There is something comfortingly familiar about eating a humble pani puri – a crispy hollow ball made of semolina or wheat, filled with spicy potatoes and topped with tangy, spicy tamarind water made fragrant by mint leaves and black salt.

It may sound like culinary chaos, but that this spicy, crunchy wonder is absolutely delicious is something almost Indians will agree on.

 

Served by vendors from a setup that gives the word ‘utilitarian’ a run for its money, pani puri (also called golgappa, phuchka and a multitude of other monikers) is, in every sense, a material manifestation of the elusive emotion called “simple joy.” This innocuous street snack is also a great leveller – at a pani puri stall, you will see besuited businessmen step out of sleek cars to join the queue alongside the city’s poorest residents.

So how and where did this culinary gem really originate? Many believe that the answer lies in the history of the kingdom of Magadh.

One of the 16 Mahajanapadas (great kingdoms in Sanskrit) of ancient India, the Magadhan empire was situated on the banks of River Ganga in what is now west-central Bihar. Lively accounts of Magadh and its capital, Pataliputra, are available in the travel diaries of the Greek historian Megasthenes and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang.

It is believed that phulkis (the precursor to pani puri) first originated in Magadh at a time when several traditional specialities of the region, like chitba, pitthow, tilba and chewda of Katarni rice, were evolving. The culinary genius who invented them is lost in the pages of history, but if Indians had known who invented pani puri (or whatever you call this yummy snack), they would have thanked that person for generations!

There is another legend associated with the origin of pani puris. This is how it goes:

In the epic Mahabharata, a newly-wedded Draupadi returns home to be given a task by her mother-in-law Kunti. The Pandavas were on exile and Kunti wanted to test if her new daughter-in-law would be able to manage with the scarce resources.

So she gave Draupadi some leftover potato sabzi and just enough wheat dough to make one puri, instructing her to make food that would satisfy the hunger of all five of her sons. It is believed that this was when the new bride invented pani puri. Impressed with her daughter-in-law’s ingenuity, Kunti blessed the dish with immortality.

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