These snack cousins, on either side of the country, have been bringing people together during after-office munchies, quick meals, weekend outings, and sometimes, with no reason at all. Cutting through demographics, these preparations with puffed rice still are the country’s favourite tea-time accompaniments
Growing up, my mother was very particular about eating out. Random snacking wasn’t allowed. Hygiene was a priority in our household. My health, obviously, was also a priority in our household. So, while kids would flock Jhalmuri, Phuchka, and all sorts of outside-school vendors, I would, often with a long face, head off to the school bus. In Calcutta, Jhalmuri and Phuchka guys have solo stands on wheels, with a glass box filled with Phuchkas, lit with a single bulb. Assortment of plates and containers would hold a variety of ingredients, along with a steel cauldron that had the sweet-sour-fragrant tamarind water. In local trains, Jhalmuri sellers would carry their whole setup with them, a sort of table with pocket-like counters for ingredients and chutneys, hanging from their neck with a broad rope, or a strip of cloth. Each counter would have its own metal lid, that would dangle from a string, making it look like a row of temple bells. I would stare wide-eyed, as, when asked for, the Jhalmuri man would deftly scoop a portion of puffed rice — or Muri, as called in the eastern side of the country — into a steel dechki or cauldron, and then, with quick flicks of his hand, would scoop out the correct amounts of each ingredient from every counter, give it a loud mix in the cauldron with a ladle, stuff the whole thing into a small paper bag or thonga, garnish with some extra Chanachur (Farsan, Chivda, or, like Haldiram calls it, casse-croûte Indiennes *eyeroll*) and a thick sliver of coconut. The Jhalmuri preparation, to me, back then, looked like ballet. It was so skillful, so choreographed, so well-timed, so unaffected, but also so graceful and confident, I wanted to be able to do something as dexterously as that. It’s just that the Jhalmuri men looked nothing like ballerinos, their thick and rotund rice bellies supporting the portable Jhalmuri table, sweat sliding down their foreheads into their damp shirts stained with masala and chutney, and their fingers darkened by the grime of a tough life.
Jhalmuri, literally translates to Hot-And-Spicy Puffed Rice. Hot-And-Spicy was always code for unhealthy in my house. My mother has a terribly low threshold for heat, and is morbidly scared of green chillies. So, although the Jhalmuri is not necessarily that “jhaal”, I was never allowed to have it. But, on our yearly trips to Pune, where my mother grew up, I would see her excited like a little girl for Bhel Puri. I never understood why the Jhalmuri was hated, but the Bhel was so beloved. Also, surprise of surprises, I was allowed to have the Bhel Puri — out of paper cones, with a papdi (small deep-fried dough disc) spoon, at Saras Bagh or Laxmi Road. The Bhel Puri wasn’t as “jhaal” as the Jhalmuri, my father would explain. It wasn’t as unhealthy, I would assume.
These yearly trips — and strictly monitored consumption — weren’t enough for me to explore the Bhel Puri. So, when I moved to Mumbai, and was residing at Marine Drive, Chowpatty was my playground. I had two plates of Bhel Puri on my first evening in Mumbai, only to realise it tasted very different from my Pune Bhel memories. Over time, and explorations, I realised that the Bhel requires customisation. I also realised that the Chowpatties — both Girgaum and Juhu — suck at street food. I found a vendor in an alley near Nana Chowk who makes the best Bhel and Sev Puri in South Mumbai. Later, I found a different person in Bandra. Today, I swear by this fellow outside my office in Lower Parel.
Bhel Puri men in Bombay place their wares on bamboo wicker stands, which look like two cones inverted on each other. They don’t walk around in trains with it, but are in and around railway stations. They can be round too, they sweat too, their fingers are grimy from hard work too, but I am unaffected by all that now. A good Bhel Puri, rustled up with Farsan, groundnuts, onions, tomatoes, sweet and chilli chutneys, Nylon Sev, crushed Papdi, and slivers of raw mango, makes for a divine companion on breezy summer evenings. I have forever been placing my order with the instruction : “Meetha, teekha dono daalna. Zyaada meetha. Teekha bhi daalna, par kam thoda. Zyaada Sev upar se” (Add both the sweet and chilli chutneys, more sweet. Add chilli chutney too, but less. Top it with more Sev on top).
The Pune Bhel tastes different because of the chutneys and the Farsan. It is sweeter, but also generously umami, and with a delightful balance of flavours. Mumbai’s sukha Bhel (dry Bhel) isn’t as tasty or popular as the geeli Bhel (wet Bhel). Poona’s sukha Bhel is a delicious munchie, and their geeli Bhel isn’t as wet (and, often, soggy) as Mumbai’s. The kind of puffed rice used is also fatter, stouter, and holds form longer under the assault of chutneys and forceful mixing. The Jhalmuri, on the other hand, is mixed only with dry masalas and powders, bound together with a dash of mango-flavoured mustard oil. I prefer the Jhalmuri over sukha Bhel any day.
Today, the Bhel has found favour, reinvention, and respect in every strata of society. The Jhalmuri has been packaged into ready-to-eat packets, and is imported around the world. I remember seeing Jhalmuri (“Indian-style puffed rice appetiser with hot spice mix” *eyeroll again*) on a fusion restaurant’s menu in London. Be it Bhel Puri, Jhalmuri, or a must-have with fritters and Telebhaaja (fried snacks) down south and in the east, the puffed rice is an integral part of India’s snacking behaviour.
Also read: The secrets of the perfect kosha mangsho