Feb 092011
I dreamt I was eating pani puri last night. Upon awakening, I was instantly transported to the Indian town of Thane, a suburb of Mumbai that is the hometown of my Indian family.
On a warm and humid night in Thane last month, I found myself in the company of a very gracious married couple and their newborn daughter. The husband has known my Indian family his whole life and welcomed us by taking us to his favorite “chaat” restaurant.

“Chaats” are  Indian street snacks. They are cheap, delicious and available on any steet corner. 

As we made our way through the crowded streets I could see the line that formed from the restaurant to the sidewalk. People of all ages were standing in line. The restaurant had indoor and outdoor seating but it was too crowded inside.
While the men in our group went to purchase the chaats, us ladies tried to secure a seat on the ledge of a small wall that separated the restaurant from the sidewalk.

Moments later the men showed up with a plate of chaats on each hand and a bunch of forks. We each grabbed a fork and ate from the same plate. All the chaats were crunchy, spicy and creamy. Just delicious!

My absolute favorite snack that evening was pani puri.
Essentially, pani puri is made up of thin deep-fried wafers that are cracked and stuffed with a filling of chickpea, potatoes, cilantro and spices. Each individual stuffed wafer is immersed in two spicy broths, one green, the other brown like tamarind. The broths are at room temperature and vary in degrees of spicyness. “Puri” is the name of the deep fried wafer, and “pani” refers to the flavored water.
Pani puri is eaten in rounds. You are handed a small bowl and only one snack at a time. You eat one while holding it over the bowl and letting the spicy broth drip into it. Once you are done with the five or six rounds (depending on who is selling it) you sip the spicy water from the bowl. Mmmmm….
You are supposed to eat pani puri like sushi, all in one mouthful. This always seems to be an impossible task for me. I have a hard time chewing the whole piece so I end up feeling self-conscious about having my cheeks protrude with so much food in them.
This makes my Indian brother laugh every time. He loves challenging me to eat a whole pani puri in one big mouthful. Usually, I nearly choke while attempting this feat. I hold a napkin over my mouth in an attempt of seeming more ladylike. Somehow I don’t think my tactics help.
The night we had pani puri in Thane, I noticed the wife of our gracious host asked the vendor to please give me the smallest puris. She did not know I noticed but her kindness warmed my heart. Now that I was armed with small puris I was sure I could stand up to the challenge of eating them in one mouthful.
With my Indian brother edging me on I stuffed each puri in my mouth and ate each one the “proper” way. As he poked fun at me, I tried not to choke on each puri and make a fool out of myself in front of all these strangers who seemingly had no problem managing such a large mouthful of food.
As I was sipping the spicy water from my bowl after successfully eating my round of pani puri, my Indian brother pointed to an old poster glued to a cement wall.
The longed-haired man in the poster had a beard and was dressed in a white tunic. He looked like a religious leader.
“You see that man? He’s the chaat God. You made him proud!,” he joked.
There’s no such thing as a chaat God but I found it so hilarious I couldn’t stop laughing. Since then we have pretended he exists.
Someday I will master the technique of eating pani puri gracefully without requiring the Hemlich maneuver. Only then will I know I made the chaat God proud!

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