A few days ago I was wandering the aisles of a South-Asian grocery store that just opened right across the street from my workplace, and my heart jumped when I saw a bag of fat little puris: time for some pani-puri! Here is a street food that is wildly popular all over India although it might be called by different names; gol-gappa in Northen India, puchka in Bengal, and pani-puri in Maharashtra. Pani-puri literally translates as "water-puri" which in itself does not sound too appetizing, but here is what it is. A firm semolina dough is rolled into little "puris" and deep fried into plump tiny hollow balls. You take one of these puris, press your thumb into one side (one side of the puri is always more fragile than the other, and a little experience will tell you which is which, so you can pierce the right side) to make a little opening, and then proceed to stuff the puri with one of several fillings. Then you ceremoniously dunk the puri into a spicy watery chutney and stuff the dripping puri into your mouth, where it explodes into a crispy-spicy treat. In most cases, it is fiery enough that tears spring to your eyes, and in that almost-masochistic moment you know that you are addicted to pani-puri.
OK then. The first requirement for a pani-puri session is good puris: perfectly puffy and crispy and intact balls. Although I have a recipes for making these at home, I find it easier to just buy the puris and then take it from there. The puris do have a long shelf-life in the store, but that often means that when you bring them home, they are just a tad stale-tasting and not quite crispy. That will utterly ruin the pani-puri experience, so here is a tip for freshening puris: Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Place the puris on a baking sheet, not touching each other. Bake the puris for 5-7 minutes (they will sizzle slightly). Cool for 5 minutes, and voila, you have fresh-tasting, crisp puris.
No one eats pani-puri as a health food (unfortunately) but other than the fried puris, my recipe consists of good healthy eats: the stuffing is sprouts and bits of boiled potato, with an optional addition of whipped yogurt, and the chutney is made with fresh herbs and ginger. Ordinarily, one might make a whole array of different chutneys, one spicy, one sweet and so on. I simplified the process by making a single chutney that contains all the different flavor components.
a) A packet of "pani-puri" puris (about 40-50)
b) For fillings:
1/4 cup whole lentils
1/4 cup whole "moong beans"
1/4 cup whole white peas (or any combination of whole dals)
1 cup plain yogurt
2 potatoes, boiled
c) For chutney:
1 and half cups packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves
3-4 fresh green chillies
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
1 tsp toasted cumin seeds
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black salt
1 tsp chaat masala
2 tbsp jaggery powder (unrefined sugar)
1 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tbsp lemon juice
1. Prepare the fillings.
a) Cut the boiled potatoes into small cubes and set aside.
b) Add a pinch of salt and sugar to the yogurt. Whip the yogurt, spoon it into a bowl and set aside.
c) Combine the whole dals, soak overnight and sprout them for a day or two. Cook the sprouts till tender (stove-top or microwave). Mash them slightly and season with salt.
2. Make the chutney.
a) Combine 2 cups water and the jaggery in a saucepan. Bring to a boil so that the jaggery dissolves. Set aside to cool.
b) Grind together the mint, cilantro, chillies, ginger and cumin seeds to a fine paste. Add it to the jaggery water.
c) Add the rest of the chutney ingredients, mix together and taste to see if you like the balance of flavors. Adjust as necessary. Chill the chutney until ready to serve.
That is all the preparation one needs. Set everything out in bowls and people can make their own puris. Enjoy!