The first time I tried bhel puri was at the end of a long shift at an Asian trade fair in London. A colleague bought us plastic bowls of the puffed rice snack from an onsite caravan. It had been a weary day and – possibly expecting a curry – I was a bit underwhelmed by a dish whose main ingredient seemed to be rice bubbles.
Perhaps I needed to be strolling along a beach at sunset instead of in a conference centre with no natural light in Wembley.
Served in a paper cone from a Mumbai beachside vendor – Chowpatty Beach gets special mention – is the natural setting for this chaat.
Years later, I have now tried the version at Satya in Auckland’s Sandringham. One of the features of chaat (Indian snacks-plus) is great texture, particularly from its crunchy elements. Bhel puri has this in spades. The combination of puffed rice with toasted lentils and chickpeas as well as nuts and fried gram flour provides the crunch. Topped with chutneys (date/tamarind and coriander), fresh onions, coriander leaves, as well as cooked potato and tomato tossed through, you get your tanginess, freshness and sourness.
While the concept of chaat, which is a group of snacks or streetfoods that have a range of textures and flavours, is 20th century in origin, puffed rice, the basis of bhel puri goes back centuries – much further than Kellogg’s. It’s even offered as a gift to the gods in southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
In Feast and Fasts: A History of Food in India, author Colleen Taylor Sen explains how rice was well estabished in India (from China) by the third century BC. Around this time a kind of flattened puffed rice, produced by cooking rice in hot sand, was recorded in South India. Today puffed rice is still cooked in hot sand in traditional areas in Bengal where it’s called muri. See Nom Nom Panda’s post on making puffed rice by different methods. The Kelloggs technique to making puffed rice came about in the early 20th Century.
Mumbai is on the opposite coast of India to Bengal and well north of Kerala, yet it’s Mumbai that bhel puri has become closely linked to – showing how with chaat we have this contemporary food that has roots and connections across the country.