April 14, 2010
Perhaps it is a generational symptom, or hazard, to experience times in one’s life that are later identified as having felt “like a movie.” If serendipity, luck, or chance has played a large part, making one’s day unusually perfect or delightfully surprising, then “it was like a movie.” If terrible things have taken place, things no one could have foreseen, things one feels one might not make it through, then “it was like a movie,” also.
Nearly everything about the summer of 2006 occurs, for me, like a movie. This may well be the case because all of it is showcased, projected up on the screen of my mind, as if it happened to someone else. As if it had been written, the frighteningly complete alignment of feeling and form, sure to please even the most exacting director. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for whatever hand laid out the minutiae of our lives that summer. But living life like a movie will throw you off balance after a while. “So let it be written, so let it be done.”
From one morning in Mumbai, a particularly cinematic recollection. My father and I went out for a walk, just the two of us, traveling down the rickety elevator of his sister’s flat and out into the street. We worked across a few busy streets to the Five Gardens, where paths are reserved for pedestrians. The gardens are really more like well-shaded parks gated off from traffic. Of course, everywhere you turn in Mumbai is a veritable garden; given the hothouse climate, all manner of flowers and greenery grow.
Each of the five gardens contains a different buzz of activity—a rousing game of cricket underway on one dusty circle, some quiet games of chess between old men under the shade of palm trees. At that point in my life, I aspired to be one of those people who can eat street food. I had read Bourdain, I bought into the romance of late nights, authenticity, and machismo. I believed him when he says that you don’t really know a place until you eat what everyone who lives there is lining up to eat on some random street corner. And I was willing to sacrifice some nights of peaceful sleep for a stomach of iron and some really good noodle bowls—I just hadn’t had much of a chance.
In between trips to India, I only made one trip outside of the States—a college jaunt to Amsterdam, where the bragging rights for eating street food are not nearly as high as, say, Thailand or Japan. I did, however, take the liberty of consuming several cones of warm European frites with spicy mayonnaise in the wee hours of the morning, which I still crave when I am up very late and have been drinking.
I also remember, very distinctly, watching my father stand in the middle of an open market in Mexico and risk his life (and my mother’s wrath) to eat fish tacos. I was dying to take a bite myself, but I was only ten and, at that point in my life, unable to defy her. More than a decade later, on that morning walk, I jumped at the chance to eat recklessly with my dad, to eat away from my mother’s watchful eye, to join my father in a little subversive act, just one moment of defiance to make up for all of those years I placed myself unabashedly on my mother’s “side.”
With the paper rupees in my father’s wallet, we feasted on watermelon, mango, coconut milk straight from the fruit, and shared a crunchy helping of sev puri. The Indian food smorgasborg, sev puri is a classic street food, a weird, delicious concoction of spicy cooked potatoes, raw onions, the option of boiled moong beans (they taste like mild peas but are a little more toothsome), and drizzles of dhania (cilantro) and imli (tamarind, my favorite) chutnies atop a bed of salty, crunchy chips and twigs made from chickpea flour. Served in a big, Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, our snack was well worth the risk of intestinal distress, as well as my mother’s dismay, though we managed to keep the secret together, and I am spilling it now.
Sev Puri falls under the large umbrella of Chat, or snacks, along with its cousins bhel puri and pani puri. As with most iconic food, there is much variety in the method and lively debate about just what constitutes true sev puri and what does not. This version has been honed to my tastes, of course, but also to the ease and convenience of a lazy but satisfying pantry meal or an answer to the question “what should I feed all of these people who have suddenly appeared at my house?” Stored properly, the dry ingredients will keep in your pantry for months, the chutneys freeze well, onions & cilantro are cheap, and if you’re like me, you always have a random handful of potatoes hanging out somewhere, waiting to be cooked. Am I right?
You can (and should feel free to) add tomatoes, a drizzle of yogurt, roasted chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, chopped Serrano or other peppers, even diced mango to your sev puri.
For the bottom/crunchy layer of this snack, you’ll need to acquire a bag of packaged sev (fried bits of chickpea flour) and one of flat puris (small flatbreads, also fried). Your local Indian grocery may have a bagged “sev puri mix” with these two pre-combined—just ask. If you don’t use these up the first time, they’ll keep in the pantry if well-sealed in plastic bags.
for the potatoes:
2 lb. red new potatoes
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
squeeze of lemon
Boil the potatoes whole until soft and easily pierced with a fork. Cool, then peel and chop into half-inch chunks. Toss with the spices and mix well. Check for salt & taste but keep in mind that you’ll be adding many layers of flavor so you don’t want the potatoes to be overbearing. Set aside until ready to serve.
for the dhania (cilantro) chutney:
2 bunches cilantro
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds (if salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the chutney)
1 jalapeño, seeded if you like
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 T ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
To prep the cilantro, wash it thoroughly and chop off the bottom portion of the stems. If you like, you can pick off the leaves and discard all stem pieces, but I honestly don’t find this is necessary—just cut off the tough ends.
Process all ingredients in the blender, adding water until you reach your desired texture; I like mine just shy of smooth.
for the imli (tamarind) chutney:
Many people make imli chutney with dates or jaggery (palm sugar), but I learned from my mom to use apple butter instead and I think it’s way delicious-er.
1 cup apple butter*
½ cup tamarind paste
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
Combine all ingredients except water in a small saucepan. Heat on low, adding water to thin the chutney. Cook until the ingredients are incorporated, checking to be sure the flavors are balance. The chutney should be sweet, with a hint of fire and strong “pucker” from the tamarind. If you want more of any one flavor, add the corresponding ingredient.
Cool before storing in the fridge and freezer. Be mindful that the chutney will thicken, so you may need to thin it again before serving.
* If you can get your hands on homemade apple butter, do. Otherwise, it’s easy to find in the “peanut butter & jelly” aisle of your supermarket.
for the assembly:
I like to arrange the components along a counter or table so each person can assemble his/her own. In the bottom of a bowl, add a heap of sev and a few puris, breaking up the latter with a spoon or fork. Throw on some potatoes, then onions if you like, then cilantro if you like, and generous drizzles of one or both chutneys.