The Desi Chai Binge With Pani Puri | And Please Don’t Mind The Hands!

“Don’t eat until you’re full, eat until you’re tired!”
Hawaiian saying


The above quote might be a Hawaiian one, but it could have well been mine. So it all started with a ‘Chai’ invitation. Strictly chai… strictly on time… with an expected time of our arrival being much earlier than the terrible late entries that have lately become fashion statements (hiding here – I am guilty too). The purpose? To have chai and chaat over chat, chaat being the incredible desi binging that was to accompany the chat! A tea party starting at 5pm and culminating in a late night movie at the theaters, followed by an impromptu sleepover at the hosts’ place (if you ask me, it was 80% pre-planned, so that we wouldn’t be running helter-skelter to drop the Z-Sisters home before rejoining the gang at the theaters). And finally a frantic drive across the city post-midnight in search of kala khatta – a desi drink of a sweet-sour syrup poured over crushed ice (below is a video as a justification to the rapid search). This was one weekend that started with all the right notes and with all the right taste – sour, tangy, sweet, spicy – and in repeat mode. If you, like Oprah, is shocked at hands digging into food, I suggest you stop reading the post right now and get back into the loop of things in the last paragraph, when we are done with all the hands digging. Oprah created quite an uproar when on her visit to Mumbai she commented: ‘I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still.’ Dear O, some desi binges lose their taste if they aren’t eaten with hands… or prepared with hands, so please excuse. Plus there’s also a spiritual explanation to the use of hands while eating Indian food – but that’s for some future post.


The menu was supposed to be short and crispy, but quite predictably extended itself to become a thesaurus for chaats. Homemade samosas were followed by mint-laden small chaat potatos prepared street style, katori chaat (katori implies bowls… hese were fried crusts stuffed with papri chaat filling), papri chaat where even the papris were made at home too. The grand finale of course was the phuchka. Stressing here, these were phuchkas, the Bengali styled aloo/potatoes going into the pani puri spheres. That brings me to the background of this post – why this post? Because, phuchkas are legendary. Because phuchkas aren’t available in Dubai (well, almost). Because phuchkas aren’t pani puris. Period. And how important is phuchka in my life? Very. I wasn’t allowed to eat this street food as a child and I grew up begging kind and generous family members and relatives to treat me to phuchka (contrary to how cruel this sounds, I did have a privileged childhood). It is important in my blogging journey too, as the post that brings maximum traffic to my blog even today is a random post that I had written long time back on the legendary Dilipda of Vivekananda Park in Kolkata, and his ‘world famous in Kolkata’ phuchkas. Our yesterday’s phuchka session reminded me of our phuchka craze, the serpentine queues and the chaos that entailed to get that one historic sphere.


There were many differences though –  these weren’t so spicy and we didn’t cough and choke while we plopped the phuchkas in our mouth. Also the mint and tamarind water was made with a mineral water whose source and brand we knew. Unlike the ambiguity and the anxiety that comes along as we embark on a phuchka package in Vivekanada park – will we survive the phuchka haul this time? Was the water okay? Typhoid hobe na to/hope we don’t have typhoid? Yesterday, the amount of chaos that entailed in our phuchka session makes me swell with pride – even our pizza loving Bong Gen X are turning out to be phuchka suckers – oh what an achievement on our part! Remember, you don’t always need Dilipda’s recipe for that. Ready made pani puri boxes sold by popular brands like Haldiram’s are available in any Asian store in Dubai like Adil, or the ethnic section in popular supermarkets like Lulu, Carrefour, Al Maya Lal’s, Spinneys, Choitram’s and others. The chutneys come in powdered form inside packets – along with the pani puri spheres. However, to upgrade the pani puri into phuchkas, not only do you have to add some aloo and additional spices, but also you have to do rehash from Dilipda’s recipe. Your hands have to dig into the filling as you stuff each crispy sphere with the filling, dip it into the spiced waters and serve. Last heard, even these spheres come ready made nowadays as flattened chips, and all you need to do is fry them! However, these rocket-science inventions haven’t hit the Dubai supermarkets as yet.


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Our favourite places in Dubai for chaats and pani puri (and only a few places add the spice and aloo to convert them into phuchkas):

  • Chatori Gali (we prefer the Oud Metha one), also for a very late night last-minute binging on Jalebi, Rabdi and kulfis in clay mould
  • Urban Tadka, ask for Madan in the Karama outlet who knows how to make the Kolkata style phuchka. (proof below)
  • Bombay Chowpatty (preferably the Karama outlet where it’s always overcrowded and gives you the real desi feel), also for the kala khattas (proof below) and really really blown up Bature to accompany the chole. (proof here)
  • Bikanervala (preferably the Karama outlet), also for the Indian styled veg Chinese (seriously) and a dessert called Chinese rasgulla – no claim to authenticity but a mind boggling one with mini rasgullas set in rabdi like rasmalai!
  • Chappan Bhog, also for their rasgullas which are the best match to the Bengali rasgullas in Dubai
  • Mr Chaat (and the best part is that you can hop into Ravi’s next door to follow up your pani puri encounter with some greasy oily Biryani)
  • Shree Gangaur (near Sunrise supermarket in Karama)… hold on, this is the recent entrant to the chaat market with Kolkata phuchka (yessssss written in the menu too in this manner), Bengali sweets, Kolkata rolls (sigh only vegetarian) and Kolkata ghoogni!

Kala Khatta at Bombay Chowpatty

Kolkata style phuchka at Urban Tadka


I don’t care if you’re doing haute cuisine or burgers and pizza, just do it right.
Grant Achatz

So the motto is – just do it right, whether it’s burgers or pizzas or chaats or pani puris… and everything else will fall into place. While we are ‘chaating’, you will enjoy reading fellow blogger Burp & Belch’s post ‘Chāt It Up‘ and Pear Tree Diaries’ love for chaats. And talking of pani puris, do try out the deconstructed Pani Puri at Tresind, the Indian modernist fine dining restaurant along with the chaat trolley (Dhs 70 for a chaat trolley that can feed 4 people at a fine dining restaurant is really a deal)… so impressed were we, that we did feature these desi binges in their modern avatars in two consecutive issues of Food e Mag dxb – it’s like a sari clad Indian seductress on stilettos grooving perfectly to some retro western beats on a psychedelic dance floor. And for those readers who left in the first paragraph and joining me again, well here’s another beautiful picture of our host’s dining table… a table that has graced many times in my blog before as I wrote on Marwari Dal Bati Churma, Gulabjamun Rabri, Anjeer ki Chutney and surely there will be more (the sojourn of non-Bengali food posts in my blog). By God’s grace, all my friends are great cooks. This is destiny. It could have also been that they were terrible cooks, in which case I probably wouldn’t have been surrounded by them, right? I feel lucky to have survived the phuchka assault over the weekend, although it spilled over to today’s breakfast with leftover samosas. Hope you all have had a relaxing weekend and are going to have a delicious start to a brand new week!

Unblogging it all… Ishita


Disclaimer: The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


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