Over a year ago, when I had the idea of starting this blog about food, my first choice was to name it The Pani Puri Chronicles. 😅
But then, I slept on it and woke up in the morning with only one thought - that name sucks. Firstly, the entire 'chronicles' qualification is grossly misused and overhyped. Secondly, my blog will never have more than fifty readers, most of whom will be pani-puri lovers from Mumbai or haters from Delhi. 😂
THAT'S how divisive this popular snack is in India. For the uninitiated, pani-puri is fundamentally and literally what the name says - a puri (deep-fried thin hollow doughnuts) filled with pani (water, usually flavoured). That's pretty much it.
But in the land of culinary greatness called India, people are never satisfied with the classic definition! So what we have on our hands is at least three major and ten minor variations of this street snack across the twenty-eight states and eight union territories. There you go, my geography is up to date!
Given all the evolution that pani-puri has been through, it is primarily a combination of four components -
Puri is probably where most of the variants still don't stray much from the original - refined flour, which is simple, affordable and unarguably unhealthy. But who thinks about gut health when they think about street food, right? Lol. All the time.
Anyway, there are the select few, the bourgeois, who think replacing refined flour with suji or rava or semolina is a much healthier alternative and tastes better. Fair enough, I agree with the comment on healthier eating, low glycemic index and blah blah. But people who think that the suji pani-puri tastes better are
the kind of people who will fight over whole wheat bread during a pandemic shortage. So, meh
Stuffing is where the debate heats up, mainly among the holy trinity of pani-puri audiences - Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
The Mumbai pani-puri has a watered-down version of a yellow pea mash mixed with potatoes and spices. It is, what's that word, aah - perfect. Kolkata prefers its 'puchka' (another name for pani-puri) with a dry potato mash mixed with ground spices and boiled 'chana'. Delhi's golgappa (yet another name for pani-puri) also goes down the potato route with an occasional serving of chana but is light on the masala. So basically, we started with an intricate delicious mix and ended up with tasteless boiled potatoes.
What do I care; I don't stay in Delhi. Never will. 😋
Wait, I almost forgot the health nuts. Some mung beans for them, please. I am not even going to grace that with a comment. 😅
The water is another prime area of dispute, and this is also a place where I am a bit more liberal because all three major variants have their merits. Mumbai's pani-puri has spicy mint water with sweet sugar or date water. Kolkata's puchka has tangy imli (tamarind) water, sometimes mixed with a thinner variant of sweetish water. Delhi's golgappa, on the other hand, falls smack in the middle of Mumbai and Kolkata. Their primary water is spicy and tangy with a mint flavour, while the secondary water is sweet and tangy with imli in it. So a curveball there, eh?
I am glad that we do not have a healthy alternative for these waters yet, or maybe that's because the original by itself has one specific health benefit already. Well, let's say a good dose of pani-puri can guarantee a trip to the restroom the following morning. 🤣 Bye-bye laxatives.
The sole purpose of a condiment is to enhance flavour and controversy in equal amounts. Kolkata and Delhi added onion as a condiment, and Kelkar kaka went up in an uproar. Mumbai and Delhi added 'sev' as a condiment, and Ranjitda lost his shit. All the three cities added coriander to the mix, and I puked out of revulsion. 😂
No condiment can keep everyone happy, except chaat masala, of course. And that is the secret ingredient that pani-puri and golgappa nail. The puchka makes up for it with its blend of complex spices, but pea-brained food aficionados such as myself find one consolidated masala as a lifesaver, and that's chaat masala. Imagine, they didn't even bother giving it an actual name. It basically means 'the spice that you use while making any street snack'. There you go. That's the Indian equivalent of pizza sauce.
With so much to choose from across four key components, it's no wonder that the pani-puri wars are far from over. I call it the pani-puri wars because that name makes the most literal sense for the dish.
But what makes this debate so passionate is not just the flavour profile of the dish or its origin. The passion stems from a shared sense of nostalgia that the entire experience inspires.
You walk up to a familiar cart with a mound of puris stacked higher than the vendor. You assume he's hiding somewhere behind that mini hillock and is ready to serve on command. As soon as he greets you, he hands out disposable plates stitched out of dry leaves and twigs. Every once in a while, the plate has a hole in it, so he hands you another as reinforcement! Then you hear the resounding crunch as the vendor pokes a hole into the puri and passes it into his other hand, where he deftly fills it up with stuffing and water before plopping it down in your plate. You pick up the puri and devour the thing whole, and that's when the magic happens.
The perfect symphony of crunchy puri, warm ragda, chilled spicy water, luxurious sweet water, and the sharp hint of chaat masala hits your palette like a tornado. It's like someone deliberately designed a dish that tickles every sense on your tongue while exploring every texture that your mind can perceive. But this is just one puri! The vendor is quick. Before you swallow the first one, another piece has landed on your plate, and now you need to keep up with his pace! Before you know it, you've had six puris, and the guy finally looks up at you for the first time - 'aur banaoon?' (translation - should I make more?). And how can you ever say no? So you look at your wife, smile sheepishly and respond with equal gusto - 'haan, ek-ek banalo' (translation - yeah, go ahead and make one each, and we always mean a plate or a set of six).
That's the experience.
Now, one may argue that the puchka is better or the golgappa is a favourite, but let's face it - they all started as the same thing and evolved as a function of the culture around them. So it is futile to assume that we can reach common ground regarding the authenticity of this dish. All I can say is this - we need to present a united front outside of India. Just like every country has its one common term for a popular dish (think ramen, pizza, tacos, dim sum), we also need something relatable on a global scale. I vote for pani-puri because
I am a Mumbaikar
Once again, the name LITERALLY describes it
I can hardly imagine foreigners attempting to pronounce golgappa, puchka or gupchup in the right way! And no, this is not being racist, but imagine Indians trying to pronounce birria or pizza alla pala 😂