King of Chaat

Who’s got the best chaat stall in Delhi? That would be Ram Sharan, whose 105-year-old gol gappas shop draws crowds in Chandni Chowk (“Moonlight Square”). That’s the ancient market next to the Red Fort, built in 1650 during the rule of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Gol gappas, or “round bites,” are crisp, crunchy bubbles of deep-fried dough that are filled with a sweet-savory filling, then dunked in spiced water. They’re so popular in India that Frito-Lay sells gol gappas–flavored chips here.

Sharan, a short, stocky man in his 60s, runs the shop. It’s just one small room large enough to accommodate one person. Sharan sits surrounded by baskets of freshly made gol gappas and other ingredients neatly arranged at arm’s length. Customers eat standing on the street. We asked Sharan what it was like to be the best gol gappas maker in Delhi.

How are gol gappas served and eaten?
I punch a hole on one side of the crispy ball, add a mixture of boiled potatoes and chutney, and dunk it into a big vat of the tangy water. The little ball is now a tantalizing mixture of flavors and textures, ready to be experienced. I then put it into your pattal [an eco-friendly disposable plate, made of dry leaves], and you put the preparation in your mouth. The little flour bubble bursts, letting out exquisite flavors that tickle your palate and make your eyes water and nose run if I spice it too heavily!

Are they made to order?
Yes. Some of my customers prefer theirs sweeter, so I add extra chutney. For those who like them spicier, I sprinkle a dash of ground spices and chilies. An average customer orders one plate of eight, which can be quite filling.

How long have you had this shop?
I have spent 50 of my 65 years doing this work. I live close by in my ancestral house. Ours is a joint family that includes cousins and nephews as well. We all run this family business.

What is your typical day like?
It begins at 8 a.m., when my entire family pitches in to fry fresh gol gappas. By about 11 a.m. I am ready to take the preparations to my shop. I do so by cycle rickshaw, the most practical mode of transport in the narrow lanes of this market. Half an hour for setting up my shop and the mandatory invocation to the almighty, and I am ready for business. I keep at this till 6 p.m. My cousins then take over from me, and the shop finally closes late in the evening.

What is the busiest time of day?
Business is a little slow in the morning but picks up by lunchtime. Evenings are usually the busiest, when the shoppers start feeling the hunger pangs after a busy day at the market. That is the time when a plate of gol gappas is the perfect snack.

What makes your gol gappas special?
The recipe is a family secret, and the standards are maintained, so that customers can enjoy the same flavor time and again. All the ingredients are bought from the neighborhood grocer and vegetable vendor. Quality and freshness is ensured, as our business dealings go back a long way.

How many gol gappas do you sell in a day?
About 1,500-2,000. At Rs 10 [about 20 cents] for a plate of eight, you can’t ask for a better deal.

If you weren’t selling gol gappas, what would you do?
After spending five decades selling gol gappas, I can imagine doing no other work.