What do you think is emerging as the trendy haute cuisine ingredient among modern Indian chefs? The answer is kind of bizarre: the golgappa puri, otherwise known as the puri in pani puri or the puchka puri.
About a decade ago, such restaurants as Punjabi by Nature began serving vodka golgappas to great acclaim. And in the early Nineties, I tried an early version of the vodka golgappa at a glamorous Bombay party catered by the Taj’s master chef Hemant Oberoi.
But, these days, the golgappa puri has moved beyond mixology and into the field of gastronomy. Hemant Oberoi does many nouvelle cuisine versions at Varq at the Delhi Taj, none of which involve vodka. Manish Mehrotra, a great lover of chaat, does golgappas with unusual fillings at Indian Accent in Delhi. And at the Singapore Gourmet Festival this April, I tried Sanjeev Kapoor’s take on the tarted-up golgappa, with a chicken filling, when he was the guest chef at Song of India.
I asked Sanjeev when he thought of transforming the golgappa into a fancy food. He said the idea struck him over two decades ago, long before he became famous, when he was cooking at an Indian restaurant in New Zealand. He had been experimenting with sour black grape juice, he recalls, when it struck him that the sourness of the juice would go well with the puri of the pani puri. He tried the combination and since then, he has never looked back: now golgappas turn up in all forms in his cuisine.
But Sanjeev denies that he was the first chef to think about doing innovative things with the golgappa. He says that it is such a simple idea that he is sure it must have occurred to other chefs too. Two decades ago, when he first tried his golgappa dishes in faraway New Zealand, he thought his was an original idea. But, looking back, he says, he is more and more convinced that there are hardly any truly original ideas in cooking. There is always some chef who had the same idea before you.
I guess he is right. As far as I can tell (and I am no expert), the origins of the golgappa lie in a simple combination of spicy pani and puri. Somebody, somewhere, had the idea of adding mashed potatoes, chana, moong and all the things that go into the many variations of pani puri you find all over India. Presumably it was somebody else who put dahi and pieces of aloo into the puri to create dahi-batata puri. And yet another person put the cooked little pakodas inside it to create pakodi puri.
So while it is easy to hail modern chefs for their innovative golgappa recipes, the truth is that the golgappa has actually never stopped evolving. Whether it is the dahi variations or the seven different kinds of pani you are offered in Lucknow or even the difference between the kinds of flour that the puris are made with, Indian cooks and chefs have been experimenting with the basic idea for decades.
The excitement over the golgappa’s current resurgence as a gourmet ingredient has to do with one of our failings as a foodie nation: we just took it for granted. Many years ago, my colleague Namita Bhandare, who was then editor of the HT’s weekend editions, interviewed the famous British chef Tom Aikens when he was visiting Bombay. Namita asked him what he had liked the most of all the dishes he had tried. She was surprised when Aikens said that his favourite Bombay dish was “those little round pastry cases filled with a spicy sauce”. It took her several minutes to figure out that Aikens meant pani puri and all its variations.
Modern Indian chefs have realised the potential of pani puri and other street food dishes. Often these dishes have been successfully reinvented. And as often, the reinvention has been a disaster. I am sick of eating third-rate bhel puri at restaurants in New York and London.
But when it does work, the results can be startlingly good. I wrote some weeks ago about Gaggan Anand’s molecular version of papri chaat. And when a genius chef like Manish Mehrotra is driven by nostalgia – as he is in much of his cuisine – the reinvention of pavement dishes can be a revelation. My friend Gautam Anand is still raving about Manish’s version of keema kaleji: the flavours were the same as the original but the kaleji was foie gras.
The love of street food is a global trend. Chefs all over the world are keen to reinterpret the cuisine of the streets where they grew up. And pani puri has special uses. If you are a French chef and want a pastry case for interesting flavours or sauces, then there are dozens of options. In Indian cuisine however the options are limited. Hence the popularity of the golgappa puri as a case for various fillings.
I have enormous admiration for many of the chefs who are doing new things with the golgappa puri. But speaking for myself, I still prefer the original – as it is made on the Indian streets – to all of the modern variations.Because I grew up in Bombay, my favourite version was always pani puri. I did not even know that they called it a golgappa in Delhi. Then, as I began visiting Delhi more frequently, friends tried to get me to like the capital’s version. And God knows I’ve tried. But frankly, it really is not in the same league as the Bombay pani puri. Delhi just doesn’t cut it.
When I moved to Calcutta, everybody in my office kept telling me that the city’s puchkas were the best. I was sceptical at first, but it took only a couple of visits to puchkawalas at Victoria Memorial and on the streets of central Calcutta for me to change my mind. The secret of a Calcutta puchka lies in the masala mashed aloo that they stuff it with and in the sour kick of the Calcutta pani. This is not a polite dish. It is like the streets of Calcutta themselves: a boisterous kick-ass kind of experience.
Over the last decade or so I’ve come to give UP chaat the respect it deserves. Judged on a purely objective basis, the best chaat in India is to be found in Kanpur, Varanasi and Lucknow. There is a finesse to the dishes that is missing from chaat in other parts of the country and many of the specialties are hard to find outside of UP.
But my view of chaat – and of the golgappa in particular – is that it should not have a great deal of finesse. The first mouthful should take you back to the streets of the crowded city, to the heat and dust, to the bellowing horns, to the pedestrians who jostle you as you eat and to the Hindi film music that is always playing somewhere in the background in every Indian neighbourhood. No version of the golgappa comes near the Calcutta puchka when it comes to evoking those feelings. So regrettably, I have to respect the memories of the pani puri I grew up eating in Bombay, but I also have to accept that the Calcutta puchka is India’s best version of the dish.
However, when it comes to the puri itself, I am not sure that filling it with pani and aloo is the best thing you can do with it. My favourite dish, based on the puri, is not pani puri/golgappa/puchka etc. Nor is it some wonderful nouvelle version created by some modern Indian chef.
The best thing you can do with a puri is to make dahi-batata puri. (Or dahi-bataka puri if you want the real name). You find this dish all over India now. But it is, I suspect, like bhel puri, a marriage of the chaat tradition of UP with the culinary ingenuity of Bombay’s Gujaratis. A perfect dahi-batata puri comprises a really crisp and entirely leak-proof puri filled with a little sprouted moong, a little boiled chana, a few small pieces of boiled aloo topped with dahi and two different chutneys: teekha and sweet.
Te dish has to be eaten within minutes of being prepared and it is unusual in the sense that it does not need the pani that usually accompanies the golgappa puri. It is also complex in the number of ingredients it uses and sophisticated because it combines so many flavours (sweetish, cool dahi, hot chutney, boiled vegetables and pulses) and textures in one little puri.
So, find yourself a good dahi-batata puri (only in Bombay, I’m afraid) and you’ll never waste time on papri chaat in Delhi. And you will realise that no great chef can improve on the wisdom of the Indian street.
My view of chaat, and of the golgappa in particular, that it should not have a great deal of finesse
From HT Brunch, May 26
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