Bhooja with that Chaat? 

Indian snacks come into their own.

Every South Asian grocery store in the area carries a few shelves of bhooja, Indian fried snacks -- highly spiced mixes of fried lentils, nuts, puffed rice, and chickpea-flour noodles. Most are imported from India, Canada, or the East Coast. But over the past few years East Bay entrepreneurs have gotten into the business, and are taking the snacks outside their traditional market.

"Indians eat around four light meals a day, so they're fond of many little things rather than one large dish, with lots of variety," says Laxmi Hiremath, author of The Dance of Spices and owner of Laxmi's Delights, a line of Indian spiced nuts. Hiremath settled on a commercial roaster for her spiced walnuts, pecans, and peanuts four years ago, and now they are sold in 150 gourmet stores around the country, including Andronico's and Whole Foods.

Sukhi's Quick-N-Ezee stands, which sell Indian breads, samosas, curry pastes, and chutneys, have been a familiar presence at Bay Area farmers' markets for years. Not long ago, founder Sukhi Singh began noticing that some customers were buying her packets of spiced peas by the fistful. So last year, Sukhi's introduced a few more snacks -- sweet-sour fried rice flakes, a Maharashtran-style Spicy Treat, and her Punjabi Mix, a tart-and-fiery blend of lots of fried thingies. They've gone over so well that national food mags have begun sniffing for samples and she's planning on pitching the line to retail chains next year.

The owners of Bhooja King, Nick Dutt and his son Rakesh, tell a similar tale. Dutt the elder, who is Fijian of Indian descent, had been importing snacks from Canada and India for his Hayward market. Two years ago, he decided to start making his own. Last year, the new venture moved production into a much larger warehouse, and this year, Bhooja King has expanded its line to eleven savory products and four sweets.

Everything is still done by hand. To make murkoo, for example, Bhooja King's small crew of Latino and Indian workers mixes chickpea and rice flours with sesame seeds, spices, and enough water to form a stiff dough. They stuff the dough into a sort of cookie press and extrude it into vats of bubbling oil in thin coils. Dried green peas and chickpeas are soaked in water, then fried and coated in salt, chile, and garlic.

"The taste of the spices is completely different from products in India," Dutt says. "I think the flavor is fresh and more tasty. Indian companies also use preservatives, and we don't." His masalas are simpler than most, including Sukhi's, and Bhooja King's snacks taste cleaner than Indian and East Coast companies.

Sara Feinberg, the buyer for the Fourth Street Pasta Shop, says the store already carries Laxmi's Delights spiced nuts and began carrying Bhooja King's snacks in February for a Bollywood promotion. Demand has kept them on the shelves since. "They're an inexpensive snack, and kind of exotic," she says. "I fly through the murkoo and taro chips." Dutt says that he has also begun selling to the Food Max chain of mainstream grocery stores and to a large Chinese-American market, where the spiced peanuts and peas do particularly well.

Quick-N-Ezee and Bhooja King also note that the fried snacks are low-carb. "They're healthier than pretzels," Singh says. Healthy? That may be up for debate. Addictive? Without a doubt.

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