This strip mall joint serves subtle South Asian street food. Indian nachos, anyone?
For Rajesh Parbhakar and his wife, Mina Rani, the love of food was born at other people’s weddings. Though trained as an electrician, Parbhakar once designed elaborate lighting displays for giant marital ceremonies in his hometown of Phagwara, in India’s northern Punjab region. Eventually, he assumed the role of master wedding planner, co-ordinating everything from the flower arrangements to the army of kitchen helpers needed to prepare the lavish feasts. “Whenever the cook made anything for a wedding, I’d taste it first, refining the menu and the flavours, because it was my hobby,” he recalls. “I learned to cook by watching and tasting from the best cooks, chefs, and sweet-makers I hired.”
The couple, who own and operate Chat Hut, an Indian vegetarian restaurant just north of Pearson airport, moved to Toronto in 1994. After some years working in warehouses, Parbhakar landed a job driving a coffee truck to construction sites. The food he served was standard sandwiches and snacks, but he greeted everyone with a smile, and soon began filling requests to cook Punjabi treats at cultural festivals, holidays, and weddings. In 2005, he and Rani opened Chat Hut in a small space at the end of a strip mall, along a stretch of road bustling with shops selling Indian clothing, jewellery, videos, and food.
Their specialty is chaat papri, a popular street snack that’s best described as Indian nachos. Thin fried crackers (papri) are doused with a mix of three homemade chutneys (mint, tamarind, and a secret house one), a dollop of thick yogurt, and a ground-lentil dumpling that’s soaked in tart homemade yogurt. The colourful combination of crunchy and soft, hot, and cool, sweet, spicy, and sour, gets at the core of what this place does so well.
Chat Hut is a strictly vegetarian restaurant, and the flavours are more subtle and balanced than any other South Asian cooking I’ve had: The spice tingles but never overpowers, the ghee enriches but doesn’t drown the food. It’s bright and adventurous eating.
“Spices don’t make good food,” says Parbhakar, punching holes in the tops of puri, a puffed round cracker the size of a golf ball. “It comes from a happy heart. When I am not in a good mood, I leave the kitchen right away and ask my staff to do the same.” Into the puri, Parbhakar adds a few stewed chickpeas and a spoonful of mint chutney, then pours in his special “spicy water,” tinted green with mint, cilantro, ginger, and cloves.
“Just eat,” he says with urgency, and I pop the puri into my mouth, crunching down to unleash flavours that are a rush of contrasting textures—airy puri and spicy water—hitting at once. Parbhakar, the Willy Wonka of Indian snacks, smiles knowingly.
Back in the kitchen, layers of dough are kneaded and stretched, stuffed with a thin layer of dry cheese, mashed potato, onion, green pepper, and spices, then baked until they emerge from the oven as a big, puffy bread called amritsari kulcha. The bread is served next to a thali combination plate that includes potato curry, jeera potatoes (boiled, then stir-fried in ground spices), homemade pickled carrots, sharp slices of red onion, thick, cayenne-dusted yogurt, and what may be the best chana masala (chickpea curry) in the city, each bean cooked until it’s just soft enough to yield to the bite. The kulcha deflates in the mouth, like a warm, yeasty cloud evaporating in the sun.
Chat Hut, originally a takeout-only spot, expanded to add seating in 2008, and began selling a variety of homemade sweets, which greet visitors at the entrance in neat pyramids of delicate silver leaf–covered squares, balls, and cakes rich with boiled milk and chopped pistachios. They range from the crispy flax-seed ball alsi kipini (a winter favourite) to the soft kalakand, a rosewater infused type of cheesecake. However, Parbhakar’s triumph is the motichoor laddu, a yellowy-orange ball made up of thousands of chewy, caviar-sized beads, held together as if by magic.
“See, this is the beauty,” he says, pulling one apart and picking out the individual pearls, grinning with great pride. “When you smile, even if you’re having a tough day, people will smile back at you. When you cry, you cry alone.” With that, he packs four motichoor laddu into a box—a small gift, he says, that he gives to every new customer.
Chat Hut, 7106 Airport Rd., Mississauga, 905-672-2428.