01/13/14 10:00am

Desify: The Indian Bar Food Smuggling Edition

Pavakkai Chips from Grand Sweets and Snacks, Chennai, India. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

From Chennai with Love: Pavakkai (bitter gourd) chips dusted with hing and pepper

At home, I keep Indian salty snacks at the ready when sipping a refreshing brew. But when I go out, I’m stuck with the usual over-salted nuts and bland, fried bar snacks. Even Indians—who enjoy their salty snacks with milky, sugary chai—seem unaware of this potentially brilliant pairing.

Would it be weird to smuggle in some chana jor garam the next time I head out for a pint? Not if everyone’s doing it. Beer-swilling spice lovers, unite…and let the Indian bar food smuggling begin!

Jabson's Chilly Garlic Peanuts. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Chilly garlic roasted peanuts, a favorite snack from Gujarat

But first, what are Indian salty snacks?

Namkeen (the word in Hindi for savory snacks) are typically salty and spicy, with a hint of savory cumin, curry leaf, mustard seed, hing (asafetida), or carom seed. Some also blend the sweet and tangy flavors of jaggery (unrefined sugar), coconut, tamarind, or lime. They are made with everything from fried lentils, noodles, and banana chips to nuts, puffed or flattened rice, and even corn flakes.

Some Indian snacks can be tossed together with spices in a frying pan at home (like this easy chivda recipe that combines flattened rice, peanuts, curry leaf, and a few spices). But many are effort-intensive, deep-fried undertakings best left to skilled cooks.

Baked pie crust matti. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Baked matti studded with carom seeds, my riff on a favorite Indian fried snack

When my mother-in-law visits, she usually brings a fresh batch of her excellent Punjabi matti—fried crackers spiked with carom seeds (get the baked version of her recipe here). They’re especially great with a dab of mango pickle (aam ka achaar) or tangy carrot pickle (gaajar ka achaar; get my recipe here).

Left to my own devices, I usually throw together peanuts, raisins, roasted soy beans or chickpeas with a few pinches of sulfurous chaat masala and spicy ground red pepper. If I’m feeling ambitious, I add diced onion and cilantro and mix in a few spoons of lime juice and sweet tamarind-date chutney (equal parts).

Bakarwadi from Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale in Pune, India. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Bakarwadi from Maharashtra, by way of Jackson Heights, Queens

I also get some of my Indian salty snacks at the Patel Brothers grocery store in Jackson Heights, which has an impressive selection of imports from India. Almost anything from Haldiram’s, a famous chain of snacks and sweets shops in North India, is a good bet. If they’re available, try the bakarwadi from Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale (a famous snack shop in the city of Pune)—bite-size, fried shells stuffed with an addictive mixture of savory-sweet, tangy-hot spices and seasonings.

Or head around the corner from Patel’s and check out the options at two local sweets and snacks shops in Jackson Heights. Maharaja sells a variety of spice-coated nuts and fried Punjabi snacks, and Rajbhog offers a similar selection of Gujarati-style snacks, like tangy-sweet chivda and fried para.

Thenkuzhal Murukku from Grand Sweets and Snacks in Chennai, India. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

From Chennai with love: Thenkuzhal murukku studded with cumin seeds

This year we spent the holidays in South India, so I’m flush with murukku (fried rings of mildly spiced rice flour dough) and pavakkai chips (fried slices of bitter gourd) from Chennai’s beloved Grand Sweets and Snacks. Normally murukku (aka, chakli) are a special treat reserved for Diwali and other festivals, but you can get them year-round here in New York at the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing.

With so many Indian snacks to choose from, deciding which beer to drink is a secondary concern. Light, crisp beers (saisons, wheat beers, pilsners, etc.) are generally good bets with flavorful Indian food. But I can imagine a dark, sweet brew going down very nicely with some matti smeared with mango pickle.

Check out Anne Noyes Saini’s ongoing food + audio projects on SoundCloud.

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