In Praise of the Pani Puri

by Ashish

Every now and then, your author, contemplative soul that he is, contemplates life. What, he might sometimes wonder, is the meaning of it all? Why, he might continue in similar vein, do we exist at all? How, if he is on a serious roll, do we know if god exists?

These thoughts, I admit, only enter and stay in my cranium when the alcohol stream in my body has a little blood in it, but when the converse is the case, my thoughts are rather more mundane. On such occasions, I might think about the best test cricket team of all times, or perhaps about ten books that I would wish for company when stranded on an island. Or, given my deep, passionate affair with food, it is more likely to be a question that is gastronomic in nature.

And a favorite question in this regard is what makes for the perfect food – and this question, I would have you know, is more difficult than it would seem. For perfect food is a very demanding concept indeed.

It must have texture, for starters. Which means one component must retain crunch, while another must be soft and pliant on the palate. It must provide a contrast of flavours, for another – which implies that the sweet must intermingle with the sour, and whatever spice there is within must be elevated by the salt. More importantly, and this increases the complexity of the dish, it must contrast without losing balance – one should sense all of the above, but any one feature shouldn’t dominate the others.

Pondering dishes that qualify for the finals in this thought experiment is a wonderful way of spending the commute while driving towards a restaurant. Time passes very pleasantly indeed, and more importantly, one arrives for a meal with an appetite that borders on the maniacal.

And of all the dishes that one can think about in this regard, there is one that unfailingly brings out a wistful sigh. I speak of the empress of Indian snacks, the pani puri. She is known by various names throughout my country, a plate of pani puri. North Indians might convince you that all others are worthless nom-de-plumes, and her true name is golgappas. Woe betide you if you meet a Bengali who hears you speak of her as anything other than puchka.

Me, I’m more of a broad-minded generalist – I care not what you call a plate of pani puri. I ask only that it contains, in one form or the other, the following.

A soft filling, which can range from boiled potatoes, lightly mashed, to a daal that is lightly flavoured with spices, and simmers beguilingly on a giant platter. A thin, brownish liquid that stars tamarind prominently, but also a supporting cast that includes but is not limited to cumin powder and salt. A spicy green liquid that consists mostly of chillies, and as far as I’m concerned, little else.

And above all, the outer casing, the star of the show – the puri. I ask that the puri be hard and crisp, and I ask that the puri break open with a soul satisfying noise as our friend, the pani-puri wallah confidently cracks it with his thumb. Watch, then, with ever-hungrier eyes, as he dunks the puri – first in the daal, and then in the brownish liquid, and finally in the green liquid. If you, brave soul that you are, have asked for a spicy rendition, he’ll make sure to stir the green liquid afore every serve.

He puts the assemblage on your plate, which you have been holding all this while, watching the magician at work. And you, owner of a ticket to heaven, plonk it in your mouth before the puri has any chance at all of going soft because of the contents within. The first round of mastication reveals the crunch of the puri, while each successive workout of the jaw brings forth that balance about which we rhapsodized a while ago. Swallow, and await a second ticket, which arrives in your plate soon enough.

Repeat the exercise about six times, for that is the number of times you will get served in a single plate, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll go in for another round. At least.

For I have yet to meet a person heartless enough to not desire another go.

For my money, and if you happen to be in my city, you cannot better the pani puri that is dished out on Canal Road, near SNDT College. Kalyan Bhel does the best version of pani puri there is, and you would be well advised to go and buy yourself a ride to heaven. I promise you, it will be worth your while.