Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Ghost in the shell

Jan 28, 2023 01:59 AM IST

Whether you’re biting down on a pani puri, golgappa or phuchka, it’s the puri that elevates the experience

Can you think of one Indian dish that you can eat on the streets, and also at fancy, Michelin-starred Indian restaurants all over the world? And it is delicious, no matter where you eat it?

Different kinds of pani at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent. (Indian Accent)
Different kinds of pani at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent. (Indian Accent)

The answer is, of course, the golgappa.

It is a street food dish that pops up all over India (at least, north of the Vindhyas) in different guises. They call it golgappa in Delhi. In Mumbai, it is called pani puri. In Kolkata, it is the phuchka. In parts of UP (where it may have originated), it is the batasha.

Most well-known Indian chefs have done interesting variations on the original. In London, Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar brought it to fame (though the Bombay Brasserie had already put Mumbai chaat on the menu). In Mumbai, Hemant Oberoi invented the vodka golgappa. And in Delhi, Manish Mehrotra made it a staple of modern Indian cooking when he started serving different kinds of pani in shot glasses with plump little puris balanced on them.

Most restaurants outsource their puris from suppliers, who almost always use sooji, since it lasts longer
Most restaurants outsource their puris from suppliers, who almost always use sooji, since it lasts longer

I have seen caviar golgappas on menus, and many chefs pack the puris with fish, oysters and various non-vegetarian fillings that would astonish the humble vendors who sell golgappas on Indian streets.

In all the fuss, foodies rarely discuss the puri: The most important part of the dish. A lot of attention is paid to the pani. And the major point of difference between all the regional variations is the filling: Do you put spiced potatoes in the puri as they do in Kolkata? Do you use sprouted moong and channa as they often do in Mumbai?

And then there are the other variations: Pakodi puri is made, as the name suggests, with little pakodas. There is also dahi batata puri that north Indians rarely get right, but which is best experienced at such Mumbai-Gujarati chaat places as Swati and Soam.

But most of us continue to ignore the puri though it is the one ingredient that unites all the regional variations. When we say that a golgappa from a guy in Delhi’s Sundar Nagar market is better than one from a guy in say, Chandni Chowk, we discuss the pani and the fillings (if any). In fact, the difference in taste may be entirely down to the puri itself.

The dahi puri at Mumbai restaurant Soam uses puris made in-house from a mix of sooji and atta. (Soam)
The dahi puri at Mumbai restaurant Soam uses puris made in-house from a mix of sooji and atta. (Soam)

Any phuchka fan will tell you that there are two basic kinds of puri: Sooji or atta. Sooji is semolina, also called rava or durum, a kind of hard wheat that is favoured for dried pasta (for instance) because it is longer lasting than normal wheat. Traditionally, the puri was always made with whole-wheat (atta), though in recent years, some people have used maida (refined wheat flour). You can also use a mixture of sooji and atta.

Manish Mehrotra was the first to alert me to the fact that at many restaurants, they no longer make their own phuchka puris. They buy them from a supplier who sells in bulk to the trade. Such suppliers nearly always prefer sooji because it lasts longer. At many upmarket places (five-star hotels, for instance) that serve chaat, you will end up eating outsourced sooji puris.

Sooji has another advantage. It makes for a denser puri with a thicker crust. This means that it takes longer for the pani to break through and leak out. And it offers a more substantial crunch.

Purists will scoff at the sooji puri. They will say that a golgappa is best enjoyed on the streets. The golgappawalla makes it fresh, serves it to you immediately and you pop it into your mouth at once. Hesitate for even a few seconds and the pani will break through and the golgappa will collapse. Vikramjeet Roy, the Kolkata-born chef, argues that the joy of eating a phuchka lies in biting down on it just as it is ready to collapse. In Kolkata, he says, discerning foodies always ask for atta puris because they believe that a phuchka must be a delicate and evanescent pleasure.

He is probably right. But once you get into gourmet golgappas, made in restaurant kitchens, stuffed with lobster or caviar and then brought to the table, the atta puri does not stand a chance. You have to rely on sooji to let the dish make a successful journey from the kitchen to the dining room.

But that comes with its own set of problems. Manish has a low opinion of many of the packed puris. In Kolkata, Vijay Malhotra, chef at the ITC Royal Bengal, says that some packaged puris tend to be made from inferior flour and are rarely consistent. His hotel serves the largest number of phuchkas of any hotel in India because the live chaat counter is always the most popular section of his buffet. He has decided to make his own puris. So has his colleague Rajdeep Kapoor, chef at the ITC Maurya. You have to make the puris in-house, he says, or the golgappa will never taste right no matter what you do to the fillings.

Chef Atul Kochhar brought dishes such as Crispy Rice Pani Puri to London’s attention (Atul Kochhar)
Chef Atul Kochhar brought dishes such as Crispy Rice Pani Puri to London’s attention (Atul Kochhar)

This sounds fine in theory. But what happens to the small chaatwalla who is struggling to make ends meet? Is he going to wake up every morning, knead the dough, heat the oil, fry the puris and then start worrying about his other fillings? Isn’t that too much to expect? Isn’t he better off buying the puris from an expert? From somebody who specialises in them?

It is a tough one. When you go to a sandwich shop, do you expect the guy who makes the sandwiches to have baked all the bread himself? Isn’t it better if the bread comes from a specialist baker?

What about a halfway-house solution? You can get ready-to-fry puris that look like bits of uncooked papad. But once you drop them into hot oil, they suddenly swell up and become perfectly spherical puris. So the vendor can serve freshly fried puris without having to roll out the dough himself. Is that an acceptable alternative?

Because we pay so little attention to the puris, we rarely ask ourselves these questions. Instead, we work on the assumption that chaatwallas make everything themselves. And indeed, that is an integral part of the romantic image of the chaatwalla. Most people to whom I have pointed out that more and more chaatwallas are outsourcing their puris are horrified and act as if this is sacrilege. But is it really?

I spoke to Pinky Dixit who runs Mumbai’s wonderful Soam. She says that while you get all kinds of puris in her city, there is a clear distinction between the lighter puris that places like hers serve and the denser puris preferred by places like Bandra’s famous Elco. Her puris are a mix of sooji and atta and are made in-house. But Pinky sees nothing wrong in outsourcing the preparation of the ingredients in her chaat.

For instance, she says, she has found brilliant home chefs who make excellent sev and buys it from them. Why reinvent the wheel when such good quality is available if only you go looking for it?

I am on Pinky’s side. It is not about sooji or atta (though I am atta guy) or about outsourced or made in-house. It is about quality. If a chaatwalla gives me a light and delicately crispy puri that contributes to the flavour of the ingredients, I don’t really care who made it. I care only about how good it tastes.

From HT Brunch, January 28, 2023

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