In a world full of fascinating new cuisines, culinary creativity and innovative techniques, it is a rare for common street food to be celebrated. But never underestimate the little guy.
This is the story of how the little known and often under-appreciated pani puri went on a journey from ancestral recipe to a Michelin star menu. Hopefully, it will inspire you to reach back to some of your favorite foods and share them, like I did.
Originating in India, pani puri is little more than a snack. I came to love the bite-sized, mouthwatering morsels growing up in Pune, India. The puris (made of semolina and plain flour) are fried and yield a crispy, crunchy, puffed up, one or two-inch round hollow bites that serve as a vessel to hold the pani – sweet, spicy, and tangy tamarind juice also known as “sweet chutney”. This is poured over a traditional filling of potato and onion with a variety of garnishes such as tomatoes, cilantro, sev (gram flour crispy noodles) and other ingredients of choice.
a versatile dish
The variety of fillings are endless. Imagine a crisp, grainy textured, rounded chip that you simply pop and crack the top off and add any choice of meat or vegetables in the round pocket that you desire.
Over the years I have played with numerous filling for various events and dinner parties in my home: shrimp with guacamole, curry spiced egg masala, chickpeas, puy lentils, keema (minced mutton), porcini mushrooms and caramelized onions with gruyere, beetroot with goat cheese and pistachios, chipotle chicken, cauliflower, and peas bhaji and moroccan chicken with almond. You choose your favorite and let me know what works for you.
Puris are surprisingly easy to obtain. They come pre-made in most Indian grocery stores or spice markets. This means you don’t have to make them at home!
Most Indian families will have their own unique recipes for pani puri. Mine was handed down to me by my Ama (maternal grandmother) through my masi (maternal aunt) all the way from India to Hong Kong, which I wrote about in my new book.
It was in Hong Kong that I learned to master my own recipe as young girl. I used it in my catering business in Hong Kong as an appetizer and of course at Indian weddings that I planned. It was always a hit with small or large gatherings.
For the caterer or home chef, pani puris are so simple, yet fun, to assemble. So much so, that I have even created pani puri DIY bars, where guests can pick and choose their own preferred fillings. This is a great way to allow your guests to get accustomed to the dish.
Naturally, the simple pani puri came with me when I moved to California. I used it on sparingly, introducing it occasionally during caterings. It was so unique at the time, that I thought it best to gradually introduce it to the US audience.
Of course, the pani puri would appear at family gatherings. But for the most part it moved down the list of “go-to” appetizers for several years.
Perhaps I thought it too “common”, or more likely I feared that the pani puri couldn’t compete with the myriad of new and creative foods coming on to the California food scene.
Like most items that go out of favor, it takes a fresh perspective to re-invent them. The pani puri just needed a little inspiration. And this is precisely what happened when I moved to Europe.
...the simple pani puri experienced a re-birth of sorts. It’s true, we can breathe new life into old favorites! I was just glad to be along for the journey..
a star is re-born
I had invited my chef friend, Hugo, and his restaurant’s general manager, Diogo over for dinner one evening. We were in COVID lockdown, and I was reciprocating after all the meals he had prepared and served us since arriving in Luxembourg.
The question, as always, was “what to serve?” Especially, as chef Hugo was an accomplished chef. After some hemming and hawing, I chose Indian. And then it struck me: “pani puris!” What a perfect appetizer. I felt confident they would not have tried something this unusual.
Having prepared the ingredients in advance, I had them carefully arranged on the kitchen counter. Then I began to assemble. After sampling the humble pani puri, chef was clearly intrigued. He loved the taste and the novelty. A dish that was so common to me became a new discovery for him.
So, he joined me in the kitchen. We had a blast cracking the tops of the puris and adding various ingredients to taste and experiment with. Hugo asked a lot of questions as his mind raced with ideas.
In his thick Portuguese accent he exclaimed, “I would like to try this in my food truck…” Unbeknownst to me his restaurant had decided to bring in a food truck for a months during lockdown. It was a way to reach out to the community while things were closed down.
“I love it! Absolutely. Go for it!” Then we talked about his vision for the product. I did a quick video of the assembly process so he could go away and brainstorm.
Chef contacted me the next day for the recipe. The following day we talked and walked through each step and each ingredient. By the third day the puris were in production in his kitchen. His team went into action to create a unique filling. Chef chose puris with smoked eel, dressing and fresh herbs.
That weekend I strolled down to the Grund to see how Chef’s pani puris were selling. The line to the food truck went around the block and up the street. It was hit. I stopped to ask some of the customers what they thought of it, and there was overwhelming positive reviews.
What an incredible surprise. Not merely at the success of chef’s unique take on the pani puri, but that one never knows the outcome when you share what you know. I’ve always tried to share my recipes and concepts liberally. But there is something about seeing the outcome that is so satisfying. Especially when someone takes a food that is old and over-looked, and breathes new life into it.
A week later chef called me to give me an update on their progress. The puris had captured the attention of a Michelin star chef, who wanted to feature his own version of the pani puri as an amuse bouche.
From India, to Hong Kong, San Francisco and Luxembourg; from the streets, to catering events, food trucks and even a Michelin starred restaurant. The simple pani puri experienced a re-birth of sorts. It’s true, we can breathe new life into old favorites! I was just glad to be along for the journey.