Bhel puri just might be my favorite Indian food. A snack commonly prepared and served on the street, you can find it in restaurants, too. It’s hard but not impossible to find it in the U.S., where Indian restaurant almost always means a predictable menu of Northern Indian dishes, often dismal and boring.
The dish is a perfect mix of sweet, sour, hot, and spicy, plus soft and crisp. It always includes sev—delicate crispy yellow noodles—and puffed rice. There’s usually chopped potatoes and onions, and sometimes tomatoes. It’s all tossed with a spicy sweet-hot sauce and topped with green coriander leaves. It must be eaten as soon as the ingredients are combined.
I discovered bhel puri in 1989, my first trip to Bombay. I was intrigued by the long line of people buying from this humble bhel puri walla. Using only his hand, he mixed fistfuls of the ingredients in a bowl, then transferred the concoction to another bowl for the customer to eat from, right there. Yep, I got in line. Nope, I didn’t get sick.
Once I recognized the ingredients, I began to see dramatic displays like these all over the city, each more artistic and appetizing than the next. I ate at many of them.
In March of 2010, I saw very few street food vendors, no bhel puri wallas. Perhaps I just didn’t walk in the right streets, though I criss-crossed the city and spent much time in Colaba, as I did in 1989. The food stalls on Chowpatty Beach, long famous for bhel puri, have been swept into a permanent organization of stainless steel stands, similar to Singapore’s street food culture.
I had excellent bhel puri (and many other dishes) at the vegetarian Kailash Parbat on Colaba Causeway. Across from the restaurant, they run a sort of glorified street food stand, at which one can order all the standard snacks and sweets. I had incredible panipuri there, one after another until I had to hold up my hand and reject the last of the six that come in an order, handed over one by one. Panipuri are crisp hollow spheres, punctured and filled with spicy potatoes or chickpeas, then topped off with spicy, cumin-flavored water. The entire fragile globe must be placed in the mouth, sometimes a tricky maneuver for a small mouth. The payoff is a satisfying burst, a crackling, a flood of liquid, an explosion of flavor and texture like no other.
The vegetarian restaurant Soam is a few block’s walk from the north end of Chowpatty Beach, and definitely worth the trip. The small, trendy place serves upscale versions of street food and Gujarati home cooking. Bob and I loved it.
Jackfruit for sale in 1989 Bombay. I didn’t see any this time, though it was the same month.
I drank fresh coconut every day from this vendor around the corner from our hotel.