.The Chutneys, Pickles and Pastes of Viks Chaat

The wholesale business behind Berkeley's beloved Indian street food purveyor

“If I were to write a cookbook, it would have the simple stuff that was made at home,” says Amod Chopra, second-generation owner of Viks Chaat. “Lentils, rice, a few vegetables—an art that is probably being lost.”

Viks, the beloved canteen-style purveyor of fresh-made chaat, or Indian street food, is most East Bayites’ introduction to the Viks Culinary Universe. People travel to Fourth Street in Berkeley from all over the Bay Area to eat Viks’ baseball-bat-sized dosas, home-style lunch and dinner platters, and rainbow of Indian confectionery. Some of these diners will wander into Viks Market, next door; only a few will realize that Viks has an entire wholesale business, selling Indian ingredients and cooking equipment to buyers in California and beyond. 

Most customers are actually experiencing Viks backwards. The company started as a wholesale business in 1982; then in ’87, they noticed that a corner of their warehouse was always sitting empty. “My father figured, might as well have a store operating out of that space,” says Chopra. That store became Viks Market. 

Chopra thinks that the eventual opening of the restaurant in ’89 was more the result of a food craving than a business decision: His father wanted good Indian street food, and the only way to get it was to make it himself. The restaurant started out as a little stand selling chaat within the market. “Within the family, we always teased my father: ‘We know that you just miss that food!’” says Chopra. 

In any case, it paid off—34 years later, Viks Chaat is bustling, beloved and a Michelin Guide pick. But it’s still undergirded by Viks Market and Viks Distributors, the quieter foundation beneath the surface of the Viks iceberg. 

“There’s a lot of synergy between our three businesses,” says Chopra. The flexibility of having multiple product pathways allows the business to import large quantities of goods from India. “If I was just a market, and if I was trying to import container after container of chutneys, I wouldn’t be moving that kind of volume,” Chopra says. “What we import we are able to move, whether it is through our wholesale or distribution, or our market, or in our own restaurant.”

The foundation of the wholesale business is Indian chutneys, pickles and pastes. Through Viks Distributors, these products are routed into stores and restaurants, and to cafeterias at Bay Area college campuses and tech companies. They’re also available for anyone to buy at Viks Market: an underrated opportunity for Indian food enthusiasts to bring some of Viks’ most powerful flavors into their own kitchens. 

Indian chutneys and pickles are encountered by most Western consumers only as an enticing daub on a thali platter at a restaurant, or in a tiny, capped takeout cup to accompany a freshly fried samosa. But these flavor-packed condiments have the potential to massively elevate home-cooked recipes, an easy refrigerator hack for creating better homemade Indian food. 

Consider the Indian pickle, or achar. The salty bite of just a few spoonfuls of pickle can transform a recipe. “If you’re having something as simple as lentils and rice, that pickle just takes it to a whole other level,” says Chopra. 

Achar-making goes back thousands of years; in India, there are hundreds of varieties of pickle. In fact, there are hundreds of varieties of mango pickle alone: sweet, sour or salty, using unripe mango or ripe, with many different permutations of spices like mustard seed, star anise, fenugreek, turmeric and chili powder. 

Indian pickles are created by fermenting fruits or vegetables in oil and spices, a process that can lead to a range of intense flavors: sugary or spicy or tangy—or, magically, all of these at the same time. The condiment is generally served alongside a dish rather than mixed in, allowing the diner to curate each bite. A tablespoon of pickle, paired with something as simple as plain rice, creates a dish that is intense and multi-dimensional, with the sweet-salty-sour layers of a finished dish. 

This is an outsized amount of flavor for a little jar. Indian pickles are like the overpowered superhero of the culinary world—and they can come to the rescue of home cooks who are new to making Indian recipes and find that their dishes seem bland or one-dimensional compared to what they’ve had at restaurants. Often, this is through no fault of the recipe or recipe-follower, but rather a failure to understand the plate as a whole, the condiments and sides and textural elements that bring a whole meal together. 

In short: Don’t underestimate the power of the pickle. Asked about how to get started with using condiments Indian-style, Chopra takes off: “I love a lot of different consistencies on my plate. In your fridge, have something that is a little sweet, have something that’s a little spicy, have something that’s a little tangy. Then you pair accordingly. If the meal is spicier, then put a dollop of the sweeter version. I love things like papadums—they add a whole crunch to the process. I love having fresh cucumber and tomatoes on the side, with the little squeeze of lime or lemon and some chaat masala sprinkled on it—it brings a whole other thing to it.” 

For cooks aspiring to build a complete Indian meal, Chopra and the Viks team are happy to help anyone with questions. “We actually enjoy helping with recipes and figuring out how to get that done,” says Chopra. Viks Market carries nearly 20 varieties of pickle, from six types of mango pickle to lime pickle and garlic pickle (two of Chopra’s personal favorites). There’s also over a dozen varieties of chutneys, 15 curry and spice pastes, and a wide array of Indian snacks, grains, spices and other grocery goods. 

“In terms of actually cooking with some of this, I say go for it,” says Chopra. “We’re all there to help you start. I normally don’t recommend going after the most complicated recipes right off the bat. Go with something simpler. Lentils, rice, and we’ll help you figure out a light temper for it, and the three ingredients that go in it.” 

For now, Chopra isn’t interested in writing a cookbook. In fact, he warns against following a recipe too religiously and losing the improvisational fun of making good Indian food. “When I was young, back in college, that’s when I started experimenting with cooking,” he says. “And my philosophy would be: See a recipe, have a couple of shots of tequila, then start. Be a little loose with it.”

From there, the chef-in-training can make adjustments and tweaks, learn from mistakes and move to more complex Indian recipes. “Your confidence builds, and you get a sense of what it takes to cook the spices,” says Chopra. “I think the most complicated part is making sure that the spices cook.” His voice turns grave. “And don’t. Forget. The salt.” 

Sonya Bennett-Brandt
Sonya Bennett-Brandt writes about climate, conservation and the Bay Area.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

music in the park san jose