindi 'chaat' means 'to lick', and that's just what you'll want to do to your plate after sampling these small bites with big, exciting flavors that somehow sate and stoke the appetite all at once.
Puri, bite-sized rice flour puffs, arrive four to a plate. When an order is placed Chat Masala's chaat wallah pokes a hole in the top of each puff and fills them with - depending on whether he's making paneer or bhel or masala or panni chola puri - spicy garbanzo beans or tiny cubes of cheese or yogurt or a combination. On top goes tamarind gravy or fiery green chili-mint chutney or nothing at all. The icing on the cake is a shower of crispy orange sev (semolina noodles) and golden yellow fried dhal. The puri are accompanied by a cup of thin sauce made from tamarind, mint, and chilies.
In India chaat are made and eaten on the street. Puri like Restoran Chat Masala's are served one-by-one, and they must be popped into the mouth at lightning speed, before any sauce spooned over the top turns the delicate rice flour shells into a soggy mess. Chat Masala's restaurant setting and sauce-on-the-side set-up may allow for a more leisurely repast, but the snack's scrumptiousness induces gobbling in the end.
The restaurant's other chaat, like its salad of starfruit, orange, and cilantro leaves in a hot-and-minty dressing zippy enough to awaken one from even the most serious case of hot-season torpor, share's its puri's masterful combination of contrasting tastes and textures: sweet and tangy, salty and spicy, wet and dry, smooth-soft and crackly-crunchy. Chaat may be meant to be taken as a quick, light snack, but their addictive flavors never fail to inspire indulgence equivalent to a meal.
Just don't show up at 1 o'clock hoping to embark upon a chaat repast. Says Chat Masala's owner, 'We don't want to eat chaat for lunch, only in the evening and onward. And so I will not serve it before 4.'
As north Indians in the Klang Valley have their chaat, so Tamils have their palagaram (or palaharam). The word once described a class of foods prepared specifically as offerings for particular Hindu deities, but these days palagaram serve purposes both sacred and secular. While offered during prayers inside the temple, they're also taken outside as between-meal snacks, often accompanied by tea.
A post-lunch visit to Restoran Mohana Bistro in Klang's Little India finds customers munching on kolakatta, steamed rice-flour dumplings filled with sweetened lentils, which are a favorite palagaram of Lord Vinayagar, the Elephant God. Hanuman, Hindu monkey deity and symbol of physical strength and devotion, prefers vadai strung into a garland. On Mohana Bistro's menu are thairu vadai, a soft version of Hanuman's gram flour 'donut', soaked in and then doused with yogurt and dusted with crispy aromatics such as deep-fried curry leaves, chili flakes, and popped black mustard seeds.
Across the street at Asoka Curry House, a banana leaf-lined tray of spicy chickpeas delivered fresh from the kitchen to the restaurant's streetside palagaram station is quickly depleted. Meanwhile, orders are filled for more thairu vadai (a version much less 'wet' than Mohana Bistro's) and boli, featherweight gram flour 'crepes' perfumed with cardamom and filled with jaggery-sweetened mashed dhal. Unlike chaat, palagaram are served morning to night, though variety and availability increase exponentially come late afternoon.
Much like their northern Indian chaat cousins, palagaram boast an astounding mix of flavors and textures and an intense spice-forwardness that's bound to tickle even the most jaded palate.
Food of the gods, indeed.