It is 2021. The world is still in the throes of a pandemic, millions of jobs and businesses have been lost and it should be unlawful to split hairs about what is the best biryani, chaat, pasta, whatever. Just be grateful for any food on the table, even if it be the proverbial namak-roti.

So when I tell you, dear reader, that this essay is a deep dive into golgappas, paani puris and phuchkas, rest assured it is not a Delhi versus Mumbai versus Kolkata street food debate. Such games of gastronomic upmanship are silly and best avoided.

A chaat kit bought online may give as much pleasure as the Lucknowi paani ke batashe filled with my mother’s jal zeera, or phuchkas from a favoured vendor at a street corner in your fading memory, or golgappas with masala kachalu and dollops of nostalgia. Chaat is not a competitive sport, though like any sport, it is dense with nuanced history.

Circle of Life

Old Dilliwallahs fondly remember the khomchawallas, snack and sweet sellers who would come with their khomchas or cane baskets right to the doorstep of havelis, offering piquant treats as the afternoon melted into evening. An intrinsic part of this snack break was golgappas – puffed and dainty wheat breads filled with a spicy-sour water that in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, where chaat originated, was made by dissolving amchoor (dried mango powder) in water and spiking it with spices such as hing (asafoetida), zeera (cumin), peeli mirch (dried yellow pepper grown in Punjab) and rock salt.

This water, or paani, was a riff on a homely zeere ka paani or jal zeera recipe. Long thought to have curative powers, the cumin-laced water (without bolder spices like chillies but often with other therapeutic ingredients like hing) was given to lactating mothers and those whose digestion needed a kick, especially as the weather turned warm in the Indo-Gangetic plain. (It is more than a coincidence that the chaat season began with Holi in spring and continued through the long summer.) Because pudina (mint) was thought to be cooling, a fistful of dried, crushed leaves would be added to the therapeutic jal zeera. Today it is dubbed “hara paani” rather reductively by chaat eaters, but traditionally it wasn’t the lurid greenness that had any significance but the complexity of spicy and sour flavour profile.

In Lucknow, where I lived through the 1980s-’90s, paani ke batashe, as they were called, were a sophisticated and slow affair. King of Chaat, a stall near KD Singh Babu Stadium, was at the height of its fame, and legend had it that it once attracted the attention of the income tax department because of the sheer number of pattals (dried leaf plates) strewn around it one evening.

There was strict protocol to the chaat service. Matara – pan-fried cakes of boiled white peas – would be served only with slivers of ginger and a dash of lime, not dahi-saunth. It is still not considered apropos to douse all chaat with dahi-saunth. Quite recently, when I revisited the now desultory-looking King of Chaat, I found the chaatwallah admonishing a few tourists for asking for dahi-saunth on everything, rather than maintaining the old Lucknowi etiquette that each chaat demanded.

Aloo ki tikiya was respectfully called tikiya, not tikki, and continues to be by many UP-wallahs. Paani ke batashe, in all their sophistication, came filled with just the right measure of mashed white peas and potatoes, a dash of saunth (on demand) and carefully concocted spiced-sour paani. The correct way to end a few rounds of paani ke batashe was with a round of dahi-saunth ke batashe, sprinkled with bhuna zeera, lal mirch and a dash of chaat masala made from the chaatwallah’s own unique recipe. These dahi-saunth ke batashe, filled with small cut potato, in my opinion, may have been the predecessor of Mumbai’s dahi-batata-puri.

A vendor selling paani puri covers himself with a plastic sheet as it rains on a beach in Mumbai. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Not all chaat kadardaans (patrons) were to be found on the streets. Chaat parties were common in homes, and on many evenings, my mother would make dahi bada and aloo ki tikiya from scratch, along with jal zeera to fill the atta batashas that my germophobic father bought from the neighbourhood Gupta chaatwallah. “Bahar ka paani”, in those pre-Bisleri days, was not considered an elite option.

Attention was also paid to condiments. Saunth was made from amchoor, dried ginger (also called saunth), rock salt, sugar or jaggery, bhuna zeera and a little red chilli powder. Another option was a homemade fresh mint-coriander-lime chutney. Both of these could be filled into the batashas as per meetha or teekha preferences.

Lovers of chaat were dubbed chatora, though not exactly as a compliment. Older austere folks were likely to frown on the frivolous wastefulness of chatoras. (Nobody then could have imagined how much social capital “foodies” would command just a few decades later.) Chatori, by comparison, was a tad more acceptable – frivolousness in women in a highly gendered society was excused.

By the time my family left Lucknow in the mid-1990s, newer restaurants were coming up, serving things unknown to the nawabs. Mini Mahal began to dish out vinegary chow mein that most of us had until then only tossed at home in synthetic soy. Gradually, it also started serving golgappas not with a single paani and customised condiments, but with two types of paani – hara and meetha. Out went the slow process of filling the batashas as per the tastes of individual patrons. Two readymade but simplistic paanis meant you dipped your batashas in either and were done. It meant faster turnovers for restaurants.

Tastes were similarly changing in Agra, another centre for chaat gastronomy. The novelty of differently flavoured paanis was catching on there too. Jal zeera metamorphosed into three distinct entities: hing ka paani, khatta paani and meetha paani, all mono flavours. The three elements of the traditional water – spice, sour and sweet – had been deconstructed.

In the olden days, lovers of chaat were dubbed chatora, though not exactly as a compliment. Credit: Tanuj_handa/Pixabay [Free to use].

My sister-in-law Dipali Mathur, whose family has been rooted in one of Agra’s oldest enclaves, Pipal Mandi, remembers golgappas from this time. There was a craftsmanship to the puffs that was distinct from Lucknow’s. Unlike Lucknow, which prized atte ke batashe made with whole wheat, Agra preferred attractive-looking, white semolina ones, made in oblong and uniform shapes, thin and crisp. The shape was also distinct from Old Delhi’s sooji rounds (both atta and sooji were prevalent and continue to be).

Watered Down

Anil Sharma chaatwallah from Agra, a third-generation vendor whose grandmother owned a thela and taught the tricks of the trade to her son and grandson, caters at luxe weddings and events all over India and the world today. He has made chaat for guests at events hosted by the Ambani family and Vijay Mallya as well as at Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s wedding, he tells me.

Sharma remembers the “old way” of eating golgappas in Agra. “Old-timers asked us for a filling of mint chutney-coated potatoes, saunth, and paani which we made from amchoor, pudina, hing, bhuna zeera and peeli mirch,” he said.

Sharma explains that while in Uttar Pradesh, amchoor was the souring agent of choice, in Bengal and Maharashtra, tamarind – a more common ingredient – became the favoured souring agent as the golgappa metamorphosed into the phuchka and paani puri. At the same time, imli ka paani and imli ki chutney replaced jal zeera and saunth.

Many commercial operations now use another souring agent altogether: citric acid. Crystals of citric acid, called tartari or neebu ka phool in Hindi, are cheaper and easy to dissolve in water. Adding them to the paani reduces the cost, as does scrimping on masalas, such as peeli mirch (intrinsic to Lucknow and Old Delhi) or high-grade hing.

This is why, as you travel across the country, unless you are eating chaat from an old stall in the old enclaves of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the paani is unlikely to have complexity. As the cult of the golgappa has grown, its paani has truly got diluted.

Taste Map

Old connoisseurs point out how great chaat necessarily relied on quality ingredients. At Kipp’s, once the poshest halwai shop in Bareilly, only asli ghee was and is used to make all eats. Old chaatwallahs, now mostly employed by wedding caterers in season, too continue to use ghee to fry aloo tikkis. They also follow regional nuances like stuffing the Delhi-style tikkis with chana daal to give it texture (something that distinguishes Dilli aloo tikki from others in the country) despite the rising costs of lentils, ghee and spices.

Designer Madhu Jain, whose family had a home near Dariba in Old Delhi, remembers two chaatwallahs near Jama Masjid, who she would visit as a child in the 1950s. “Old Delhi’s famous kachalu-chutney chaat would be mashed and filled into the golgappas along with small white chickpeas,” she said. “That chaat tasted so good because everything was made from good ingredients. You had chuvara [dried dates] and dried ginger always in the saunth.” Kachalu, or taro, along with sweet potatoes, Colocasia and yams, were the tubers of choice in the pre-potato era till the late 19th century, pointing to chaat’s long history from the Mughal period.

Ingredients changed from region to region. In Uttar Pradesh, white peas were and are part of the golgappa filling. In Old Delhi, however, a smaller variety of kabuli chana common only in the walled city were used. You can still buy them there but nowhere else in the National Capital Region.

Judging from its components, it is likely that it was the Lucknowi batasha that metamorphosed into Kolkata’s phuchka. Instead of white peas, Bengal Gram (as the British dubbed it after the fact that they first encountered kala chana in Bengal) started being used to fill the puffs. Expensive masalas used in Avadhi versions, such as peeli or kali mirch, were similarly abandoned in favour of common green chillies in the phuchka water. Finally, a squeeze of gondhoraj lime, which may have initially gone to flavour fresh mint chutney used to accent the filling, gradually became a feature of the water itself, with chaatwallahs dissolving the chutney into the water too for convenience. As a result, phuchkas today have a distinct flavour – instead of spiciness, chilli dominates and there is tartness from lime and tamarind. This is the street version, rustled up from common and cheaply available ingredients.

A phuchka seller in Kolkata. Credit: Sayamindu Dasgupta/Flickr [Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence]

Something similar happens in Mumbai, where paani puris have warm ragda mixed into the water – easy enough for a chaatwallah making ragda on a flat tava to manage. Sometimes, there are sprouts jazzing up the puris, a nod perhaps to the usal-misal of Maharashtra. In Dhaka, Madhu Jain, who used to think of chaat as vegetarian food introduced by the Jains, Marwaris and Baniya communities, was taken aback to find anda bhurji being used as a filling. Whatever is easy and local is par for the course.

In affluent Marwari homes, however, memories of different flavours abide as more expensive, traditional ingredients continue to be used. Septuagenarian Mukul Rani Varshnei, who grew up in Allahabad but got married into a family from Kandra near Kolkata, published a book of vegetarian recipes to archive her memories. Shakahari Paramparik Rasoi, as her cookbook is called, records her recipe for golgappas influenced by Uttar Pradesh and Kolkata styles: the paani is made from tamarind dissolved in water, into which go black salt, pudina powder, bhuni hing, bhuna and powdered zeera, mirch, roasted coriander powder and a touch of sugar. White peas and potatoes are filled into the phuchkas. Imli ki chutney is recommended to add another layer of flavours.

In South Mumbai’s Nepean Sea Road, Saroj Loyalka started a home business during the pandemic last year, supplying chaat to her neighbourhood. She does Kolkata-style phuchkas under her brand Chaatfullness, which are popular in South Mumbai homes, says wedding planner Parthip Thyagarajan.

Loyalka’s daughter Rajani Kedia explains: “In Marwari homes, it is common to make chaat, even phuchkas, at home. So my mother decided to start this business. It is not just Marwari families who buy from her but others too. My mother is very particular about her ingredients and uses kairi (green mango) and fresh pudina for the water.”

Whatever you prefer is of course your business. But it would be a shame to lose out on an acquaintance with older complex notes of the golgappa – akin to sampling only McDonald’s and thinking you have savoured a great burger. Or, eating a cheesy pasta with packaged black pepper dust and thinking it is the Roman cacio e pepe. It is possible to make imitations, but unless you know the sharpness of the pecorino, you don’t know a Roman cacio e pepe. All great cuisines, art, music, stories rely on complexity and nuance. So does the golgappa. Simple joy, indeed.