Liquid Lunch

Pani Poori Wallah

My travel over the 41 hours stretching from 7:00 am (IST) yesterday to 11:00 am (PDT) later today, breaks into four segments: Pondicherry to Madras, Madras to Bombay, Bombay to Seoul, and Seoul to San Francisco. So by the time I reached Bombay, I reckoned my journey was half over.

How better to celebrate – and spend some of my precious last 10 hours in Bombay – than with a liquid lunch.

This was not the three-martini business lunch of a bygone generation on the flip-side of the globe. This was something truly intoxicating: a pani poori binge.

Pani poori is a sublime chaat (snack food) found in many places in India, including, with increased frequency and equal irony, at high-brow wedding receptions (along with more than a hundred more orthodox and opulent banquet dishes). But the best pani poori is found on the street, on pushcarts or semi-permanent stalls, or fronting the footpath at the storefront of a small sweet-shop or chaat house. No two pani poori wallahs serve identical fare, and frequently the flavors will vary subtly or combine differently on different days at the same establishment. One can return over-and-over to the art of pani poori and still find astonishment.

For those not familiar with this ambrosial form, pani poori are mouthful-sized, crisp-fried pastry balls (the “poori”); pierced with a deft punch of the thumbnail, transforming the ball into a cup of sorts; filled sparsely with a mixture of starches, often including whetted puffed rice, bits of potato, small channa, or tiny moong dahl; dipped first in a slurry of tamarind chutney and then in an icy broth (the “pani”) seasoned with pureed coriander and mint leaves, green chili, salt (sometimes the nauseating “black salt”, favored in places like Gujarat), and masala spices. An order consists of seven pani poori, served just about as fast as one can pop them into the mouth, chew, and swallow, no matter whether there is just one customer or half-a-dozen gathered around the pani poori wallah. A round is traditionally completed with a scoop of pani masala (and, if you prefer, a bit of tamarind sauce) in one’s now-empty bowl.

Pani Poori

In Bandra, where we have been staying while working on Dil se Dil, we know four wonderful pani poori stalls; and there are probably several times that many, with dozens more mediocre ones. Our lunch yesterday involved three of the four. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, Yoo-Mi and I walked past the push-cart vendor on Turner Road, and on to Karachi Sweets, where the mouth-burning kick of intense green chilies is usually the predominating aspect. Today, however, saltiness was prevalent. Good, not great.

Rather than gorge on sub-excellent pani poori, we continued down the street to the famous Elko Pani Poori at Elko Market. I confess a prejudice against the place, notwithstanding its consistently excellent pani poori. The place is unreasonably expensive – Rs. 30 for an order. They make a big deal about hygiene and using mineral water in the pani masala; but clean is free and mineral water cost them less than Rs. 30 for 20 liters, delivered, if they actually use it. More annoying still, Elko gives its customers disposable plastic dishes to receive the flow of pani poori, rather than a customary pressed-leaf or reusable steel or hard plastic bowl. It is a stupid waste of resources and an unconscionable deployment of single-use material in a country suffocating in its own garbage.

After a couple rounds at Elko, we washed down our watery lunch with a tall glass of sugar cane juice, accented, of course, with a squeeze of lime. (The addition of a little ginger, not available from the street vendors in Elko Market, is also fabulous.) With a full-bladder, and well sated, we headed back to the apartment.

Acting on pure inspiration, and just a little gluttony, we detoured through Palli Market. Stuffed or not, our pani poori mission would not have been complete without a stop at Punjabi Sweets, where the tamarind sauce is sweetened with pureed dates, rather than sugar or jaggery. Yoo-Mi reported that, of late, the pani masala there had been a bit too salty and too fiery; but we decided to give it a shot anyway. Our faith was rewarded with two orders of the most perfect pani poori ever served by dirty human hands. The tamarind-date mixture is, of course, a treat in itself. The role of the sweet-and-sour in pani poori is to balance the peppery spice of the mirchi and, in my opinion, mask the salt that is otherwise essential to enliven the coriander and masala spices. The use of dates adds a depth of flavor to the mélange, without in anyway compromising the refreshing clarity that makes pani poori the chaat of choice in steamy Bombay. Today, the pani masala was utterly sublime. Even the heat of the mirchi expressed itself in an unusual and satisfying way, as an aftershock rather than instantaneous sensory assault. Simply great!

We waddled over Palli Hill to the apartment, pissed like mules, and took a nap against the heat and bloat.

3 Responses to “Liquid Lunch”

  1. 1 PN 4 September 2007 at 9:01 am

    Very well written and described.

  2. 2 mumbaikaar 30 November 2009 at 6:16 am

    I loved the movie .The kids acting in them were really natural and the sets where natural too. Better than watching the posh actors dancing in switzerland

  3. 3 muby 3 February 2010 at 12:24 am

    mmmmmm…. makes me wanna have some rite now!!!

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