The experience of eating Chaat: Jhal Muri.

There is no memory of India stronger for me than that of eating Chaat on the roadside. It takes hold of all my senses, and stirs things up deep inside of me, until the craving is so strong; I have to make some Chaat right away.

I talk about Chaat the way most people refer to mom’s home cooked food. You can tell me that my mom's chana masala needs more salt, but don’t ever insult my favorite Chaat-seller, or it’s over between us. The Chaat experience for me is almost sacred and I won’t let anything get in the way.

The last time I was in Calcutta, I had, but ten days, in which to make the pilgrimage to my various Chaat haunts. Time was short and I had plenty of ground to cover. To this end, I avoided mom’s home cooked dinners and filled up on the wide variety of Chaat every single day. After all, it’s not impossible to duplicate mom’s recipes, but the delicate balance that comes together to make a Chaat experience cannot be recreated anywhere else.

The most common variety of Chaat encountered in Calcutta is Jhal Muri, or Muri for short. This is a cousin to Bhel Puri, found more commonly all over India, but I prefer the former to the latter. Why? For one reason, it is spicier than Bhel Puri, but more importantly, it is easier to carry around. Unlike Bhel Puri, which is served in paper plates, Muri is sold in little paper bags made of old newspapers, which make it an ideal companion for strolls, and thus a crowd-favorite. As you walk, you use your fingers to spoon the savory bites into your mouth.

Being such an ideal and valuable companion, Muri is a very important link to my past. For the greater part of my teenage years, an evening stroll with friends was incomplete without a packet of Muri. Secrets were shared and confidences betrayed, star struck glances exchanged and hands gently held, hearts shattered and mended, stories told and retold; and amidst the giggles and tears, there were always the loyal packets of Muri.

Muri literally is rice krispies, but it’s everything else that goes into the mix that makes it so special. As you stand at the street corner, the Muriwallah finely dices onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and boiled potatoes. Taking your taste into account, he adds chilli peppers, and then the seasonings, which include a dash of mustard oil, a splash of sweetened tamarind chutney and then his special blend of spices. He mixes these in a mixing bowl and then offers you a sample, so you can decide if it’s spicy enough. Once you’re satisfied, he transfers the contents of the bowl into a small newspaper bag and you’re ready to go on your way.

The special blend of spices used by each muriwallah dictates his status in the neighborhood’s top three listing. My mother once spent a year trying to figure out the combination of spices in the blend perfected by my favorite Muriwallah. In the end, her efforts to lure me away from the street corner failed and she learnt to accept that her Jhal Muri could never be as good as the “real thing”. But she still makes a pretty mean chana masala.

It’s a standing joke among my friends that the reason no mom can ever make Muri, or any Chaat for that matter, that truly rivals that sold on the streets, is hygiene related. Mom washes her hands too much, does not look sweaty and unwashed, uses filtered water in the preparation of the sweet tamarind chutney, and does not incorporate dust, dirt and the exhaust fumes of decrepit old buses and cars into the mix. Mom also won’t serve you food with newsprint running into it. And of course, the experience of walking through familiar spots while savoring your Muri, is not the same as sitting at the dining table with a napkin on your lap.

Despite this hygiene issue, I would go so far as to say that the Muriwallah performs a very valuable function in society. Muriwallahs have been a blessing to the lover waiting for his beloved who is always an hour late, or the child waiting for a bus that may never come. They made my history books a little less dry and my math problems a little less confounding. They made the unbearably sweaty summer afternoons less draining, because you always knew that evening would come, bearing with it, the promise of a fresh batch of Muri. They even made being a broke student easier to bear, because if you just walked instead of taking the bus, you could fill up on Muri for dinner.

God bless my favorite Muriwallah and may he still be alive when I next visit India.

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