Indian sweets, Vik’s Chaat, Berkeley, California.
One of my favorite cultural experiences is to discover, all at once, the existence of a genre or subgenre of ethnic food that I had no previous awareness of. At their best, they leave a charged, atmospheric memory that informs impressions of that food from then onwards—the shared excitement of encountering Southern Indian dosas and uttapams for the first time in college, stumbling on ethnic Russian restaurant Gostiny Dvor in the alleys of Dongdaemun in Seoul to get my first taste of the sweet and doughy sourness of Russian dumplings, or pelmeni.
Despite my Proustian introduction to this post, Vik’s Chaat’s Indian sweets were unlikely to brand my memory with chamcham and mava jamun. I suppose I was already pretty familiar with the rudiments of Indian desserts anyway—no stranger to rosewater, pistachio, khoya (dried evaporated milk solids, like in gulab jamun), or cardamom. If you’ve experienced the mainstays of Indian dessert menus—gulab jamun, kheer, rasmalai—you’ll have a pretty good sense of what you’re starting with here.
Still, walking into the enormous cafeteria of a restaurant, in the warehouse-y region of North Berkeley, I expected myself to walk away bedazzled. Kid-in-the-candy-shop, like. The display cases of sweets are impressive—you wrap around them while waiting in line to order your meal (in our case a delicious cholle bhatura and a lamb baida roti, though pass on the dhokla, a fermented rice and chickpea cake that is made in advance and relatively flavorless.) The classic supermarket checkout tactic, the tempting ambush of candies and sweets.
Needless to say we went for it, ordering the following:
- Pink chamcham – paneer, rose syrup, khoya, pistachio, sugar
- Yellow chamcham – paneer, saffron, khoya, pistachio, sugar
- Mava jamun – milk, khoya, rose syrup, sugar
- Petha – ash gourd vegetable and sugar
Flavor – 2 / 5. I likely would have been significantly more awed by these desserts if they tasted better. They were too sweet, though, and had that quality that syrupy desserts have when they’ve been sitting in their own syrup for too long—stagnant, cloying.
Note that this shouldn’t dissuade a visit to Vik’s Chaat for their meals, which are exceptional and cheap. If you want to sate a sweet tooth, stick to their tasty rose lassi.
Fun – 4 / 5. There is a reason I got excited by these in the first place. It has the variety and visual stimulation of a candy shop. Of course, candy shops get old quickly when you can no longer stand pure, undiluted sugar.
Funkiness – 1.5 / 5. Most of these desserts aren’t very funky at all—again, consisting of ingredients you’ll find in any Indian restaurant dessert menu. The petha was the item that caught my attention—“Ash gourd vegetable? Intriguing.” I’m too often a sucker for quirky sounding food names—turns out this is nothing more than winter melon.