food talk

How jhal muri became a popular street food in Kolkata (and London)

The spicy puffed rice treat so common to the streets of Kolkata, was sold by Bihari migrants to soldiers during the World War II.

For decades, chicken tikka masala was England’s favourite Indian dish. It became a truly British food, and writers hunted for the story of its origin like archaeologists doggedly searching for a mythical artefact. And then, London discovered yet another culinary delight, humbler than the last one – the Bengali snack of jhal muri (spicy puffed rice).

Of course, versions of Indian street food have frequently appeared in menus across the world. In 2012, Huffington Post published a list of 10 Foods Around the World to Try Before You Die, where nestled between the Greek moussaka and Italian zucchini flowers, was the Indian masala dosa. The Maharashtrian pav bhaji was rebranded in New York as the “Indian sloppy joe”. You can order pani puris at restaurants in the UK and the US (even though most of them inject the spicy liquid into the puri using a syringe).

British chef Angus Denoon has been selling jhal muri on the streets of London for almost a decade since he first tasted it on the streets of Kolkata.

“Under the old Dunlop building there was someone who twisted and turned from the waist up, while his lower half stayed still,” Denoon said, describing his first encounter with a jhal muri-wallah. “There was a place to sit beside his stall and I watched in awe the beauty of the procedure, the options available, the ways he governed the space. His father was a muri wallah too.”

Denoon’s van, the Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express, has found a multitude of fans in London. When he started out, he was surprised at the ease with which Londoners took to spicy puffed rice.

“Whether they wore dreadlocks or polyester and cardigans, everybody loved it,” he wrote on his website. This is how Denoon describes the snack:

“Fresh and alive, full of flavours and textures and realms of different pleasures. Light on the tummy but nourishing to the core and accessible to all. Beautiful to the eye, the nose and the taste and made individually with much care. A small piece of personal theatre that you eat.”

Angus Denoon's Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express. Courtesy: Facebook
Angus Denoon's Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express. Courtesy: Facebook

Indeed, the pleasure of a well-made bag of muri, infused with pungent mustard oil, can be heavenly. Those who are dazzled by the sensory fireworks of wasabi would do well to try jhal muri, with a splash of uncooked mustard oil. Its fumes, fire and flavour give several Bengali dishes their distinct zing.

The delight also comes from watching the muri-wallah as he combines elements with airy movements: handfuls of plain white muri (puffed rice), powdered masalas, chana chur, all tossed together in a steel tin. Using a long, sharp, blackened knife, the muri-wallah minces onions, boiled potatoes and green chilies, throwing them on top of the dry mix (some add boiled chickpeas too).

A good squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of tamarind water, a drizzle of plain mustard oil. As these condiments meet, mixed vigorously with a spoon that clangs against the tin, the smell of the raw mustard oil (kaacha shorsher tel) sends senses reeling. Finally come a few slivers of coconut, sprinkled on top.

Making muri looks easy, but it takes expertise to achieve the exact balance of flavours. Too much liquid, and your puffed rice turns soggy. Too less, and it tastes like bits of styrofoam. The chana chur should not be so spicy that it overpowers everything else. With mustard oil, as with wasabi, less is more. Denoon, who will put pretty much anything in his muri, also has rules:

“Never meat, fish, eggs or garlic cloves. I have experimented with the leaf of the garlic flower, which was quite popular, but I will never put full cloves.”

Angus Denoon's work stations. Courtesy: Facebook
Angus Denoon's work stations. Courtesy: Facebook

Like all connoisseurs, Bengalis have rules for eating jhal muri too. It must only be eaten out of cones or bags fashioned out of newspapers. Puffed rice is first poured into the palm, then tossed into your mouth with practised ease (you want to avoid throwing bits of chillies into your eyes, and avoid getting oil on your pujo clothes). Do not ever eat jhal muri with a spoon.

'Jhal muri' tastes best when eaten out of a newspaper bag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
'Jhal muri' tastes best when eaten out of a newspaper bag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Puffed rice has been an intrinsic part of Bengal’s diet for years. Rice is traditionally “puffed”, or turned into muri, by throwing washed and cleaned grains on top of sand heated in a pot. In rural areas, muri is eaten as a snack, and also with curries and cooked vegetables. It also features frequently in religious ceremonies.

According to Pritha Sen, food writer and historian, jhal muri first grew popular on the streets of Kolkata, the former capital of the British Raj, during World War II.

“Kolkata (then Calcutta) played an important role in the military operations during the war,” said Sen. “There was a large influx of labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh at the time, and Biharis recognised how crucial the muri was. There was business potential in selling it as a snack to British soldiers, American GIs and the Bengali babus.”

Back then, muri vendors used old cigarette tins to mix their puffed rice.

But Biharis were not the first to invent dhal muri, or to bring it to Kolkata.

“Jhal muri existed in different forms and was eaten regularly,” Sen said. “Bihari migrants only made it common as a street snack. The street recipe was a combination of the Bengali and Bihari palette and eventually became Kolkata’s own.”

It is hard to imagine the streets of Kolkata without jhal muri vendors. Everyone has their go-to guy, the only person who can truly satisfy their need for a muri fix. Like most street food in India, jhal muri transcends social barriers – everyone from upper crust Bengali babus to rikshaw pullers love it. It works as a light snack between meals, an accompaniment to afternoon tea, or a meal by itself.

While vendors have their own recipes, they will occasionally ask a favoured customer for specifications. The question that separates the muri amateur from the champion, is a single word, a test of strength and resilience, what separates the children from adults:

“Jhaal?”

Or, how much spice can you handle?

A 'muri' vendor on Kolkata's Camac Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A 'muri' vendor on Kolkata's Camac Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Delhi, the best jhal muri is found, unsurprisingly, at Chittaranjan Park, a neighbourhood with a large Bengali population. Ashish Ganguly, who sells jhal muri at Chittaranjan Park’s Market No. 2, was amused to hear that an Englishman had the same job as him in London.

He thoroughly approved of the idea of Denoon, a professional chef, pulling a fast one on Londoners by selling them a humble Bengali snack.

“They will learn about our eating habits,” he said. “We eat burgers and pizzas, so they should get to enjoy jhal muri too.”

If you would like to enjoy some jhal muri too, here’s Pritha Sen’s traditional recipe. Fair warning: street food will never taste as good as when made on the streets.

Jhal Muri

Ingredients

Muri (puffed rice)

Chana chur (spicy mixture)

Roasted peanuts

Roasted cumin powder

Red chili powder

Salt

Lemon juice

Finely minced onions

Finely minced ginger

Finely minced green chilies

Finely minced cucumber

Chopped boiled potatoes

Black chana, boiled

Tamarind water

Mustard oil

Garnish

Coconut slivers

Fresh coriander

Method

Mix all the ingredients vigorously in a steel container in proportions that best suit your taste (leave the wet ingredients for last). Top with coconut slivers and fresh coriander and serve in a rolled-up newspaper cone.

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