India is the land of spices and flavors. From our Biryanis to Salans to rasams and Avials, everything relies on the right spices. It is no wonder then that Indian’s have some really difficult taste buds to satisfy! One variety of food that always does the job however is the chaats and street food! Chaats are basically local street food, dished out across the country, consisting of savory dishes with tangy-spicy-sweet flavors.
Chappan Dukaan (56 stores): A popular chat street in Indore
Chaats vary across the country. There’s pav bhaji and vada pav in Mumbai and Dabeli in Gujarat (especially in Bhuj!!) The ghugni chat in Kolkata. Butte ki kees and chaap in Indore. Masala Puri, Mirchi bajji and Majige Kodubale in Bangalore. Churmuri in Mysore. Every city has something special to offer in the street food space, and one proper conversation with a localite and you will know what you should definitely try and in which place.
But one dish that cuts across cities and states is Pani Puri!! (And all its variants :P) Pani puri is available across the country, as remote the location might be, there’s always one rekdi wala dishing out pani-puri. Although it may be called by different names- Golgappa/ Pani Batasha/ Puchka/ Phulki- the basic concept of a pani puri remains the same.
It is hollow balls of deep fried dough, filled with a stuffing of boiled and spiced potatoes and then with thin watery sauces (pani) of different flavors. The pani is generally limited to a spicy one with mint, coriander and lemon and another sweeter one with dates, jaggery and tamarind.
The pani puri is supposed to be eaten in full (DO NOT EVER EAT HALF A PURI, ITS INSULTING THE PANI PURI, THE GUY WHO JUST SERVED YOU AND PEOPLE AROUND!!), and should leave a blast of flavors in your mouth. Regional variants include hot gravy of chickpeas, called ragda, replacing the boiled potatoes, and an addition of groundnuts or raw onions to the filling.
My long association with pani puri started the time we stayed in Ahmedabad. As kids we used to deliberately walk past the Agarwaal Sweet stall nearby, so that shopkeeper uncle would talk to us and give us kaju katli. Sometimes he would also call the nearby panipuri wala and say “bhai bachiyo ko phulki khila de zara”. We would eat the pani puri, not having a care in the world for where the water was from and whether bhaiya was wearing gloves 😛
Pani puri and birthday gifts used to be the 2 reasons we used to get permission to get out of the house and out of doing homework. And somehow, none of our mothers could say no to pani puri! Because they loved it as much as we did or maybe more!!
I would accompany mom evenings for household shopping and on most occasions we finished it off with two plates of pani puri each. If dad was home early and couldn’t find us, he would always check at the pani puri stalls first!
It was also the first choice for birthday parties. Aunties in the building would get together and make pani puri and pav bhaji. Cake, chips and cold drinks from outside, and the party was set. 5 kids sitting around a big thali and competitively gulping down puris is a childhood memory most kids will cherish.
It was these memories that led to my love for the snack growing manifold. I’ve had a favorite pani puri place in every town I’ve stayed since:
- Stall outside Veemurti Complex, Gurukul Road, Ahmedabad
- Stall outside Oswal, S G Highway, Ahmedabad
- Bombay Tiffanys Annexe, D Devaraja Urs Road, Mysore (https://www.zomato.com/mysore/bombay-tiffanys-annexe-chamrajpura/info)
- Stall outside Amul, West side Campus, NITK, Surathkal
- ALL the stalls in Sarafa Bazaar, Indore
- Uncle who used to come to the IIM Indore campus every Thursday!
- Elco, Hill Road, Mumbai (https://www.zomato.com/mumbai/elco-restaurant-hill-road-bandra-west )
As time passed we moved to Kuwait where pani puri was scarce and extremely pricey. So we resorted to making everything at home, from scratch. And thus making pani puri at home became a tradition that has stayed on.
Even while I was in hostel, we would use the electric kettle to boil potatoes and make pani puri with joint efforts from the entire wing! That taste has been the most delicious of all the pani puri I have ever eaten. May be it was our dead taste buds from all the “mess food”, maybe the effort and difficulty that went into making it. As I write this I am sitting in my living room in Turin, having just polished off, that’s right, pani puri , for dinner.
Nowadays we read and hear so much about how street food is unhygienic, bad and almost poisonous for your health. Of these too pani puri is supposed to be the worst. Most raw ingredients, water from god knows where and use of hands!! But then, this is also one of the healthier chaats. Believe it or not, it is good for digestion and serves as quite an appetizer. The mint, coriander and lemon in the pani all assist digestion. I also read a blog once about how a guy thought pani puri helped him fight bad breath. Legit I’d say!
Pani puri has now also got a modern more flavorful version with a few cities coming up with 7 types of pani. My favorite has been in Ahmedabad and in Indore with flavor ranging across pudina (mint), adrak (ginger), lahsun (garlic), khajur (dates), hajma (digestive), nimbu (lime) and hing (asofoetida).
The more gourmet places have come up with fruit flavours, orange, strawberry and what not! There are also gourmet restaurants that serve good old pani puri in ‘hatke’ versions. The one in picture is at SpiceKlub, Mumbai.
At home we have tried nimbu, strawberry, orange, pineapple and lahsun. They have all been good barring strawberrym but most have paled in front of the regular, pudine ka pani. Somethings are truly best left untouched.
Only yesterday, I was bored and watching an old movie, and saw Govinda eating pani-puri and realized it was time to introduce patidev to some homemade pani puri! So what if I was in faraway Italy, that shouldn’t stop me from eating what I love!
And so it was that I spent an entire day, grinding mint, boiling tamarind and of-course frying puris. It was too much work, as compared to “bhaiya do plate banana, teekha zyada!.” Patidev was surprised at how a chaat can make someone look so ecstatic and totally at peace!
But then we sat down to eat, and as the first puri burst in my mouth, I knew all the effort was worth it!