Vantage point

Monday, July 28, 2003


Every place has a distinct taste of its own. I can feel it on my tongue, and savour it. No, I am not talking about the air, water or mud. I am talking about food. Even in food, I am not referring to delicacies that every place is famous for. If you have to get down to comparing the tastes of cities, you use a common food item as the parameter.

I have zeroed in on the item that people of Maharashtra call panipuri. It has various names throughout the country, the ones I know are golgappa, puchka and panipattasa. Any additions to this vocabulary are welcome.

The panipuri is one of the best things to have ever touched a human tongue. So simple, and yet so endearing. Each one of us seems to have a memory associated with it. The Pune panipuri means a an evening spent with my friends economising. The Delhi golgappa means either the fun my engineering class had during our "study" tour or the times I waited for those rickety buses during my summer internship. The Lucknow panipattasa means a stopover at a Ganj thela just to appreciate the abundance of pulchritude on a saturday evening, or the 10 minutes that we have to spare at Puraniya crossing before the insti bus comes to pick us up.

The panipuri from each city has its extra flavour. And as much as you hygienic people would cringe at this, an essential element is the sweat/dust off the right hand of the panipuriwallah. The entire act of making that panipuri has such rhythmic precision everywhere. The guy will pick up the puri, make a hole in it with his thumb, swish it through the "ragda"(made of chana in most places) so that it has a dollop. Then, holding the puri in his thumb, index and middle finger, he dips it in the "pani", a spicy liquid. In some places, they also put tamarind water in it. After the puri is thus overflowing with a mixture of flavour and crispiness, he places it in your plate/katori.

You pick up the puri and place it in your mouth entirely. Then as your teeth bite into the puri, it disintegrates, and the pani, the ragda and the puri crumbs all dance over your taste buds, giving you one of the most enjoyable feelings you will get. As you are savouring its flavour, the guy is making another puri, and so you hurriedly gobble down whatever is in your mouth and get ready for the next.

Though the taste that each city gives its panipuri (I am quite sure the differentiating factor is the sweat :-P) is unique, a panipuri plate is an offering of blissful satisfaction everywhere.

There are some people who value "hygiene" more than taste. They will hate eating panipuri from a streetside(gassp!!) vendor, citing health reasons. It is their choice, no skin off our noses, what? But they can see the immense pleasure that a pani puri eater derives and so they can't resist it. However hygiene still looms large.

This segment of hygienic panipuri eaters has given rise to something served in many restaurants that is "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike panipuri". It consists of 6 puris in a place (unpierced!!!), a small bowl of pani and a helping of the ragda. A "do it yourself" kit of panipuris, if you will. How appalingly pseud can one get? These are sinners of the highest degree.

Sinners of a lower degree are those who do one or both of the following things -

a. Fill ragda and pani in the puri using spoons or taps
b. Put up signboards saying "Our pani has been made using mineral water".

There was one such shop in Hiranandani Gardens (where else you ask?) in Mumbai. Now though the taste of his individual ingredients was good, the overall effect was missing. I observed him as he was making the panipuris to see if he had even a vestige of the stylish action of our usual panipuriwallah. Nah!! He had as much panache as a booting Intel 286.

The real panipuri/golgappa/puchka/panipattasa will not be served within four walls. It will not cost more than 5 rupees a plate. It will not be in the cleanest of places. But it will make your tongue feel as if it is in heaven.

OK, I am off. Where? To have some panipuri....or as we call it here in Lucknow, panipattasey.