Where East Chatham Street meets Maynard is a strange, eclectic, transitional area of Cary, a microcosm of the changing face of the Triangle. Here a genteel old clapboard farmhouse with a "For Sale" sign in the yard sits just down from a neo-Grecian Parthenon-inspired office complex, and a drab strip mall faces a peppy Circus family restaurant.
The strip mall, Chatham Square, is, in contrast to its neighbors, reassuringly uniform. Within one city block you'll find Patel Brothers Indo-Pak Grocery, Indian Music World, Suchi Indian Cuisine, Shamim Beauty Parlor, Triangle Indian Market, Vaibhav Clothing and Fashion, and this month's Food Chain honoree, Cool Breeze (see "Cary Masala", April 6, 2005).
Cool Breeze, though its name implies jerk chicken and strawberry daiquiris, is actually the Triangle's only home for Chowpatty Chaat. This fragrant, crunchy Indian snack food originated in Mumbai's Chowpatty neighborhood, where even today hundreds of chaat wallahs (snack vendors) stake their claim to small plots of space, surround themselves with piles of spices and vegetables, and assemble your chaat to order, served up fresh in a banana leaf. The main ingredients, in various proportions and preparations depending on the recipe, tend to be chickpea, potato, onion, wheat crisps, rice crisps, sev (crunchy deep-fried noodles), mint, coriander, tamarind and yogurt. Adding hot chilies and a pungent black salt (the beloved sulfuric kala namak) can quickly transform a mild chickpea medley into a fiery sensation.
"It's mad spicy, but I love it," swears Hich Elbetri, chef-proprietor of Chapel Hill's SandwHich (see "Soup and sandwiches for everyone!", Jan. 17, 2007). "It's very cheap, the atmosphere is great, and you see a lot of Indian people, a very good sign." He and his wife Janet discovered Cool Breeze by chance, driving around.
"It's totally off the beaten path," says Janet Elbetri. "It's like Indian fast food. They won't be able to explain it to you; I had to take an Indian friend with me. You should go there and get the sampler."
I did get the sampler and went one better: I went there with an Indian friend—and his mother. (Always bring the mother.) Nirmala Premakumar and her husband moved from Bangalore to Durham in 1973 for his biochemistry post-doc at Duke. They knew the original owner of Cool Breeze and have been going since it opened in 2002 as a coffee shop and ice cream parlor; the next year Vaishali Nayak, who moved here from Mumbai seven years ago, bought it and added chaat to the menu.
Chef Elbetri sends me to Cool Breeze with one key assignment: "There's this one dish—it's a bowl of crust, but inside it's a really runny custard, very spicy, and you take the ball, and you take a bite and that thing just explodes in your mouth." After much deliberation, Mrs. Premakumar determines that it's dahi batata puri, part of the combo platter (No. 10 on the user-friendly menu, it's $13.95 and plenty for two). These hollow, whisper-thin crisps of wheat flour are about the size of a small egg, with a hole punched in the top and filled with sweet and spicy chutneys, potato shavings, onion, yogurt and topped with sev. I'm instructed to eat one all at once. It's a challenge, but trying to bite it in half is an amateur's move (as is, I discover too late, ordering a mango lassi—but it's sooo good).
Dahi batata puri is a wise place to start (be sure to amass a pile of napkins first), because if you wait too long the yogurt will soon melt your whisper-thin crust into a sodden mess. Next try what might be called the chop-salad course, best eaten with a fork: bhel puri, homemade rice crispies (like the cereal) mixed with chutneys, potato, cucumber and sev. The heartier dishes are aloo chole chaat (a potato patty with chickpeas) and paav bhaji (a lentil curry that you serve up on rolls, rather like a sloppy joe). Hich Elbetri remembers paav bhaji with fond amusement: "It's a little bit funny, because they serve this really beautiful stew, and then all of a sudden you see those weird buns that you'd get at White Castle! But you could put the same food on a beautiful plate in a beautiful restaurant...."
Chaat is not traditionally eaten as an entire meal (in Hindi it means "to lick"), but you could take advantage of the many savory parathas (leavened bread, like a fluffy fried pita) or potato samosas to round out your appetite. While chaat in India is eaten on the street or at a bus stop and is comparable to our fast food, the food at Cool Breeze is something less than fast. Pull up a chair and enjoy the Indian movies playing in the corner. People-watch. Or run two doors down to the market and browse the aisles. It's a visit to be savored, not rushed.
As my helpful guide Mrs. Premakumar points out, American fast food is, of course, notorious for its deplorable nutrition, but chaat, being vegetarian—with essentially the only carbs being potato flakes and airy crispies, and rice conspicuously absent—leaves you feeling positively sprightly. Which means you should not skip dessert.
Cool Breeze specializes in exotic sweets, from lychee ice cream to patiala lassi (yogurt shake with saffron and nuts) to carrot halwa (a delicious firm pudding which reminded me of my Southern grandmother's sweet potato pie). If, after all this, you're getting full, you should still take home one or two gulab jamun—this delicacy is like a donut hole, soaked in condensed milk and rosewater. To a first-time chaat eater, it's a soft, pillowy end to what has been a wild ride through chaat's unparalleled complexity, with its sweet, salt, crunch and fire. Your mouth will thank you—or perhaps it will say dhanyavad.