"Not today," says the gruff older Indian woman behind the counter at Kusum Foods (2899 N. Decatur Road, Decatur, 404-296-3338). That's the third time she's said that after I've asked for a specific dish. I'm frustrated and a little embarrassed, so I try to joke about the lack of availability, but her stoicism doesn't break. I finally select a few dishes with success and escape to my booth in the oddly bright blue room. The woman shouts that one of my orders is ready and I timidly approach the counter to whisk away my chaat, a style of street snack originating in India's Gujarat state – the birthplace of Kusum's cuisine. Gujarati cuisine is primarily vegetarian with an emphasis on seasonality.
Many of the chaat use similar ingredients such as chickpeas, potatoes, chutney, yogurt and onion. However, the dishes' appeal is that they satisfy different textural cravings through different preparations. Bhel puri – a mound of puffed rice topped with mixed diced onions, potatoes, a spicy and sweet chutney, and crispy chickpea flour noodles – is at once sweet, savory, crunchy, tangy and earthy. It is best when eaten quickly since the chutney can make the rice soggy. Paani puri – one of the most well known styles of puri – arrives on a plate with a cup of sweet water. The puffed rice balls are filled with mashed potatoes and beans, which you delicately dip into the liquid before popping the whole thing in your mouth. Crackery flats of fried papdi are topped with soft potatoes, split beans, and thin yogurt, then drizzled with a spicy sauce hinting of tamarind. Crunchy orbs of dal vada are a combination of split beans and spices that resemble hush puppies minus the underlying sweetness, served with spicy mint chutney.
Truth be told, ordering here isn't always so tough – there are normally curries and other assorted dishes in the steam table for the taking. For a more balanced meal with less emphasis on frying, the thalis – a large round platter crowded with silver bowls filled with an assortment of different vegetable dishes – are not only a good deal, but a fun way to explore the various cooking styles and flavors for which Gujarati food is known. Since the steam tables were empty on this particular visit, we chose the kadhi, a yogurt curry slightly thickened with chickpea flour. We drizzled the curry – which is almost like drinking warm coconut milk – over the accompanying yellow rice. As we shoveled forkfuls of the resulting concoction into our mouths, our enthusiastic moans caught the attention of our hostess, who asked us, with genuine surprise, "You like it?!" Perhaps we'd misjudged our host's initial distance. Before the guilt could set in, she came around from the counter with a huge smile and a small plate of dense vibrant yellow coconut candies. They were gone in a flash.