Today, Aug. 15, just happens to be India’s Independence Day. It’s also a Monday, so now there are two reasons to go out for Indian food today. And we have the perfect menu recommendation: pani puri.
Pani puri is the strangest food noun you’ll ever hear, regardless of what language you speak. The popular street food is synonymous with golgappa or puchka, but the names, however they sound, are not nearly as exciting as the alliance of this crunchy texture, spicy heat and cool-as-a-cucumber afternoon snack. The popular street snack is composed of bite-size, hollow, crisp-fried puffs that can be filled with chickpeas and various chutneys.
Until I became an adult, beyond the swathe of the Houston suburb of my Indian-American upbringing, I thought pani puri was a normal rotating dish in all Indian-American families. Growing up, we had the street snack weekly, especially in the summer. My mom loves the dish, and since we couldn’t find it in restaurants at the time, she made her own. For a long time, she even rolled the golf ball-size discs of dough herself, flattening them like mishandled pastry dough, and fried up to 100 at a time. (No one can eat under 10 pani puris at one meal. No one. It’s more like 20 to 30, I would say. I’m sure my cousins in India would say 50 or more.)
Lo and behold, as I became older and obsessed with my research for Indian recipes of all kinds and by the desire to find the healthiest options, I was dismayed to find out that it shouldn’t qualify as a regular dinner option (not the healthiest food, and certainly not treated like a dinner item in India!) and that it’s best suited for what it became in India — a street food snack.
It’s worth your time to find a place that serves these crispy, wafery shells stuffed with chickpeas and lentils and then filled to the brim with spicy, minty water infused with black salt. Oh, I didn’t have room to mention the sweet-tart jammy tamarind chutney that fits in there too. You can hardly eat pani puri streetside in India as a tourist, unfortunately, for the water might be contaminated. I’m forever in debt to my cousin who found a stall in Mumbai that actually makes their pani puri with bottled water. So what do you do if you don’t know my cousin and you don’t have access to a restaurant that makes them? Either always wonder what I’m talking about, or learn how to make them yourself!
Because this particular street food took up room in my heart as my all-time favorite Indian food, I started teaching the recipes in my cooking classes. Teaching classes, though, specifically on pani puri became a feat larger than I had imagined. Because the savory vegetarian poppers get soggy in an instant, there is an urgency when teaching it and serving it in class. But I fine-tuned my lesson plan over time so that I can still keep teaching — and still spread the word about this mouthwatering little snack with a funny little name.