Pani puri [literally water bread] is high on my list of Most Delicious
Things in the Universe, up there with croissants, raspberries, goat
cheese, and dark chocolate. (None of these things, however,
exists in Bihar. Much to my chagrin. This is the chief reason I will
not be moving there permanently. Rats, malaria, and hole-in-the-ground
toilets I can deal with, but the lack of good chocolate? No can do. Note to self: Next time, move to France, not India. Hmm.)

I had my first experience with pani puri when my co-worker and I were wandering the
streets one evening, having waited for the sun to set (and thus the
temperatures to lessen) before leaving the shade for a
stroll. ‘This,’ she warned me, ‘is very delicious, but very
unhygienic.’ And so it was – best not to watch the wallah prepare it
for you, as the cleanliness of his hands, ingredients, and utensils are all in question. Pani puri consists of tiny
crispy balloons, filled with spiced potato mixture, and then drenched
in the pani… a spicy brown liquid that is surely the water in which
Shiva bathes. I ate pani puri as often as possible whilst in
Forbesganj (my high scoring round was consuming 18… while standing with
friends Soumya and Pratheek over a gutter, scarfing them down as
fast as the wallah could fill them. Soumya beat me, consuming 26
[she’s Indian so I figure she has an advantage] while Pratheek left us
in the dust, eating 38.) in part because of its deliciousness, and in part because it was a meal for about 20 rupees… or about forty cents. Not a bad deal.

But after being back in the States for a few
weeks I began to feel the pani puri void gaping (my tiny town, it turns out, has no place to get good Indian chaat). So I set out to
recreate my favourite snack. What follows is my make-shift recipe, which is a pretty
good approximation of Bihari chaat, if I do say so myself.

Make the pani the day before, and the puris too, if you like, but it’s all very easy and not as scary as it sounds! My
measurements are all approximate, and yours can be as well, though remember, to be authentically Bihari, it should make you breathe fire and see spots… or something.

In a small cast iron skillet, toast about a tablespoon of cumin seeds,
a teaspoon each of fenugreek and black mustard seeds, some coriander
seeds, and some black peppercorns. When they are toasted and have
cooled, grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

In a mortar and pestle or in a small food processor, combine the
spices with a few cloves of garlic, a few slices of fresh ginger, a
handful each of cilantro and mint, and a few
tablespoons of tamarind paste (which you can get at Corners of the
Mouth in Mendocino, or you can soak tamarind pods overnight in warm
water until they soften). Squeeze in a lemon, throw in a hot chili or
two (jalapenos or serranos) and a goodly amount of salt.
Pulverize this into a nice paste. If you have asafetida (hing), put
in a pinch. If not, don’t worry. The mixture should be a spicy, salty, dark
brown kind of gross-looking goop. If it looks inedible: good job. To test it, put a bit in
a cup and add water until it is the colour of weak coffee, then taste.
It will probably need more salt, but it should be delicious and spicy and sweet.

Refrigerate this water overnight and make sure no one throws it out on account of it looking like something that’s sat in the fridge about two months too long.

Mix 3/4 cup semolina with 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Add a pinch of salt and one of baking soda. Add water until it forms a stiff dough. Knead it around for awhile until it is nice and smooth. Wrap it in a damp dishcloth and let sit for an hour or so. Put an inch or so of high-heat oil in a wok and begin to heat. Roll out the dough very thinly, and use a small biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Keep the dough covered in the damp cloth as much as possible so the discs don’t dry out. When the oil is hot (350-390 degrees Fahrenheit) add the discs one or two at a time. They should puff quickly into round balloons. Turn them over once or twice, and when they are golden brown lift them out and let them drain on newspaper or paper towels. (Or, for that Authentic Touch, drain them on old rags that used to be men’s shirts and haven’t been washed in months.) These can be made days ahead and kept in an airtight bag – to refresh, just pop them in the oven or a toaster oven for a few moments.

Boil some potatoes (I used about 6 medium-sized reds). Drain, cool, and remove their jackets. Smoosh the potatoes up in a bowl and to them add the following: a few shallots, finely diced, cilantro leaves, chopped, and liberal dashes of ground coriander, cumin, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. This should taste like Mashed Potatoes that went on a pilgrimage to the Sub-Continent and found Nirvana.

To eat:
Take a crisped puri, use your thumb to punch a hole in it, and into this cavity put some of the potato mixture. Then, if you are feeling authentic, plunge your puri (and, therefore, your hand), into the pani. If you’d like to make less of a mess, simply spoon or pour the liquid over the snack. Maneuver yourself so that your mouth is as close to your hand as possible, and remember to share. Besides, it’s really fun to watch your dining companions dribbling brown water down their fronts…

And invite me over. Because I really, really miss pani puri...