Pani puri and chaat: Everything you need to know about the great Indian leveller

Sev puri, Indian chaat in the UAE
A look at what pani puri and other chaat dishes mean to Indians. Image Credit: Shutterstock

A crisp, round, hollow fried-dough shell crumbles in your mouth to give way to soft, savoury mashed potatoes with a hint of masalas and fresh coriander, all dunked in tangy, sweet, minty, and spicy chutneys. Pani puri is arguably India’s favourite chaat (fried street snack) dish. Ask any Indian you know, and they will tell you how every mouthful is a burst of flavours and textures, and no one can stop at just one bite. For many of us, pani puri or any chaat for that matter, has carved a special place in our hearts and tummies.

The name pani puri is a combination of the Hindi words pani, which means water and in this case refers to the diluted chutneys, and puri, the fried hollow ball (just slightly bigger than a golf ball in size). I learnt the hard way that making the puri was no child’s play. It’s an art to flatten the tiny dough ball to the right thickness, to get it to puff up, hollow and uniformly wafer-thin all around when fried.

Some of our recommendations for pani puri in Dubai:

The Mumbai Gully, a restaurant, Oud Metha

Chatori Gali, Al Barsha1, and Mall of the Emirates (food court)

Shree Gangour Sweets, Oud Metha

Jodhpur, in Downtown Dubai

Eating pani puri requires some skill too. You can’t possibly take a bite into one. Pani puri purists will tell you that is absolutely the wrong way to enjoy the snack. There is no room for forks or finesse here, either. Pani puri is purely finger food. First, you use your thumb or index finger to tap and create a hole on top of the puri, stuff it with the potato or legume mix, dunk it in the sauces, and then pop an entire puri, fillings and all, into your mouth. Now, forget about looking awkward while trying to chew, and concentrate on the excitement your tastebuds feel.

The only right way to eat a pani puri is to pop an entire puri, fillings and all, into your mouth.
The only right way to eat a pani puri is to pop an entire puri, fillings and all, into your mouth. Image Credit: Shutterstock

History of pani puri

While the origins of this delicious snack cannot be pinpointed with historical accuracy, some food historians believe the dish originated in the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadh, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas (great kingdoms in Sanskrit). Magadh was situated on the banks of River Ganga, an area that falls in the western central part of the present-day Bihar state in India. An exact time-frame is not known either, but some accounts say a version of the snack, called phulki in that region, existed even before 600 BC.

If Indians had the slightest idea about the culinary genius who invented pani puri, his or her name would have probably gone down in history books.

As the dish travelled across India, it found new names. The combination of fillings and chutneys also changed to adapt to the regional taste.

But, no matter where you are in India, pani puri is the perfect snack for that moment of hunger when lunch is a distant memory, and there’s still time for dinner. At Rs30 (around Dh2) for six pieces in India, this simple street snack is also a great leveller – at a pani puri stall, you will see the rich and the poor queueing up for their turn and requesting the vendor to adjust the level of spiciness to their heart’s content.

Pani puri stall in Delhi, India
Pani puri stall in Delhi, India Image Credit: Shutterstock

Here’s a look at some of the different names of pani puri across India.

1. Pani Puri

This is the most common name for the street snack in most parts of India, and other parts of the world where Indians migrated to and settled. From the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu to the neighbouring country of Nepal, the name pani puri is used for the fried delight. But the dish greatly varies in taste from state to state.

Indian expatriate Rupali Koirala, who owns Kulfiholic – The Mumbai Gully, a restaurant in Oud Metha, told Gulf News: “In the city of Mumbai in Maharashtra, pani puri is predominantly stuffed with hot ragda, which is a thick gravy made of mashed curried white peas. You get this with diluted meethi imli (sweet tamarind) chutney and mint chutney.”

panipuri in Dubai (Kulfiholic)
In many parts of Maharashtra, pani puri stuffing can be made of mashed white peas or mung bean sprouts in addition to other ingredients like sev and boondi. Image Credit: Evangeline Elsa/Gulf News

In some restaurants, boondi, water-droplet-sized deep-fried crispy balls made of gram flour batter are added to the sauces, while in other places sev, or crushed up crunchy noodles made of chickpea flour paste, is added to the filling. Spices such as star anise are also added to the water.

In Gujarat, the tradition is to stuff the puri with finely diced potatoes with some boiled mung beans, and a thin sweet sauce made of dates, boondi is added to the pani or water. In Bangalore, onions are also added to the mix.

2. Golgappa

In and around the Indian capital Delhi, the state of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, pani puris are called golgappe. Growing up in Noida, a city neighbouring Delhi, this is the only name I knew for this snack. On some days, a plate of golgappe was comfort food, and on other days, two or even three plates would be gobbled up at top speed, as friends would compete to see who could eat the most of these crispy little balloon. They would taste even better served on the small bowls made of dried leaves.

Golgappas in Dubai (Chatori Gali)
Chatori Gali serves Delhi-style golgappe made of both semolina (left) and wheatflour (right). Image Credit: Evangeline Elsa/Gulf News

Mohammad Shoby Khan, who manages the Al Barsha branch of Chatori Gali, a restaurant that serves Delhi-style golgappe in Dubai, explained how the taste is different. He said: “First of all, the filling is different. We mostly use boiled, mashed potato and small black chickpeas. These are then mashed with dry spices such as cumin, black salt, white salt, black pepper, and yellow pepper. The green sauce is made with water, coriander leaves, and mint, while the red sauce is made with some tamarind, spices such as roasted cumin, black pepper, asafoetida, and lemon.”

“The sauce in Delhi uses less tamarind and no star anise, compared to the tangy sauce in Mumbai and other parts of India. People from Delhi also prefer puris made of semolina or sooji rather than the wheat-flour or atta puri. The sooji puri is also made crispier and slightly thicker,” Shoby added.

3. Puchka

The snack is famous as puchka or fuchka in the states of West Bengal, Assam, parts of Bihar, and Jharkhand. It is also called by the same name in Bangladesh. Puchkas are quite different from pani puris. In these regions, the puris are usually made of wholewheat, the filling is typically made of boiled gram and mashed potatoes, the chutney is more tangy than sweet, and the green sauce is made spicy.

Asgarali Ravjani, who manages Shree Gangour Sweets, a restaurant in Oud Metha that served Bengali-style puchkas, told Gulf News: “Puchkas are very popular and important in Kolkota.”

Puchka in Dubai (Gangour Sweets)
Try the tangy, Kolkota-style puchkas at Shree Gangour Sweets in Oud Metha. Image Credit: Evangeline Elsa/Gulf News

He added: “Back in Kolkota, the puris are made slightly bigger in size, but in our restaurant, we make them slightly smaller for our customers. For the filling we use masala (dry spices) that is used typically in Kolkota, and we prepare the paani with tamarind, cumin, white salt, and black salt. For the green sauce, we use mint and green chillies.”

4. Pani ke batashe

Popular as Patashi or Paani ke Batashe (spherical snacks filled with water) in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Haryana, the main ingredients here involve the use of different spices for the water. Meanwhile, the filling stays the same as golgappe – potatoes and chickpeas or gram. In Uttar Pradesh, street-side restaurants in Lucknow’s Hazrat Ganj serve paani ke batashe with five different types of sauces, and the dish is called paanch swaad ke batashe (spherical snacks of five flavours). Some even serve seven flavours.

Paani ke batashe
Rajasthan and parts of UP such as Lucknow, call the snack paani ke batashe. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The water for Patashi is generally made from dry mangoes. Some common flavours used for the sauce are tamarind, asafoetida, lemon, cumin, and dates.

Dubai expatriate Sakshi Patania, who belongs to Rajasthan, in her quest for authentic Rajasthani cusine found that a fine-dining restaurant, Jodhpur, in Downtown Dubai serves paani ke bataashe.

5. Pakodi

Not to be confused with pakodas or savoury fritters, pani puri is referred to as Pakodi in some parts of Gujarat. The taste and the preparation remain similar though there are considerable differences. Sev is sometimes an interesting addition to Pakodi in some places. Pakodis generally leave the sweet chutney out but incorporate onions. The water is heavy on mint and green chillies. Quite a deviation from the sweet-spicy snack, pakodis are quite stuffed and spicy.

6. Gup Chup

The snack is called gup chup in parts of Odisha, south Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Hyderabad, and Telangana, probably owning to the sound the puri makes, as it bursts and fills your mouth with the sauces. Gup chup generally has a filling of only of boiled chickpeas or white peas and spicy water, eliminating the potatoes.

Steps to make sooji (semolina) puris for pani puri

When COVID-19 restrictions limited my golgappa trips, I decided it was time to head to the kitchen and don the chef’s hat. Four or five internet recipes later, I was ready to give it a shot. To my disappointment, neither did I get the semolina dough right, nor did my puris puff up. In fact, most were crsipy flat. While those didn’t go waste, a plate of crispy pani puri became a distant dream till restaurants fully opened again.

Pani puri recipe
Pani puri recipe Image Credit: Shutterstock

Mohammad Shoby Khan of Chatori Gali explained that the trick is in the right semolina-to-flour ratio. This is to allow the gluten strands to form, which is necessary for the golgappa to hold shape. While he didn’t share all the trade secrets, here’s the basic recipe he said, should work for a beginner.

Ingredients: 

  • 1 cup fine unroasted semolina
  • 2 tbsp maida/all purpose flour (heaped)
  • 1 tsp oil
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Water to knead the dough

[Tip: Beginners can use a pinch of baking soda to get the puris to rise.]

Method

1. Firstly, in a large bowl take 1 cup semolina and 2 tbsp maida, ¼ tsp salt and 1 tsp oil.

2. Adding water slowly in parts, start kneading the mix into a dough. This is the most important step to get the perfect pani poori texture. Your dough should stretch like elastic, and should not be too soft nor too hard. (Flatten it out and try to lift the dough, you should be able to lift the dough without it breaking and falling apart.)

3. Cover the dough with a damp muslin cloth and rest the dough for two hours. Give it a knead in between, after 30 minutes to one hour.

4. Divide the dough into marble sized balls and roll them out thin using a rolling pin. Lay out the puris and cover them with a moist muslin cloth again to ensure they don’t dry up. [Tip: You can also flatten out a bigger piece of the dough and use a cookie cutter to cut circles].

5. In a wok, heat oil at medium to high temperature. This is important says Shoby, as the oil at high temperature will allow for the puri to rise and puff up. [To test if the temperature is right, drop a tiny ball of dough in the hot oil. If the ball comes up to the surface, the oil is hot enough to fry the puris.]

6. Slide a few puris in and give them a nudge with a skimmer or spoon so that they puff up. Roll them over so both sides reach a light golden-brown colour.

7. Remove from oil and transfer onto some kitchen paper towels to drain off the excess oil. Allow to cool.

Your puris are now ready to be enjoyed with the filling of your choice. Store in an air-tight box to retain the crispy texture.

How to make Sooji puri for pani puri recipe
Sooji (Semolia) puri Image Credit: Stock image

To make the filling and the sauces, follow these steps.

Ingredients

For the filling:

  • 2 to 3 medium potatoes boiled, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup black chickpeas (soaked for 7-8 hours and boiled till fork soft)
  • 1½ tbsp of chopped coriander leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1 tsp chaat masala
  • 1 tsp roasted cumin powder
  • salt to taste

[Note: The potatoes and soaked black chickpeas can be pressure-cooked together for 3 whistles on medium heat or until soft enough to mash.]

For the teekha pani or the chilli mint sauce:

  • 1 cup coriander leaves
  • 1 cup mint leaves
  • 1 inch ginger peeled and chopped
  • ½ – 2 green chillies, according to spice tolerance
  • salt to taste
  • 1½ piece of a medium sized lemon
  • 1 tsp of chaat masala
  • ¼ tsp of black salt
  • 4 cups of water

For the meetha pani or sweet-sour sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon tightly packed tamarind soaked in ¼ cup warm water
  • ½ tsp black salt
  • 1 tsp chaat masala
  • ½ tsp roasted cumin powder
  • ¼ tsp black pepper powder
  • ¼ tsp asafoetida
  • 3/4 cup jaggery
  • water to dilute
  • salt to taste

Method

To make the filing:

1. First mash the potatoes and black chickpeas.

2. Add the dry spices, chopped coriander and salt to taste. Set aside.

India street snack pani puri
Here’s how you can make the meetha (sweet) and teekha (spicy) diluted sauces.

To make teekha pani:

1. In a grinder, add the roughly chopped leaves, ginger and green chillies and grind with 1 tbsp of water into a smooth thick paste.

2. Transfer to a bowl and stir in salt, black salt, red chili powder, chaat masala, cumin powder, and black pepper powder.

3. Strain the paste or pulp into a large bowl and add 2 cups of water in it, or enough water for desired consistency.

[Note: The watery mint sauce is best served chilled with pani puri.]

How to make pani puri
Pani puri Image Credit: Shutterstock

For the meetha pani (sweet sauce)

1. Strain the tamarind through a strainer, adding water for ease.

2. Add enough water to the pulp, to bring it to a pouring consistency.

3. Pour into a pan and place on it on your stove on medium heat.

4. Mix in the jaggery and dry spices and bring to a boil.

5. Lower the heat, and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, till it thickens a bit.

6. Remove this from heat and allow to cool.

[Note: The thickened mix is called saunth and can be used as a sauce other snacks such as samosas. The thickness can be altered by adding water at room temperature, for desired consistency.]

After everything, if you are left with some flat puris and sauces, don’t worry. These can be used to make other chaat favourites like papdi chaat or bhel puri, because that’s exactly what chaat is all about. Taking what you have and mixing it up to make an even better snack. Just the name chaat, is derived from the Hindi and Urdu word chaatna, which means “to lick”. So, chaat essentially leaves you licking your fingers.

Indian chaat
The name chaat, is derived from the Hindi and Urdu word chaatna, which means “to lick”. Chaat essentially leaves you licking your fingers. Image Credit: Shutterstock

5 must-try Indian chaat dishes 

The best part about chaat is the sensory overload of flavours and textures in each bite. It is crispy, and at the same time soft, sweet and sour, and you will even get a mix of cold and warm in the same bite. Here’s are five of the most delicious and must-try chaat foods that will keep you coming back for more.

1. Papdi chaat

 papdi chaat shutter stock
Indian street food papdi chaat Image Credit: shutterstock

This street snack is made with deep-fried flat puris or papdi, topped with sweet and sour chaat chutneys, mashed potatoes, chopped red onions, chopped tomatoes, coriander, and sev (thin gram flour noodles). In some parts of India, the yoghurt is slightly sweetened, and the light snack is served after a spicy meal, as the yoghurt helps balance the spice.

2. Bhel puri

Indian street snack bhel puri
Indian street snack bhel puri Image Credit: Shutterstock

This crunchy chaat dish is made of puffed rice, crushed papdi, mashed spiced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, chopped fresh coriander leaves, and sev, all mixed together with a thick and tangy tamarind sauce. Bhel is often identified as a ‘beach snack’, strongly associated with the beaches of Mumbai, such as Chowpatty or Juhu. In Mumbai, chopped pieces of raw mango are also often added to the mix for that extra sourness.

3. Sev puri

Indian street snack sev puri shutterstock
Sev puri Image Credit: Shutterstock

Similar to pani puri, sev puri is made using hollow puris stuffed with a filling of mashed potato, onions, tomatoes and topped with sev. Eaten mostly without sauce, it is a nice, light tea-time snack.

4. Samosa chaat

Indian street snack samosa chaat
Samosa chaat Image Credit: Shutterstock

Deep fried crispy samosas are crushed and topped with a mildly spicy chickpea curry. As the gravy soaks and softens the samosa, it is drizzled generously with sweet, tangy and sour chutneys and a dollop of yoghurt. Over this go chopped onions, red tomatoes, coriander leaves and a handful of sev.

5. Aloo tikki chaat

Indian street snack aloo chaat
Aloo (potato) chaat Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you visit Delhi, you cannot miss the aroma of aloo tikkis (potato cutlets) being fried at corner street-food stalls. Order a plate and you will get some spicy chickpea curry poured on a base of two steaming-hot potato cutlets (aloo tikki) seared to perfection, topped with yogurt, tangy tamarind chutney, some mint chutney, chopped onions and topped with coriander. If you love potato-based dishes, you really need to try this.