Maska Maarke: An ode to the bhel puri walla bhaiyya
Who brought the crispy, tangy, deep-fried chaat to the bay? The answer lies in a stall around the corner
The word ‘Bhaiyya’, which in Hindi simply means big brother, is an innocent term of affection and yet exceptionally nuanced. Because depending on where it is spoken, how it is said, and whom it is said to, the word ‘Bhaiyya’ can also have derogatory undertones.
In Mumbai, we call the surly liftman Bhaiyya, the local milkman Bhaiyya, the sleeping watchman Bhaiyya and the arrogant cabbie, Bhaiyya as well.
In the late 1990s, some political parties in Maharashtra began to use ‘Bhaiyya’ as a term of vilification for people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — or anybody who spoke Hindi, Bhojpuri, or anything that sounded like it came from that side of the Godavari.
For me, the word Bhaiyya (as in, men from the North) is synonymous with two things: Hard work and Bhel Puri. And so the first Bhaiyya that comes to mind for me is the ‘Bhel Puri Walla Bhaiyya’.
But chaat is such a North Indian thing. Now, Delhi may be considered the land of great chaat, yet every town, district or borough in North India has its own chaat culture.
In Mathura for example, at Holi Gate, alongside great big cauldrons of boiling milk, the day breaks with the sound of hissing fires under kadhais, frying samosas, kachoris, jalebis and pooris to be had with Mathura’s Dubki Wale Aloo (bits of potato dunked in a thin, spicy gravy).
Walk along the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi and the misty morning light on the Ganges is filled with the fragrance of incense and the aroma of puris being cooked in desi ghee.
Morning brings in the hordes to gorge on a kaleva (breakfast) of Kachori-Sabzi (big and small kachoris stuffed with either a spiced potato mix, or a lentil one called dal ki pithi).
But despite the intimidating flavours of North India, Mumbai can hold its own. With some ingredients (flattened puris, thin sev, puffed rice, gathia, the use of besan, and sprouts) undoubtedly finding their origins in Gujarati farsan, Mumbai’s very own Bhel Puri, Sev Puri, Dahi Batata Puri and Pani Puri are unbeatable.
I grew up across the road from Marine Drive, at Chowpatty in Mumbai, and some say the bhel was invented right there on the beach. In those days, by 4 pm the stalls were buzzing with the clanging of ladle and pot as the ‘Bhel Puri Walla Bhaiyya’ mixed puffed rice with onion, potato and three kinds of chutney (green coriander-chilli, red garlic and brown tamarind-jaggery), garnishing the Bhel with coriander and slivers of raw mango and serving it up in pieces of old newspapers or pages torn from discarded annual reports. The same Bhel laid out neatly on six puris, transforms into Sev Puri or Lala Puri (without the puffed rice) or Pani Puri (with hollow puris stuffed with sprouts, potato, chilled jeera water) or Dahi Batata Puri, with curd added to mix.
Bhel Puri and Sev Puri are available everywhere in Mumbai. You cannot miss the simple Bhel Puri Walla Bhaiyya and his rudimentary stall at every street corner and on almost every pavement; most of them make solidly good chaat. But there are, of course, exceptions. Vithal Bhelwala behind New Empire Cinema, Fort (established in 1875), is famous for his Bhel Puri (they claim to have invented it here, but that’s apocryphal and neither here nor there).
Who does it best? Call me a snob, but my favourite place for Sev Puri is Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace. It is in this rainy weather that it is best to sit at a window seat in this iconic café, with a plate of Sev Batata Puri or a Dahi Batata Puri and a cup of Masala Chai, and watch the violent grey waves of the Arabian Sea come lashing towards Apollo Bunder.
And on that note, I salute these ’Bhaiyyas’ who brought to Mumbai two very important things, their industriousness, and crisp deep fried puris or chaat. In short, assiduity and acidity.