Monday, March 14, 2011

Spicy Granola aka Bhel Puri

You know, we Indians may not be born sophisticated like the French, or have a sexy accent like the Spanish or Italians, or be as athletic as the Chinese or Americans, but dammit, we can eat really spicy food! We would put spice on our morning cereal if it didn't curdle the milk! Occasionally you get the rare Indian with a sweet tooth, but by golly we love our steaming stack of spicy aloo parathas. Our dosas aren't the same with out being smeared with spicy gunpowder masala. And, no experience with Indian food is complete without getting a taste of our Chaat.

Chaat is the blanket name given to all kinds of heavenly street food in India and quite aptly, the word 'chaat' literally means 'to lick' in Hindi. While 'chaat' stalls are easy to spot in any busy marketplace or street corner, the best 'feast for the eyes' experience comes from eating from a
chaat vendor at the beach. There are several dishes that make the chaat category chief among them are:
  • The tiny, round, puffy, crisp semolina puris that are stuffed with warm boiled potatoes and silky legumes, then filled with a cold, minty, spicy and tangy, green liquid. Once filled with the liquid you move really quickly and put the puri as a whole into a wide open mouth. As your teeth sink into it, there is a gush of warm meeting the cold. The crisp meeting the soft. The spicy and tangy meeting a very satisfied palate. A complete balanced meal if you asked me! This is called the Pani Puri -- and undoubtedly my favorite in the chaat family. One day, I will tell you more about the experience if you have never had the good fortune of enjoying this at an Indian street corner.
  • Then there is the Pav bhaji. A spicy medley of vegetables - potatoes, cauliflower, green peppers etc, simmered in a tomato based sauce with a special blend of spices. This is served with a slab of butter melting on top with a side of pillows of soft bread rolls toasted slightly on a hot griddle. Here is a picture of a the street side chef cooking up a batch of Pav Bhaji, taken during a recent trip to Mumbai.
  • Next, there is the Ragda Pattice. A layered dish of crisp potato cutlets, with a generous helping of spicy chickpea/white pigeon pea curry (similar your usual chana masala from the neighborhood Indian restaurant), topped with condiments such as spicy mint and tangy tamarind chutneys, chopped raw onions and crispy fried chickpea flour noodles. The aroma of the cutlets frying up on the extra large griddle is not easily resisted. Neither can you miss the metallic din of the stainless spatula used to flip and cook the Pattice or cutlet on the cast iron griddle the size of Texas.
  • Vada Pavs are to Mumbai what Hot Dogs are to New York City. The original veggie burger, simply dressed in fresh out the frying pan warmth. A spicy mixture of mashed potatoes with onions, garlic and spices are formed to round balls. They are then dipped in a thick chick pea batter and fried to crispy goodness to form the vada. Then, the softest imaginable dinner rolls called Pav are split and slathered with a red chili garlic powder. The beloved vada is held between two halves of the Pav. The whole snack is only palm sized, and is devoured in only a few bites but packs a devastating punch in flavor. No need for any other fancy toppings, or dipping sauces, this is the on the go snack for the city that truly never sleeps. Just watching the efficient supply chain management of one of the vada pav vendors can easily form a case study lesson for business schools. Not Kidding!
  • The most popular and easily portable snack among the masses is undoubtedly the bhel puri. You could think of it as the Indian trail mix. It is a mixture of churmura or puffed rice, sev or crispy fried noodles, papdi or flat fried chick pea disks and mungfalli or peanuts, roasted together with seasonings and spices. Just before serving, this is folded in with mint and tamarind chutneys, minced vegetables onions, tomatoes, boiled potatoes green chili (yes, ofcourse it counts as a vegetable!).
The bhel puri man is by extension, the most portable snack man in India. He carries a tall wicker stool on top of which he transports all the ingredients. He will settle himself at different strategic spots depending on the time of the day. During lean periods, he will mince onions, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, green chilis, coriander leaves into the finest confetti you can imagine using a tiny paring knife. All the knife skills prized by the modern culinary world are shattered as you watch this man at work [without using a cutting board]. Then when a customer approaches him, he portions out a serving of the dry bhel puri mix into a little container. Then the adds the onions, tomato, chili, coriander and the spices. At this point, he will let you interject if you want to customize your serving with extra spice or additional crunch or another shot of chutney. He will give this mixture a squeeze of lemon, then mix it with great pomp and show attracting passer-bys. Then he forms a rectangular piece of newspaper into a cone and fills it with the bhel puri and hands it over to you. You then walk away, munching in happiness.

If you don't live in India, you can still replicate the Bhel puri as close as possible, with the ingredients available in ethnic stores. Here is a link to a basic traditional recipe video for bhel puri. Now, not to defy tradition, but I don't always shop at ethnic stores or sometimes I am unhappy with the products they carry, and occasionally I get bitten by the healthy eating bug. So I make this healthier version of bhel puri, which can be made from ingredients available at your regular North American grocery stores.

For the Bhel Puri Mix:

Bhel Puri Mix

2 tsps vegetable oil
1/8 tsp mustard seeds
A few sprigs of curry leaves
A dash of asafetida
4 green chilis, minced

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds, once they pop, add the remaining ingredients and fry for a 30 secs or so.

2 cups Kashi 7 Grain Puffed cereal
1 cup baked salted pita chips, broken up
¼ cup roasted peanuts

Add the puffed cereal, peanuts and the pita chips and roast till the mixture is crispy

Once cooled, store this mixture in a airtight container. Just snack as is or make into bhel puri.

For the Bhel Puri:

Bhel Puri

1 cup of bhel mix
½ onion, minced
½ tomato, minced
1 small cucumber, minced
1 ear of corn, separated and roasted
A generous handful of coriander, minced finely
1 tbsp of mint, green chili chutney
1 tsp lemon juice

Toss together all the ingredients on the left!

Thats it. A healthier, unorthodox way of enjoying Bhel Puri. Not the same as the street side counterpart, but a close nostalgic fusion.
Of course during my rather long discourse on chaat, I have not included other chaat items like Frankie rolls, chole bhatura, snow cones, and beverages like chai, sugar cane juice and many others that I will remember with extreme, inexplicable guilt once this post is published.