- Bombay’s Bhel Puri is arguably the king of all street foods, with its many manifestations in different parts of India.
From time immemorial happiness is connected to food. Whereas nothing can come close to the taste of a mother’s home-cooked meals, there are several street foods in India that will take your taste buds for a joy ride. Most of my friends in the Tennessee Valley are accustomed to samosas, the triangular delights, but there are many more.
In India, we have mastered the art of street foods. The street foods are consumed with equal enthusiasm by a common man and a crorepati. Street foods are anchored to different regions of the Indian subcontinent. If you are a gastronome, you can take a foodie trip from the Himalayas in the north and Kanya Kumari in the south and be delighted. They have been around in the dusty bylanes of memory and are proudly served in the fanciest of restaurants.
For those of us born in India, they are inextricably linked to our space-time continuum. With every bite, you can taste the aplomb of the region. I might like it and it’s an itsy-bitsy more tangy. You may love it’s a bitsy-bit sweet. But the beauty of street food is that it can cater to delight any food lover.
No one eats bland food in India. The potent spice mixtures keep our minds alert and the gastric bugs away. Hailing from north India, I can eat kulche chhole or dahi bhalle at any time but there are a million iterations of mouth-watering dishes. I can name a few for you. Their origin is steeped in Indian history. Litti chokha from Bihar, aloo tikki from Lucknow, vada pav and pav bhaji from Pune, dabeli from Ahmedabad, kathi rolls from Kolkata, kulche cholle from Amritsar, momos from Murshidabad, mirchi bajji from Hyderabad, tunde kabas from Lucknow, kachori from Bikaner, puchkas from Kali ghat, jalebis from Bareilly, and so on.
On a recent trip to Mumbai, we enjoyed many local delicacies. Mostly under one roof. Not my sweet mother’s home because she is no more but we could feel her presence in the coffee shop of our resident hotel. My daughter, who traveled with me, was making her list and checking it twice but the poor thing, her food journey was interrupted by many random chores, exhausting meetings, and futile shopping trips. Soon our vacation was over.
On the last evening, she was still checking the distance from our hotel to the Bombay Canteen, a popular eatery to sample their BP, SP, and DP her friends were encouraging her to try. I discouraged the idea because I knew we would spend four hours in traffic to eat the snacks that would be finished in four minutes.
So, I asked our waiter at the ITC Maratha Hotel to prepare BP for us. The hotel’s kitchen has every ingredient under the sun because their breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets are rich, diverse, and extensive. But these days they are so busy that they are reluctant to prepare something that is not on the menu for that day. We did not want to sound pushy but I knew we were not asking for Black Caviar, we just desired a plate of BP.
What is BP? Well, BP is Bhel Puri. A special Bombay street food. To our delight, as we ruminated on the street vendors serving bhel on the Chowpatty beachfront, and felt sorry for ourselves. If my mother would have been around, she would have sent someone to source all the ingredients and make fresh bhel for us. The moment we thought of her, the chef himself came to our table with a plate of BP,
It was perfect! We thanked him profusely and took several pictures from every possible angle of the colorful treat decorated with puris. Then we slowly savored the dish. Making it last longer.
Bhelpuri is made from puffed rice and sev ( fried chickpea noodles) mixed with boiled diced potatoes, onions, chat masala, sweet tamarind, and tangy mint chutneys. What makes Bhelpuri so satisfying is the perfect balance of sweet, salty, tart, and spicy flavors.
The magic is to keep the optimal proportion of crunchiness of the texture of the dry ingredients: puffed rice, fried sev, and crushed puris with finely diced fresh ingredients, onions, tomatoes, and green chili peppers. For that, it has to be prepared fresh and served instantaneously because once it is doused with chutneys it has a tendency of going soggy, No one likes a plate of soggy BP!
The original Mumbai recipe is credited to Vithal restaurant near Victoria Terminus. But others believe that bhel puri was conceived by the city’s Gujarati housewives, who took the North Indian chaat and made it more complex by adding sweet and crunchy ingredients. From Bombay, it spread in popularity by the Gujarati traders to many parts of India, with local modifications. It became dry or sukha bhel made from bhadang, a spicy namkeen, consumed after garnishing with onions, coriander and lemon juice in Western Maharashtra. The Bengals transformed it to jhalmuri spicy puffed rice. In Karnataka it became churmuri.
BP by any name is just as tasty. That’s my story of BP. Perhaps, you will try to make it yourself. Please don’t forget to invite me. Store away the leftover dry ingredients for another time and please don’t feed the dry sev to the birds. it is not good for them.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.