Eats from the streets
08 Sep 2009
There’s something comforting about the bhelpuri. It’s the perfect snack on a rainy day or when out with a gang of friends especially in Mumbai. On most beaches, the best food you`ll get is something fried or barbequed. Not that there`s anything wrong with that. But to eat something as light as puffed rice spiked with red and green chutneys, washed down with a tender coconut all the while digging your toes into the powdery sand of Juhu beach and watching the sun go down is simply divine.
Every evening as the sun starts to fade an army of men appear on the streets of Mumbai’s most popular beachfront - Juhu beach. These are men who are preparing the chutney and masalas that go into the ubiquitous bhelpuri of Mumbai. There is something irresistible about standing in a group, making yourself heard above the din, jostling your way to the counter and eaves dropping on other people’s conversation while having a bhelpuri.
Most people would agree that bhelpuri is to Mumbai what hamburger is to the US. This spicy-tangy snack is renowned the world over and has become a gastronomic icon in its own right. Bhelpuri is not just for the young or semi-broke but for anyone craving an easy snack that can awaken every single pore in the body. Whether served up on a mobile cart, roadside stall or glass and steel restaurants - just the mention of this street food will bring saliva gushing in the mouth of any true blue Mumbaiite.
Bangalore can keep its pubs and Delhi can flaunt its lavish lifestyle. But neither one has miles and miles of sandy beaches. It may not boast of sunbathing bikini-clad bodies. But you don’t come to Juhu expecting Baywatch, you come here purely for the bhelpuri. Like Chowpatty, its downtown counterpart, Juhu Beach is also packed to the gills. On any weekend the shores come alive with screaming children, courting couples and rowdy adolescents. Among the many giant wheels and merry-go-rounds are the countless hawkers peddling tender coconuts, candy floss, instant pictures, and corn on the cob. The bhelpuri stalls here are as old as the beach itself. Umpteen attempts to get them off the beach have been largely unsuccessful. “My stall is almost 35 years old. In fact I grew up helping my uncle Chaurasia Lal grind chutneys for the bhelpuri,” echoes Shyam Lal a stall owner on Juhu beach.
It`s almost as much fun to watch a bhelpuri being made as it is to eat. As the finely chopped onions, tomatoes, green chillies and coriander meet with the crispy puris, puffed rice and sev your will hear a little voice ask you “Madam medium ya theekha?” The bhel is ultimately ignited by a combination of green and red chutneys that not only awakens the palate but softens the rice and sev to a texture that teeters between crunchy and soft. Try the falooda or the kulfi on Juhu beach to extinguish fires started by the bhelpuri. The service is always quick and with a smile. These bhelpuri wallahs can easily go to Wharton and lecture them on service. Harvard should learn how these people always manage to dish up the bhelpuri in less than a minute! (amazing, considering the bhelpuri has up to fifteen items (sev, crumbled puris, onions, raw mango, potatoes, coriander, three kinds of chutney, rock salt, different masalas, etc.)
The Business Mix
The new generation of stall owners are a savy mix of men with a keen sense of business. Apart from the jazzy wall hangings, paintings and music some stalls even stock up magazines and tourist guides (clearly for the ever increasing tourists). The servers wear aprons and the mixers hand gloves. Some claim the water used to make the chutneys is of the bottled variety while others are happy to show you their spick and span stainless steel kitchen ware.
Business has been growing steadily especially after the recession when couple find it economical to spend a couple of hours on the beach savouring a variety of chaats than spend a few hundreds in a fine dinning restaurant. “Weekends are the busiest followed by festivals and summer holidays,” says Meher Chand a stall owner.
The new avtaars
In Mumbai bhel puri can be simple or exotic, but never boring. The health freaks have a choice of low cal bhel puri which excludes the fried sev. The Jain bhelpuri comes devoid of onions. The legenday Elco dishes up the bhel with sprouts.
Best Bhelpuri points
Bhelpuri is clearly for the enthusiastic food fans and not for the snobs. Two of the best places to savour this magical treat in Mumbai is Chowpatty and Juhu beach. Of course there are the sanitized versions like Swati Snacks in Tardeo. The chaat giant Kailash Parbat also does a neat bhelpuri along with their now iconic ragada patice and pani puri. Of course the prices wary anywhere from Rs 20 to 65. The complexity of the bhel is such that it travels very poorly between the cities. No wonder you will never get a decent bhelpuri in Delhi. But nothing beats the feeling of sitting on a brightly coloured wooden bench on Chowpatty beach as you spoon up this delectable mishmash that’s so Bambaiyya.