INDIA. Delhi: The Indian cricket team defeated Australia by 36 runs in Cricket World Cup 2019 match played at the Oval, London. And this was not the only thing that made Indian cricket lovers ecstatic. The desi food being sold outside the stadium, especially Jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice) bowled them over.
Yes, it was a pleasant surprise for every Indian coming out when they saw Angus Denoon, a British chef with his beautiful and vibrant portable cart, The Jhalmuri Express. Well, for Indians, a chaat wallah on the streets is a common sight in India. But nobody was expecting such a spicy sight in London, and that too manned by an Englishman. Though priced steeply at £3.50 – approx 350 INR, it was served in a typically classic cone wrap made out of newspaper.
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Denoon tasted Jhalmuri on the streets of Kolkata, the City of Joy, and was awestruck. It was a by the chance introduction in 2004, on a random stopover at Kolkata, and he instantly fell in love with this crunchy, spicy, sweet, sour, and one of the healthiest snacks in the world.
Just like the native Jhalmuri sellers in India, he also keeps moving from one place to the other with a little portable stall that he carries around on his shoulders and sets upon any street.
Thanks to Denoon, Jhalmuri is now one of the most popular street food not only in London but also in other western cities like New York City through the Indian Diaspora.
Bengalis i.e. residents of Bengal have known puffed rice and it has been an intrinsic part of their diet for ages. Rice and various spices are essential components of any Indian cuisine, and also constituents of various chaats or munchies.
A lot of experiments have been done with rice preparations and puffed rice is one of them. Rice is puffed or turned into muri by throwing washed and cleaned grains on top of sand heated in a pot. It is then eaten as a snack with green chilies and also with curries and cooked vegetables. A staple snack in rural areas, it is an anytime snack, eaten whenever one has hunger pangs.
In fact, Jhalmuri is a combination of Jhal, meaning hot pungency of chilies, and Muri meaning puffed rice. The magical mix is accessible to most people, rising above social barriers, irrespective of their diets or religious beliefs. Everyone from upper-crust Bengali babus to rickshaw pullers loves it.
Evolution of present day jhalmuri
During World War II, the popularity of jhalmuri grew on the streets of Kolkata, the former capital of the British Raj. Kolkata, then Calcutta was the center of military operations during the war and saw a migration of large numbers of labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who did brisk business by selling it as a snack to British and American soldiers, and Bengali babus, and eventually made it a street snack.
Jhalmuri is made by adding an assortment of spices, vegetables, ginger, onions, tamarind sauce, boiled chickpea, fried lentils, and lime juice with plain muri. Finally, it is sprinkled with raw mustard oil before serving to make the rice juicier and give it a piquant flavour and a nice, pungent taste. This modern-day, 100% vegan snack with a strange mix of sweet, salty, and spicy tastes is like organising a chaotic party of flavors inside your mouth.
The unmatched flavours of Jhalmuri make it one of Kolkata’s synonyms of Life. Jhalmuriwallahs selling this on-the-go snack can be found at almost every corner that use their expertise in mixing the right amount of ingredients. You can spot them outside schools, colleges, railway stations, parks, etc.
On long journey trains, these muri wallahs are heavenly sights. You will find these traveling vendors boarding the train with their jhalmuri setup, serve jhalmuri to hungry (or bored) passengers, and then get off the train at another station.
A chaotic party
The chaotic party, in fact, begins the moment you order a serving from your favourite muri-wallah. Watching the muri being made is, in itself fascinating; Jhalmuri wallah hands work magic with the ingredients as he combines elements with airy movements. Watching him chopping, cutting, mixing, and tossing an array of items along with handfuls of plain white muri in a steel can, sizzling it all up with lavish drops of mustard oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of tamarind water, and mixing vigorously with a spoon is a heavenly sight. And you bounce on the newspaper bag as soon as he finishes off your serving with finely chopped fresh coriander and a few slivers of coconut sprinkled on top.
Jhal muri taste best when eaten out of a newspaper bag. The mixed muri are first poured into the palm, and then tossed into your mouth and jhalmuri is never ever eaten with a spoon.
Versions of Jhalmuri
Almost every food has its own versions depending on what state you are in. And the same goes for Jhalmuri, the puffed rice snack with minor differences in the ingredients.
What Jhalmuri is in Bengal is Bhel puri in Maharashtra, Churumuri or masala mandakki or girmit in Karnataka, uggani or borugula upma in Andhra Pradesh, and so on…