Muri Blues November 27, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
There is a connection between young love and Calcutta’s jhalmuri
FROM THE DARKNESS OF KOLKATA’S LAKE GARDENS come the sounds of lovers holding hands.
Bet you’ve never heard the sound of lovers holding hands before, but I have. It’s not the usual slurps and slobs and chwoops and fevered whisperings, but more a steady chomp-chomp-chomp. Occasionally you might hear an intense burp.
It is the sound of two people deeply in love eating Calcutta’s jhalmuri together. No other city serves up this amazing snack based on puffed rice, or muri. The jhal refers to the fiery trail it blazes as it enters your system. Calcuttans buy their jhalmuri from numerous itinerant vendors who emerge towards twilight, with wicker baskets full of muri hanging from their waists. Arrayed around the basket like bullets in a carabinier’s magazine are old tins of ingredients such as rock salt, onions, green chillies and so on. If you took a closer look, you would find at hand a large Dalda tin as well, defaced and blackened, almost tired, in which he will combine the ingredients; and the small wooden baton with which he will give the mixture a twirl before serving it in paper cones rolled from old copies of Ananda Bazar Patrika.
Bengalis will swear that there is something almost magical about the old tin which imparts a fire-tinged magic to the jhalmuri and explains why home-made version can never match what lovers munch at Lake Gardens.
In the lane that runs by The Statesman building in Chowringhee, a gloomy hole-in-the-wall dispenses jhalmuri and nothing else. We used to despatch the office boy on late-work evenings to pick up jhalmuri. Putting aside crowquill and Rotring, we would shovel fistfuls of the stuff into our mouths, cursing at the fieriness of it and wiping the tears from our eyes. Work would be impossible later anyway, so we’d retire to some nearby beer bar and discuss the future of communism in Bengal.
Because it is based on puffed rice, you might mistakenly conclude that jhalmuri is probably a cousin of Bombay’s bhelpuri, but the truth couldn’t be further. If puffed rice is the gene pool, then jhalmuri is the warrior and bhelpuri the poet. The biggest mistake you could make would be to try and adapt jhalmuri to local taste, for that would not be murder, it would be assassination.
I spoke to several people, some of them Bengali, others with Bengal in their blood, to piece together the recipe for jhalmuri. Everyone remembered different ingredients, and I conclude that jhalmuri’s recipe itself must be variable. Accordingly, the recipe I give below lists the basic ingredients, and separately, a couple of add-ons.
[Do note, won’t you, that I could have insisted that you click on the Bloggers Choice Awards website link on top of this page and forced you to vote for this blog if you really wanted the recipe, but I didn’t, having too much character and integrity.]
250 gms puffed rice (muri)
1 or 2 onions, finely chopped
2 or 3 spicy green chillies, sliced into fine ringlets
Half a cup of peanuts
1/4 coconut, sliced into slivers
50 gms dried peas (chana)
Boiled potato sliced into flakes
1/2 cucumber finely chopped
1-2 tsps freshly pressed mustard oil
Half a lemon
Raw mango cut into little slivers
Red chilly powder
My only caution to anyone experimenting with other add-ons is to remember that a fine line divides jhalmuri from other puffed rice preparations. On no account should you try to sweeten it, using tamarind water and the like, for that would bring it too close to the Maharashtrian counterpart. Similarly, do not add any ground spices such as aamchoor (dried mango powder) or garam masala — you might get interesting tastes but none of them will be the real thing.
Also, do note the casually used phrase ‘freshly pressed mustard oil’. Not only is this darker and more aromatic than the refined and packaged version, but it gives teeth to the jhalmuri plus it is what Calcutta’s muriwallas use. Whatever you do, do not, repeat, do not substitute mustard oil with any other oil except at your own peril.
You’re ready now. Bung the ingredients into an old magic tin and give it a good twirl with a wooden spoon. Squeeze some lime juice over it. Walk into a cosy dark spot with someone you love deeply, and start eating jhalmuri, occasionally holding hands or burping.