“How does it taste? “
“Er…er …er …like soaked rice crispies”
“Is it spicy?”
“No not spicy. A bit sweet” That was easier.
It was towards the end of the Mumbai segment of the World Street Food segment shoot a couple of weeks back. We were at Juhu Chowpatty. At a Bhel Puri stall.
I was trying out Bhel Puri in front of the camera. The producer behind the camera trying to goad me to say something.
For once during the shoot I was at a loss. Try as I could, I could not identify any sense of taste in this plate of bhel. Taste inertness is the last thing that you would expect from a street food icon. And yet Mumbai’s bhel puri didn’t work for me that evening. Like so many evenings before.
Yet there I was trying to put in an Oscar winning acting performance trying to get enthused in front of the camera.
The Jhal Muri story
I was near Kolkata’s Menoka cinema, by the lake, on Saturday. Taking a break between work in the evening. A couple of phone calls and I found the Barista at Sarat Bose Road. A coffee stop to sit and reflect on life as the traffic passed by. If Pamuk had Istanbul, then Kolkata was my ‘museum of innocence.’
As I headed back, I saw a couple of jhal muri (hot/ spicy puffed rice) guys outside the movie theatre. Jhal Muri is the Calcutta version of Mumbai’s bhel puri.
Now jhal muri is never on my list of must haves at Kolkata. My non negotiable in every trip are the biryanis, the rolls and the phuchkas.
Never the jhal muri. I must have last had a jhal muri more than a decade back. I think Bourdain tried it in his first India episode in the train from Kolkata to the Sunderbans.
I suddenly felt like getting off the car and doing a jhal muri shoot before my work started. And try it too. So I stopped in front of a well lit street stall. It was 6 pm and dark already.
I asked for a serving of jhal muri from the stall owner. Said I’d be taking pictures.
And so he started. He took a out a stainless steel vessel. In went muri or puffed rice. Finely chopped raw onion, tomato, fresh coconut, green chillies. A dash of mustard oil. A few drops of lime. A few sprouted large pulses. Peanuts and jhuri (basket) bhaaja. Crunchier versions of Mumbai’s sev. Gram flour slivers deep fried in oil.
Shake. Stir…shaka laka boom…the contents of the vessel danced to his tunes as he rhythmically stirred the mix with a spoon.
He took some out on his spoon.
“Taste it. Is it too hot? Too spicy”
I shook my head. It was all good.
He added some salt, red chilli powder and masala and stirred it again as we chatted.
I found out that his name was Raju. He was making jhal muri for about twenty years. He was a Bengali and proudly said that that was why his jhal muri would be better than folks who come from UP and Bihar and make jhal muris.
“We are more committed” he said.
He said that he avoids curd based chaats as he doesn’t have a fridge and hygiene would be an issue. Raju rolled his eyes, made a grim face, and said “All big people live here (the road adjoining the lake). Rich Bengalis. Rich non Bengalis. They would pay the price but are very very particular about quality and one cannot fool around with them”.
We discussed the various chaats or street snacks of India that were cousins of jhal muri. The distant papdi chat of Delhi and dahi batata puri of Mumbai. And, of course, the bhel puri of Mumbai which was more like a first cousin of jhal muri.
“But Calcutta’s jhal muri is the best” said Raju sagely
My jhaal muri was ready and I could test his claim.
Raju formed a cone with a newspaper, poured the jhal muri in, and gave it to me.
I took my first bite and broke into a smile. Gosh, what was I missing for all these years? ‘Face palm’ as they say on twitter.
This was a very intricate and evolved taste experience. T he jhal muriteased multiple taste buds and played you like an orchestra. This was just as sacred as the bhel at Juhu beach was mundane.
The mustard oil and masala seasoned muri or puffed rice was just right. It had a slight crunch and was yet embraced in a piquant juice. There would be bursts of green chillies lighting fires in your mouth. Only to be soothed by calming bites of boiled potatoes. The tang of lime juice and chopped tomato balanced by the woody sweetness of fresh coconut. The sharp bites of onion contrasted by the fresh noble bites of healthy sprouts. The odd bites of peanuts and jhuri bhaaja giving it a playful crunch fired up with the zest of the red chilli powder.
A medley of contrasting tastes coming together in a brilliant symphony.
This very sophisticated and elevated raaga cost all of Rs 10 and was served on a humble street stall.
I asked Raju how much a pack of jhaal muri would cost when he started twenty years back.
Well this ten Rupee snack of the Gods would have cost me Rupees two then.
Brilliant food and a lovely conversation with a very engaging person who was passionate and committed about what he did and my spirits were buoyed enough for me to get back to work.
But I was fagged out as I headed home later. It had been a while since I had worked so much on a Saturday. And I knew that a nice chilled drink was the last thing I’d find at the end of this long day.
And then I spotted the new Ganguram at Chaalia. Stopped the car. Jumped and picked up some mishti doi and mihi daana lovin.
Yes, I had got myself a night cap.
But what’s with this heat and very slow net connection?