A few weeks ago, I was at a bookshop and asked the proprietor if they had any books on phuchka. “I think you mean panipuri?” he queried, his eyes narrowing. Not wishing to engage in the long and arduous debate that would be necessary to prove him wrong, I smiled politely and nodded. Mollified, he told me how much he enjoyed eating panipuri and then directed me to a magisterial book on Indian cuisine.

A quick browse through the index of the book revealed no references to phuchka. There was, however, a single citation for panipuri – it read “see golgappa”. I returned the book to the shelf and decided not to inform the proprietor how the book had relegated his beloved panipuri to the status of a mere synonym. As someone who loved books, he did not deserve to have his heart broken by them.

When I moved from Kolkata to Mumbai in 2010, there were many ways in which this new city felt alien, not least of which was the shift in street-food lexicon. Gone were the days of egg roll, fish fry, and mutton chop being commonplace roadside grub. Instead, the bustling lanes of Mumbai offered vada pav, bhajia pav, misal pav, and if you craved variety, pav bhaji. There was no food item, it seemed, which could escape the pav’s embrace.

In the midst of all this bread, the discovery of panipuri had kindled hope. Here was a snack that finally seemed familiar, a snack that resembled its portly cousin from the East and could, perhaps, quell both hunger and home-sickness. I had popped that first panipuri into my mouth, expecting the explosion of flavours that phuchka produced: the tang of lime, the heat of chilli, the lip-smacking piquancy of the water.

Imagine then my consternation, when I realised what looks like phuchka and feels like phuchka does not always taste like phuchka. It was my encounter with its deceitful doppelganger that made me curious about the provenance of phuchka and its many versions so popular across the country. What is their story and which of them can lay claim to being the original?

Credit: Tapas Kumar Halder, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

According to internet folklore, it was Draupadi of the Mahabharata who created this divine dish. During their days of exile, so the legend goes, the Pandavas had to make do with meagre resources and Kunti, their mother, wanted to test her daughter-in-law’s frugality. So, she asked Draupadi to conjure a meal out of leftover potato sabzi and a little wheat dough. Knowing that the dough was insufficient to make chapatis for all five brothers, Draupadi graced them, and the world, with her innovative invention: a small, crunchy shell (the deep-fried puri) filled with the sabzi.

This myth has seeped so far into the public consciousness that it even inspired a phuchka-themed Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata. Yet, it is difficult to swallow this story whole – particularly, since Draupadi, Kunti, and the Pandavas would have never set eyes on a potato. The tuber arrived on Indian shores only in the 17th century, courtesy of European traders.

In his book Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Subcontinental Adventures with the Tummy, the humourist Zac O’ Yeah refers to an alternate origin story of the panipuri. In medieval times, the Yamuna was believed to be the cause, and carrier, of diseases. It was the royal physician at the imperial court in Delhi, he writes, who came up with the idea of a diet “rich in certain spices” to combat the virulent waters of the river. This disinfectant mix of spices and condiments supposedly birthed the “classic chaat masala” we know and love today.

While attributing medicinal motive to chaat and phuchka does make this theory more attractive, these tales are likely apocryphal. In fact, if one were to go by the words of renowned academic and food historian, Pushpesh Pant, seeking to locate the place and time of chaat’s conception is itself a flawed enterprise. In an interview discussing the history of Indian cuisine, Pant brushed away a question on the antecedents of panipuri as a misguided and fruitless inquiry. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps it is futile to attempt to isolate a single point of origin for such mercurial fare, every element of which is inconstant.

PJ.wikilovesfood, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Depending on the state, city or even neighbourhood you find yourself in, you may encounter variances in the type of puri, filling, and water (both flavour and temperature) being used by the local sellers. Manoj Chaurasia, who hails from Varanasi, has been selling chaat in Mumbai for over 22 years. He takes pride in making his own chaat masala – an intricate mix of spices, which is a staunchly guarded secret – and offers rare insight into the subtle regional differences that make street-food so distinctive.

The sweetened water popular with his panipuri-craving customers in Mumbai is made, he tells me, by soaking khajur, or dates. Whereas, in Benares, it is the tartness of imli, or tamarind, that defines the meetha pani, or sweet water, added to the golgappa. Interestingly, the idiosyncratic golgappa water also finds mention in the works of the pioneering food historian KT Achaya, who tantalisingly described it as “cold, fiery pepper-mustard liquid concoction”.

Then there is, of course, the matter of the filling – the raison d’etre of the dish.

I had learnt the difference that filling can make when I had taken my first bite of a panipuri. Instead of a fiery ball of mashed potatoes – studded with chickpeas and chopped green chillies, and seasoned with salt, spices, and lime juice – what rested on my tongue was the velvety ragda, a mildly spiced curry of boiled white peas. (In retrospect, it could have been worse. It could have been a filling of moong sprouts). Speaking to me while serving his customers at a street corner in Bandra, Chaurasia confirmed that most of his patrons prefer the ragda. Potatoes, if used, are generally sliced and not mashed, with the spice mix sprinkled on top. It is the way people like it here, he shrugs.

Shubham k. Vanjire, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kurush Dalal, the eminent archaeologist and culinary anthropologist, echoes this last sentiment. In a conversation with me about the origins, history and varieties of panipuri, he describes the puri quite eloquently – and precisely – as “a vessel”. As the puri gradually evolved from the kachori, he explains, it was the imagination of the maker, and the appetite of the eater, which dictated the filling it could contain.

Be it potatoes, ragda, or even bhel (a South Gujarat speciality, I am surprised to learn from Dalal), what you can put in a puri depended on what you can sell. The customer, after all, is king and it was the unique tastes of customers across the breadth of this country, that shaped the assorted forms of this delicacy.

As with much else in history, phuchka, too, refuses to be shackled by the notions of purity and cannot be pinned down to a single, original source. Indeed, its many avatars, and the devotion they arouse in their respective fiefdoms, mirror the diversity of our nation.

There is a part of me that says I should appreciate this vibrancy; that I should celebrate the cultural milieu that allows so many varieties of this cherished snack to exist; that I should eschew juvenile chauvinism, and learn to treat all the different versions without bias or prejudice. Perhaps one day, I will listen to that part of me. But for now, I would kill to get a decent plate of phuchka in Mumbai.

A truck with puris in Mumbai. Credit: Scroll staff

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.