Street food is a massively popular and important part of Indian cuisine. While a lot of the street food is deep fried, such as the world famous samosa, there is one street food that is easily the most popular in India that would be barely recognised if brought to the west.
Like that weird guest at the party you’ve never met before so pay little attention to at the start, but end up discovering your new bffffffffeva by the end, Pani Puri is a street food you should get to know. While it probably can’t down one million shots and tell the best stories while seeming cool and down to earth and looking like devastatingly hot shit (no I don’t have a secret crush on my food), Pani Puri will give you a new taste experience like nothing you’ve ever had before, make you feel like a local and get your tongue dancing.
Pani Puri is small fried balls of dough that create a hollow sphere with paper thin, crispy walls. A little like the texture of the air bubbles you sometimes get on wood fired pizza crusts, these crispy balls can be seen in huge bags on the outside of food carts on most streets in India. For about 10p you are given a small bowl filled with chopped onions and coriander. You stare at this confused until the vendor then grabs one of the hollow shells, makes a hole in the top with their finger and fills it with a spiced chickpea curry mix, dips it into a sweet chilli sauce before dipping it into a lemon, Coriander and chilli water and then placing it onto your plate. You then have to pick up the desperately full sphere that’s very quickly loosing structural integrity as the liquid inside begins to break down the thin walls, add some onion and throw the whole thing in your mouth. As you bite down the entirely cold mix explodes in your mouth releasing the tangy, fresh, sweet, spicy mix to blend together into one delicious marriage. The vast quantity of liquid and curry seems to almost burst your cheeks as you struggle to keep it exploding from your lips. Before you have managed to completely swallow everything another full ball is placed onto your plate and you play a game of catch up as you compete to chomp and swallow the liquid tastebombs before the vendor has placed another on your plate. This continues for 5, 6 or 7 balls, all of which seem one too many . Finally you are left with the leftover soup mix that spilled from the shells in your bowl as well as the left over coriander and onion. Slurp that up, it’s the goods.
The first time biting into the shell I had no idea the whole thing would be cold which was a slight surprise, or that the shell held such a vast quantity of liquid which led to the near embarrassing splurge of excess juice over unsuspecting onlookers who had rushed to see me eat my first Pani Puri.
However, it was also the flavour of the mix I was not expecting. Having eaten so much spiced and curried food that, while delicious, was missing some of the freshness we have in most meals at home the hit of the coriander, lemon, chilli and thyme water was an incredibly welcome taste. For me personally the sweet sauce was unneeded as I don’t think I have quite as sweet a tooth as most Indian people, but you can ask for it with just chilli water. As with most street food in India, it looks like you’re going to be sitting on the toilet for most of your life afterwards but seriously give these guys a go. The huge number of people around most of the stalls trying to gobble down the liquid filled spheres must be an indication of how good these are. In my opinion, even for people with weak stomachs it is worth the risk of agent Brown to taste them, especially if you have been used to eating less fresh tasting curries for a while.
Afternote from Rosie: I personally think these taste like fart water and have met several Indians who think the same. Pani Puri is Indian street food marmite. With a more farty payoff.