Dressed in a dusty dhoti (long loincloth) and carrying a spherical cauldron on his head, the pani puri seller near my childhood home in Mumbai is a figure I can still clearly recall to this day. Covered with a red muslin cloth and inscribed with the words “Raju’s Chaat Bhandar”, his scrap aluminium pot contained a flavour-filled treasure: the classic Indian snack of pani puri.
Raju’s take on this popular variety of chaat (a catchall term for savoury, tangy Indian snacks) was adored by children and grown-ups alike. He would fill the crispy, hollow shells of each puri (crispy, fried dough ball) with boiled lentils and a viscous tamarind chutney, before dipping it in water infused with mint and coriander. This punchy ball delivered all the essential elements of the Indian palate in one delicious bite.
Pani puri is still much beloved in all its forms across the sub-continent. In Mumbai, it is served with hot ragda (thick white pea curry), sweet tamarind chutney and a spicy green dip; while in Delhi it is known as gol gappa and stuffed with a spiced potato mash and even thicker syrups. In Bangalore and Hyderabad, onions are a common filling. In eastern India, the streets of Kolkata are dotted with kiosks peddling puchka, loaded with boiled Bengal gram, mashed potatoes and water.
Recently, these variations have moved beyond the regional. You can now find pani puri with fillings like vodka and chocolate, and even with ice cream. In Kolkata, the puchka has also received a Mexican makeover. Springing from her love for guacamole, Pallavi Ruia Dutta, founder of eatery Hakuna Matata, has added an avocado-filled pani puri to the menu. “We want to have fun with food, and this is our way of paying tribute to the legendary snack of Bengal,” she says.
Whether enjoyed as a traditional street food or as a fusion reinterpretation, it’s clear that pani puri remains a popular snack of choice across India.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.