Golgappa, pani puri, pani ke batashe, phulki, puchka…
All of these are names for one of India’s most iconic street snacks.
There are contradictory stories about the origins of pani puri, and they are tangled up in history and mythology. Some sources trace its origin to the kingdom of Magadha, while others date it back to Draupadi’s kitchen in the Mahabharata.
Whatever be the truth in these origin stories, one thing is abundantly clear: the humble, lightweight, and crunchy snack travelled across India and became popular everywhere it went.
As a result, it is known in different regions of India by various names.
The puri itself may be made of maida (refined wheat flour) or suji (semolina). The filling may be boiled and mashed potatoes, or potatoes with chopped onions, boiled moong or Bengal gram, boiled white peas, or potatoes with boiled chana/chickpeas.
The water may be spicy, mellow, or sweet — each region has adapted a different recipe as well. Even fancy restaurants try to serve pani puri, but in their own way — we have even seen the pani served in a shot glass garnished with a dry puri on top! It was being served as an appetizer at a large party in an upscale bar.
Back on the street, where the pani puri is most at home, vendors can be seen setting up their high cane stools at busy corners where there is high footfall or pedestrian movement. Soon, their corner becomes a magnet, and many vendors cater to a loyal clientele.
But after you have had your fill and walked away, have you ever wondered who these vendors are? Where do they come from? What are their lives like? How much money do they make? Do their children go to school? Do they run into trouble with the authorities and the civic administration? As they claim their space on the footpath, do they enjoy the freedom to exercise their right to work?