It starts with the heating of oil and the sound of crisp, fluffy puris (dough balls) coming to life. They simmer in the hot burning oil and are given new life when taken out of the pan. The suji (semolina), baking soda, water bubbling away in anticipation of creating a form. A form that is the smell of freshly baked history.
Next comes the water. The water is as essential to the pani puri as peanut is to a peanut butter sandwich. Every family has its own tradition of making the water. In our family, usually the man of the household marches into the kitchen and demands for his special recipe to be rolled out in action. There is a hustle of women in the kitchen; they are flying around to set everything straight. A fresh steel bowl is pulled out of the kitchen cabinet like a dove is out of the magician’s top hat. A wooden spatula is placed carefully on the kitchen counter by my maid. The man of the household demands for some masala (spices) without which any water for pani puri will remain incomplete. Fresh smelling spices are brought to his highness and he proceeds to put on a show.
The bowl is placed in the center and looks as if it be a sword befitting a king. The sword is prepared for its blood bath. One glass of water is carefully leveled down into the container. Four ingredients are enough to create this dish. Specifically MDH’s jaljeera (cumin) is to be spooned out, a dollop of green chutney, a hint of chili powder and our favorite; lime. It is mixed until this cocktail of flavor is ready to burst in the mouth.
Everything comes together when we crack the fresh puris right where it hurts; in the center. The puris are not allowed to stray away from the recipe despite there being several regional differences in this snack. Finely cut potatoes are chopped and added inside the dough balls so that the cushion-y softness of the potato cuts through the spice of the water. Finally, water is added to the dough balls to make it wet and moist and ready to be eaten.
This is pani puri, the second most famous Indian dish that ever happened to the world.
Pani puri resembles to India what India does to the world. A dish which is regionally varied, simply eaten and (prima facie) non threatening. It is comfort food but it is risky. Pani puri is a dish you want for it to taste good but investment in it may throw you off the edge especially if you are not from around here.