‘We cannot live without pani puri’: how Indian street food thrives in Abu Dhabi
The man gently picks up the small, hollow puff of bread, making a hole in the top using his thumb. Methodically, he fills the deep-fried snack with chickpeas, sweet chutney, raw onion and potato chunks, finishing it off with a sprinkling of chaat masala before drowning it in a soupy liquid, deep green in colour.
Placed in a small tin bowl, the contents spilling down its sides, he passes it through the window where a hand reaches out, scooping the snack into the mouth of its owner in one swift motion.
Over the course of the day at Bhavna restaurant, housed in a small building behind Al Ain Tower on Hamdan Street, between 300 and 400 portions of pani puri will pass through the small window, from maker to eater.
A popular Indian street food, many a pani puri – which roughly translates to water bread – is consumed across the UAE.
Aside from satisfying a hunger pang – each portion consists of six of the carefully created snacks – there is a social element to pani puri, too, says Dubai resident Darshana.
“Pani puri is like the ultimate snack. It’s a great pastime food, the kind where you gather [to eat] with your friends and discuss work and life.”
The snack is cheap, with prices at some of Abu Dhabi’s popular outlets as little as Dh5 per portion, and for many of the country’s residents, it also serves as a reminder of home.
A woman, her young daughter trailing behind her, walks up the narrow alleyway leading to the counter at Bhavna.
Tugging on her mother’s sari, the daughter is handed a puri shell minus the filling as she watches her mother eat.
“We cannot live without pani puri,” she says between mouthfuls. It is, she adds with a smile, an addiction.
But a note of advice, says the woman from Jaipur, as she wipes her mouth for the last time before heading back home: not everyone can tolerate the strong flavour of the tamarind- and cumin-infused water that drenches the puri.
The British, she says, looking at me, don’t like spice, preferring their food to be boiled instead.
A mix of salt and ghee, of spiced potato chunks or chickpeas, or whatever else is tossed in the shell, not to mention the refreshingly biting water, pani puri might not be for everyone, but the taste can be tailored to the customer – and regulars know where to look, says Darshana, who was born and raised in the UAE and has regularly eaten the snack at Mithaas, in Dubai, since she was a child.
“I’ve known one of the men working there since I was 10. Generally, people that make pani puri on a daily basis, and specially the ones that you know, remember exactly how you like it. Not too spicy, with the right amount of sweetness.”
You’d be surprised to know, she adds, the number of makers who will modify the snack to suit their customer’s culinary requirements.
In the dilapidated part of Al Markaziya that houses Bhavna, Indian restaurants dot the way. At Masala Pot, a worker chats on his phone as he takes a customer’s order, the two separated by a counter displaying the deep fried shells in a range of sizes.
Close by, at Evergreen, a family stop to fill their stomachs. A young girl, in a tutu, takes small bites of the snack, finishing it long after her father has wolfed his down.
Another short walk away, at Royal Rajasthan, the man behind the counter places six plump, golden brown shells on a plate. Using spiced mashed potato as his base, he fills the rest with his pick of the other ingredients on display, including onion, tomato, yogurt and chickpea noodles.
Although it can be bought in supermarkets, the boxes coming with a long list of instructions on the back, it rather misses the point of the snack. It’s a social food – for walking and talking, and one that has become popular with people from all walks of life. The owner of the Royal Rajasthan, Laxman Sadhwani, estimates they sell more than 1,000 plates of puri every day across its three branches in Abu Dhabi.
Although the recipe changes from place to place, Sadhwani says there is one thing you must always be sure about – the quality of the flavoured water.
If the water is not good, says the man who makes between 40 and 50 gallons of the stuff each day, “it’s not pani puri”.
Zaineb Al Hassani is a senior news editor at The National.
Updated: November 12, 2015 04:00 AM