A couple of years ago I was taking one of my sons to a class where one of the moms and dads brought a snack each week. What had started as a simple spread of Chef Earl hummus and cheese cubes from Jewel soon grew more competitive-- okay, I
made it more competitive-- as the elaborateness and the exoticism of the snack seemed to get ratcheted up week by week. Now, give me a dinner to serve and I have no problem getting fancy with meat, side dishes and dessert, but the interesting thing here was that there was a general rule that we were to keep it vegetarian, and one of the kids had a wheat allergy so you at least needed to have something for him, and so on. This meant that I was forced to start delving in areas of cooking less familiar than my standbys.
Looking through cookbooks for something made without wheat, I opened Sheila (half of Silver Palate) Lukins' All Around the World Cookbook.
I consider this a somewhat middlebrow cookbook, presenting international cuisine but not always in a totally authentic way, very much adapted for American cocktail parties. Still, a good book for giving you background and tastes from a lot of different cuisines. In this case, what I found was a couple of pages devoted to Bhel Poori (or bel puri), a term I had seen up on Devon but really didn't know what it was.
According to Lukins-- and I don't doubt that elaboration and clarification will follow this post-- it's a popular street food in India, despite being notably ill-suited to the genre, it seems to me. Imagine if there were stands where you mixed Chex Party Mix to order, that's kind of what we have here-- you have some crunchies, some vegetables, some seasonings and chutney type toppings, and while you stand there it's all mixed for you in a bowl and served to you. Now right there, the fact that you need a bowl and spoon seems awkward for street food, compared to say a pork taco.
But a bunch of bowls from which you served yourself, including a bunch of non-wheat-based crunchies, was perfectly suited to my son's class, especially if I took the expedient of mixing together a few of the more unwieldy items ahead of time to reduce the number of bowls and make transport easier. As it turned out, I think that also improved the flavors, as you'll see.
I went to Patel Brothers on Devon and quickly found the ingredients that wouldn't have been at Whole Foods. That Bhel Poori is a quintessential dish was made obvious by the fact that one of the staff saw what was in my cart as I was shopping and said "You're making Bhel?"
The crunchies were two chickpea-flour based snacks, papdi gathiya, which is roughly Frito-sized, and thin sev, which is little sticks like shredded wheat; and some speckled, not perfectly white puffed rice, which I acquired in an absolutely enormous bag for all of 60 cents or something, and eventually made very organic-looking Rice Krispie bars out of. More recently SWAD has started making a "Bhel Poori mix" in a bag which includes all three items, lightly seasoned, and so I simply buy that and a bag of the papdi gathiya (since there's not that much of it relative to the others in the mix). I haven't tried other brands, but they look greasier in the bag compared to the SWAD, so I stick with that.
Anyway, here's what my spread looks like, ready to dish up:
And here's how you start. Put some papdi gathiya and the bhel poori mix in your bowl:
After the crunchies, you add cubes of boiled potato, to which I had already added lemon zest, red pepper and salt and pepper which are, apparently, normally each dished up from little bowls. Call me an anti-traditionalist, daring to mess about with a classic, but I think combining those ahead of time with the potato made the flavors come together better than if they had been merely sprinkled on top:
You have garbanzo beans (the first time I boiled and shucked my own; never again, canned is fine), a little chopped red onion and cilantro:
And finally, you have the goop (or as they call it in India, the gupta). Again, this is a case where I combined things and, I think, they benefited from it. According to Lukins, at this point you top your bowl with yogurt, a coriander chutney (the classic green chutney you see in Indian restaurants), a little tamarind sauce and some diced tomatoes. For ease of transport, however, I made the goop ahead of time, mixing the green chutney and a little tamarind extract into the yogurt to taste, and then, feeling it was a little one-dimensional, adding just a little of a sweet mango chutney to add a sweet note. (More recently I've found a tamarind chutney that includes the sweet note, and skipped the other.) The result was a wonderful, fresh-tasting yogurt sauce, cool, a little spicy, a little sweet, and very refreshing. I just don't think it would be the same if you added those things separately:
Okay, it may not look like much plopped on top there, but it's pretty wonderful. And actually an Indian-American mom in the class said-- I don't think she was just being polite-- that she too thought the blending of the flavors was better than the traditional way of serving it.
It was a big hit, even though ironically, the kid with the wheat allergy was out that week. I've made it several times since, most recently for a small gathering at my house from which these photos come, and it works great as a slightly exotic, very approachable and delicious snack served up in a fun and unusual way.
After a couple of tries, I decided it would be interesting to see how mine compared to the more authentic version, and ordered it at a couple of places on Devon. For whatever reason of geographical difference, however, it was served in a very different way-- no coriander chutney but rather the maroon-colored chutney (what is that, pomegranate? I forget) is mixed in with it. It's a much sweeter, stickier dish that way, with to my taste none of the refreshing green character of the coriander chutney. It's more of a sweet, like a Rice Krispies bar covered with raspberry jam, rather than the savory dish I love. So sorry, authenticity; my Bhel Poori, Americanized and reengineered though it may be, is the Bhel Poori for me.
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