Right up the street

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 03, 2016

Pick me up: Apparently chaat was created in the kitchen of Shah Jahan, whose hakim advised him to eat foods that werelight but spicy. -- S Mahinsha

shabnam   -  BUSINESS LINE

How bhel puri, sev puri and pani puri have become favourites with experimental chefs

Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest. Just like forbidden junk tastes the most chatpata.

This is something I realise whenever I crunch on a spoonful of bhel puri, spiked with evil green chutney and tossed with raw mango. Or topple a sev puri loaded with potato, onion and addictive chutneys. Or open my mouth wide to accommodate a fat, drippy pani puri (trying hard not to think about the provenance of the pani and the fact that I’m wearing my favourite white sari).

I grew up in an age when chaat was strictly street food, served from little stalls on Chowpatty or Juhu beach. Or dispensed from carts that merrily sprinkled their offerings with mirchi powder and germs alike. Hardly the sort of places that the Hygienic Mummy Brigade would patronise.

To make bad matters worse, I was a sickly little girl with a peculiar affinity for the Hepatitis A virus. So although we lived down the road from Kailash Parbhat Hindu Hotel — that Bombay mecca for all things crunchy and tangy — I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being sick or recovering or Being Sensible before the Exams.

All that early deprivation has taken its toll. As a student in Los Angeles, the first cooking trick I learnt involved Pringle potato crisps, buttermilk from a tetrapak and a bottled mint chutney that, when combined, came up with a sort of dahi papri chaat for dummies. Whenever I was feeling sick or homesick, I would drive 45 minutes to the Indian grocery store for a plate of soggy sev puri. My first email address ever — in the days when the Internet was geeky and zany — was bhelpuri@hotmail.com. (Sadly, that had to go. It didn’t strike the right note for a newbie trying to play hardnosed journalist. It was also embarrassing to spell out to Mumbai University professors and the secretaries of CEOs. And so I was forced to relegate it to a cyber junkheap.)

Even today, I’m one of those single-minded sorts who spurn elegant offerings like khao suey and wild mushroom risotto and instead lurk near chaat counters at parties. One of those obsessive types who cannot browse through a newfangled menu without ordering the seafood bhel, chicken sev puri and even the bhel ice cream. For, of course, like so many of its street food buddies, bhel puri has become all fancy and upmarket in recent times.

Nobody is clear about the origin of bhel puri and sev puri — but it seems a coming together of traditional Maharashtrian munchies with the glorious chaats from Uttar Pradesh. Apparently chaat was created in the kitchen of Shah Jahan, whose hakim advised him to eat foods that were light but spicy. The Mughal kitchen went into overdrive and concocted the chaat.

Over the centuries, the dish travelled across India — evolving in the yummiest ways possible. Some swear by those spice bombs that go by the irresistible name of golgappa. Others like their samosas smashed and topped with chutneys. The Bengalis adore the mustardy tang of jhaal muri. While everyone is suddenly into crisp palak chaat, corn bhel and chaat tokris.

Like most chaats, the Bombay versions are a magnificent mix of flavours and textures. Crisp papdi contrasts with soft potato and crunchy onion. The sweet tamarind-date chutney works alongside the minty green chutney to create dishes that are sweet and salty, sour and spicy at the same time.

Little wonder then that the once humble, cholera-spreading food is now feted as “the ultimate healthy snack” and an “iconic street food”. It has witnessed many mutations, from popcorn bhel to chocolate pani puri. Not to forget the unabashedly scarlet Chinese bhel that is made from fried noodles, stir-fried veggies and ketchup, and is banned outside schools in Mumbai because it uses ajinomoto (MSG).

Bhel puri, sev puri and pani puri have become favourites with experimental chefs — and pop up in molecular gastronomy joints and five-star restaurants in the strangest of avatars. Papri chaat topped with spherified curd and coriander foam. Crab chaat. Pulled pork sev puri dressed with barbecue sauce, garlic and labneh. Jalapeno bhel made with tortilla chips. Scallop sev puri served with sundried tomatoes, cheese and the regular chutneys. Bhel puri that uses Taiwanese rice cake as a base. Charred broccoli chaat.

All of which are worth sampling at least once. After which you can feel you’ve done your duty by Modern Indian Food and post a couple of fancy pictures on Facebook. Then head back to your favourite bhelwala, bite into his superlative sev puri and wonder why you can never replicate his deadly chutneys at home. After which you can cheer up by ordering a dahi batata puri.

(Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School and The Shy Supergirl)

Chaat salad






Mint Leaves

1 tbsp date / jaggery chutney

2 tbsp curd

Chaat masala

1 tbsp honey


1 Dice the cucumber, paneer and apple to about the same size.

2 In a blender, add two spoonfuls of curd, lots of mint leaves, chaat masala, a spoonful of honey and a spoonful of chutney. Blend till you get an even consistency. This will be your dressing.

3 Add the dressing to the salad and mix well.

4 Top with pomegranate seeds, corn and fresh mint leaves. Sprinkle with sev and serve.

Published on June 03, 2016

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