Whether you call it pani puri or gol gappe, phuchke, or pani ka pataasha- the origins of what could be India’s favorite street food snack are somewhat unclear. Who invented it, where and when, is a mystery. A mystery that is in line with the alchemical magic that this dish is. In our collective consciousness, pani puri (as it is called in Maharashtra) has always existed and is blessed with immortality.
I believe that pani puri is the most well-balanced gastronomical innovation ever existed, and it didn’t take a Michelin star chef to create. The crispy round batter holds the hot, soft, slightly salted ragda (stewed white peas) or mashed potatoes; with a sweet and sour chutney, dunked in spicy, cold mint water - the combination of these exploding into your mouth in one single bite. It’s pure sorcery. It’s perhaps one the most satiating things on the planet- so satiating that it is insatiable! You can’t possibly eat one, a minimum of five on a plate, and trigger the gluttony for more!
For as many names as it has, it has those many different variations. It’s a dish with great versatility to cater to all palettes. For some, the filling must contain ragda. For others, potatoes or sprouts. Some people like it without the sweet and sour chutney, which to me is an abomination and an insult to pani puri itself! Nothing is better - it’s just different. We all just agree to disagree. However, in a country like India, which its diversity can only define, that, in my opinion, is the only way.
So when history, names, definitions, or recipes are murky, the only thing one can hold on to for truth is a personal experience.
We all have stories of surrounding pani puri wallahs (carts/stalls on the road of men selling pani puri). Challenging each other on how many one can finish, how spicy one can handle it, or how fast one can eat it (hello, hiccups!) are just a few. My mother, an avid pani puri enthusiast, has traveled far and wide (in Bombay), sampling as many as her eyes see. My best friend comes from America on a yearly pilgrimage to her pani puri wallah, who, in my opinion, leaves a lot to be desired. My all-time favorite is a tiny little shop called Flavors in Pune. Almost a decade since I ate there last, I can’t remember whether the emotion came from the Pani Puri itself or the experience of huddling up with friends after school.
Everyone has their guy and swears that their Pani Puri wallah is the best.
For some of us, the nostalgia value is far greater than the flavors, and some have traversed the country never to be satisfied to call one pani puri wallah the “WORLD’S BEST.” It’s such a reflection of our personality- how we identify with our favorite food.
That's what I find so beautiful about our food culture. Every region makes it differently, every hand serves it, and every smile (or frown) that accompanies that hand-makes each experience unique. What is always constant, though, is the swiftness of their hands, filling your plate quicker than your mouth can chew! It’s an art, and it is the muscle memory of the heart.
I am a loyalist to my grandmother, though (as most of us Indian children are) and anything that is made with her hands, for me, is the most beautiful mingling of flavors. Pani puri nights at home, sitting back leisurely, not having to count how many I’m consuming or guzzle them down quickly, is comfort heaven. It's a unique experience to make street food at home, and to those who haven’t given it a try, I would recommend it. It’s not better; it’s just different.
It’s my honor to share my grandmother’s pani puri recipe with you, and I would love to hear from those who try it. You can write me @divagarg on Instagram. Or you can send me a tirade about how your grandmother is better, share a recipe, and we can have a gastronomical duel to food coma.
Pani puri has 4 elements:
- The Puri (The round fried batter that you can buy from any Indian shop. These puris are specific for pani puri)
- The Pani (water)
- Chutney (sauce)
- The filling
There are multiple variations of this. Some make it with hot stewed ragda (white peas) or with sprouts, lentils, potatoes. At home, we eat it with warm mashed potatoes.
INGREDIENTS & METHOD
For the Pani
- Mint leaves| 1 small bunch
- Tamarind pulp | 1 cup
- Jeera (cumin) powder | 1 tbsp
- Green chilies | 4 (also depending on diversity can only define on your spice level, increase or decrease the quantity)
- Chaat Masala | 1 tbsp (it’s a spice blend that you can get at any Indian store)
- Salt | 1 tbsp
- Sugar | 2-3 tbsp (depending on how sweet you like it)
- Blend all the above ingredients into a thick paste
- Boil the paste with a bit of water for about 5 minutes and leave it to cool
- Add cool or cold water to the mix, so it is thin. It is usual for the paste to settle at the bottom.
For the Sweet and Sour Chutney
- Tamarind | 100 gms
- Jaggery | 4 tbsp (can be replaced by sugar, but not ideal)
- Chilli powder | 1/2 tbsp (modulate based on your spice tolerance)
- Jeera (cumin) powder | 1 tbsp
- Salt | 1 tbsp
- Saunf (fennel) powder | 1 tbsp
- Soak the tamarind in two cups of water, ideally overnight, to remove all the pulp and seeds. Squeeze it to get all the juices out!
- Put all the ingredients on a saucepan and boil it for a couple of minutes
- Let it cool
For the Potato filling
- Potatoes | 4-5 medium-sized
- Salt | 1/2 tbsp
- Pepper | Just a wee bit
- Boil the potatoes until they are soft
- While they are hot, mash them with the salt and pepper
- Once all the parts are prepared, you are now ready to assemble it all for the gastronomical explosion
- Make a tray with your water, chutney, potatoes, and puris
- You first crack a small hole in one side of the puri (protip: one side is more accessible than the other) It's okay if you smash your first few rights through; there is a delicate art of getting the hole the right size
- Fill it in with a couple of pinches of potato
- Put a teaspoon of the chutney in
- Give your pani a good stir and dunk your puri in
- Now dunk that in your mouth! HALLELUJAH!
- Repeat and tweak to your preference