Pop crackle, gulp and gasp
Pani Puri: India’s favourite street food now available in Sri Lanka
Pani puri occupies a special place in Indian hearts and stomachs, so it’s no wonder that the treat has been one of the country’s most poplar street snacks
On any normal evening in India, in the bustling markets and noisy main streets of big cities and small towns alike, there is a familiar sight: the corner pani puri wala (seller), surrounded by a gaggle of eager customers.
His hands seem to fly as they dip the puris (fried discs of dough) into various bowls of fillings and chutneys and passes them out to people waiting impatiently. The vendor’s customer base stretches across age groups and social strata, with people stepping out of plush cars or families walking over from their homes. For the love of pani puri, and indeed of all chaat (fried snacks), unites Indians in a way few other things do.
Chaat is a catchall word – from chaatna, meaning “to lick” – that covers a wide range of street snacks, where different ingredients are usually tossed together to create a sucker punch of tastes and textures. India loves these small, satisfying snacks because they fill the perfect hunger moment, that is to say early evening, when lunch is a distant memory and dinner has yet to be cooked. And of all chaat, pani puri occupies a special place in Indian hearts and stomachs.
At first glance, pani puri seems like nothing special. The word itself is a combination of pani (water, which in this case, refers to the diluted chutneys) and puri (the fried discs of dough). The crisp, thin puri, which is about the size of a circle made by your forefinger touching your thumb, puffs up upon frying to create a hollow core.
However, eating a pani puri requires much attention and no small amount of skill: poke a hole on the surface of the puri with your forefinger, load it up with your chosen filling – such as mashed potato, healthy sprouts, finely chopped onions or mushy peas – and then dunk the whole thing into sweet-and-sour tamarind and spicy green chutney waters (both often kept iced) in quick succession. Finally, pop the whole package into your mouth and wait for the explosion of flavours, as the puri – ever so slightly soggy by then – crumbles inside your mouth with the sauces flowing out, all while filling the soul and clearing the sinuses at the same time.
Indeed, to eat pani puri is to be prepared for liquid dribbling down the sides of your mouth and tears streaming out of your eyes – an experience that is far more pleasurable than it might sound.
For those few moments, everything feels alright
It is no wonder that the pani puri is one of the street snacks that many indians love. Many home cooks have taken to recreating some of the magic at home, partly to satisfy chaat pangs and partly to feel the freedom of being able to walk the streets again
As education advisor Meeta Sengupta from Delhi exclaimed over email, “Pani puri is pure fun! Pop, crackle, gulp and gasp.”
Mumbai journalist Karishma Upadhya explained, “I think my craving came from a place of wanting something that made us feel happy and ‘normal’. When everything around is in such flux, it’s reassuring when you taste something that your mouth and mind instinctively know. When you put that pani puri in your mouth, you know you’ll get the perfect mix of cold, spicy, tart, sweet and crunchy. And, for those few moments, everything feels alright.”
While some brave cooks such as food blogger Amrita Kaur are making puri from scratch by kneading the dough to a perfect tight consistency, rolling out dozens of small discs, frying them in batches and preparing the fillings – most have used store-bought puris, purchasing them during careful grocery runs or utilising their pantry stocks.
There are many stories about the origins of pani puri. Culinary anthropologist Dr Kurush Dalal says that chaat (likely a predecessor of the modern pani puri) was first created in what is now the northern Indian region of Uttar Pradesh around the time of Emperor Shah Jahan’s rule in the late 17th Century. According to Dalal, royal doctors advised the general population to consume more fried and spicy snacks (and yoghurt) to balance the alkaline quality of the water from the Yamuna River, on the banks of which his new capital, Old Delhi, was built. The puri, which was to serve as “bite-sized containers of the chaat masala” (with fillings such as potato mash), spread to the rest of the country through migrant workers who moved to large cities like Mumbai and Delhi in the last century.
Like the most sublime chaats, pani puri is best enjoyed on the streets. And while upscale restaurants have started serving it in the last few years – with modern twists such as replacing the chutneys with spiced vodka shots and, shudder, guacamole fillings – their offerings rarely hit the spot. This is partly because street vendors know the palate of their customers and tailor each pani puri order accordingly – “Only the sweet-and-sour tamarind chutney”, “No sprouts please”, “Pile on the spice” – and each claims to have their own secret mixes of fillings and flavourings.
Food writer Anubhuti Krishna, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, loves pani puri but has not attempted to make it at home because, as she says, “I know I cannot replicate my favourite flavours at home, and they are sacrosanct for us UPwalas [people from Uttar Pradesh].”
Another reason could be that pani puri is best (or perhaps only) eaten by hand; there is no room for forks or finesse here. Kalyan Karmakar, culinary consultant and author of The Travelling Belly, a book on Indian street foods, describes eating pani puri as a “foodie adventure sport”, adding that “restaurants cannot recreate the thrill of standing on the pavement, unperturbed by people jostling past. Your eyes are focused on the pani puri wala. You have to be ready to pop it in [your mouth] when your turn comes.”
And even though pani puri is a perennial favourite across the country, it is by no means standardised or even similar everywhere. In fact, the name itself differs by place: pani puri is a Mumbai term, whereas in Delhi it is known as golgappa. In Kolkata, it goes by the name of puchka, and in Uttar Pradesh, it’s pani ke patashe (or batashe). The difference comes from the puri base ingredient – semolina, whole wheat or refined flour – as well as the fillings. And like with politics and cricket leagues, Indians like to argue about which kind is the best, and in each town, which pani puri wala makes it the most chatpata (lip-smacking).
Sengupta, who uses a ready-to-fry puri (a recent innovation found in stores), told me about her own Bengali-Punjabi household where the pani is “gingery sweet, with loads of hing (asafoetida) and pudina (mint)” and with “layered textures”. And Krishna, while noting that such food fights are silly, also adds that the Lucknow variety is her preferred version “because of how the softness and blandness of the matar (mashed peas) contrasts with the spicy water and the crisp and khasta (flaky) batasha.”
“It is [an] explosion in the mouth, yet it is soul food,” Sengupta said wistfully, perhaps summing up what millions of us Indians think of pani puri. – BBC
Hoop Earrings your everyday style
When it came to jewellery, 2023 saw a rise in Y2K-inspired designs like we saw in apparels as well. There was an influx of bold colours, playful designs and patterns that elicited a general sense of happiness in the wearer. Loops the simple, round earrings that have hung from women’s lobes since times immemorial has now necome a fashion statement, Bet this time, they are injected with a lot more character. Hoops have also evolved from being simple malleable metal shaped as rings to becoming pieces of jewellery that have a certain main character They are glamorous and stylish and add character to the wearer are Versatile and chic. it is a must have for any women’s wardrobe. Regardless of size, metal, and material, hoop earrings never fail to make one feel more put together.
Hoop earring proponent and jeweller Jennifer Fisher, says this is one jewellery piece that makes you standout among the rest
Fisher, whose name has become synonymous with hoop earrings, has everyone from Jennifer Lopez to CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins wearing her styles daily. With hoops still the dominating earring style, we caught up with her again (hot on the heels of her Beverly Hills store opening) to talk about starting and growing a hoop earring collection. “Your first pair of hoops should be something clean that you can wear morning, noon, and night,” says Fisher. “Your fifth pair of hoops should be something that has texture and maybe a larger diameter. Something that rounds out your collection.”
“I always say that hoop earrings are like the perfect pair of jeans; you need a few styles to round out your collection,” continues Fisher. “Your foundation is normally something pretty classic and then as you grow your collection, your selection should become more diverse. A great example: for your first pair of jeans, you probably aren’t going to buy a wide-leg, long version. You’re probably going to go with a classic straight-leg version, so I suggest the same idea when you’re buying hoops.”
And—to keep Fisher’s analogy going— just like denim, the hoop is versatile. It can be the most casual earring or a minimal accent for an evening outfit.
Bigger than a huggie (meaning a hoop that “hugs” the ear) and smaller than a look-at-me-hoop, the medium hoop is an essential for every collection. It’s a classic pairing for pretty much every outfit under the sun.
The story of the Ceylon spice: harvesting ‘true cinnamon’
By Zinara Rathnayake
It is 9am in the Carlton estate in Thihagoda, a small town about 160km (100 miles) south of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, and the July sun hides behind inky clouds. The air is thick and hot. Two men walk to the main estate building carrying piles of cinnamon branches. Inside, a group of women sit on the cement floor, chatting as they peel cinnamon.
Since 2000, workers here have planted, harvested and peeled cinnamon, sending batches of the fragrant sticks to a factory in Kamburupitiya, a 15-minute drive away, where they are cut, packed and loaded onto shipping containers for export.
Cinnamon harvesting usually takes place from June to December when the monsoon skies burst into downpours. But here at Rathna Producers Cinnamon Exports, it is produced throughout the year on the 42-acre (17 hectares) estate. “When we are done harvesting one acre, the next acre is ready,” says Chamara Lakshith, 28, the estate’s visiting officer, whose job involves coordinating between the estate and the main office in Kamburupitiya. “But sometimes for a few weeks, the bark is so hard that you can’t peel cinnamon. We know it by looking at the trees; young leaves turn striking red.”
The family business that began in 1985 is run by Ravindu Runage, whose late father started in the cinnamon trade with 7,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($35) to buy cinnamon from small farmers and sell it to bigger traders.
Now, Runage says the company is one of the largest cinnamon producers in Sri Lanka, exporting cinnamon and other spices like nutmeg and black pepper to 56 countries. Apart from growing organic cinnamon, the company also sources it from 8,000 individual and small-scale farmers and exports more than 30 containers of cinnamon a month.
“We grew up with cinnamon,” says 36-year-old Runage, at his office in Kamburupitiya, surrounded by several industry awards his family has won over the years. “We lived in a two-bedroom house. We slept in one room. In the other room, my thaththa [father] stored cinnamon.”
Once they were in the business, the Runage family learned that Mexico is one of the biggest cinnamon consumers. “So thaththa learned English and visited Mexico in 1998 to find a buyer,” says Runage. “But they spoke Spanish. So thaththa sent his business cards to companies he found in a telephone book.”
“Five months later, we sold our first container of cinnamon to Mexico.”
The world’s best cinnamon
There are two types of cinnamon in the Western market: Ceylon cinnamon (named after the title British colonisers gave to Sri Lanka) and cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka; it has a lush, inviting scent and a sweet taste, and its quills are soft and light brown in colour. Cassia comes from other Asian countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam; its bark is sturdy with a rough texture, it is dark brown in colour and is stronger and hotter in taste. Cassia is considered lower quality, while Ceylon often triumphs as the pure, “true cinnamon”.
The process of producing this cinnamon includes several laborious, time-consuming steps. This is also why Ceylon cinnamon is expensive in the market while cassia is cheap, Runage says.
At the estate, seeds are planted in grow bags. After one year, saplings are cultivated. Harvesting begins four years later.
For harvesting, farmers cut down the branches of cinnamon trees at an angle, which allows cinnamon bushes to regrow, Lakshith says. Young and tender twigs are thrown away. Once branches are soaked in water and are moist enough, peelers remove the outermost layer of the cinnamon bark. To produce thin cinnamon quills, they spend hours stripping off the inner bark of the cinnamon branch in sheets.
Once produced, Ceylon cinnamon quills are graded based on their width; the thinner the quills, the higher they are in value. Alba is the highest form of cinnamon, with a diameter of 6mm. H1 is a lower grade of cinnamon, with a diameter of 22mm. In the export market, Alba costs twice as much as H1.
A generational craft
With a hearty smile, Suduhakuru Piyathilake holds a large batch of cinnamon quills. Piyathilake and his wife have been living in an old, dilapidated house next to the estate’s main building for 10 years now.
At 5am every day, Piyathilake heads off to the plantation. After collecting branches from about 15 trees, he plods back to the water tank in the main building, drops them off for soaking and returns to the plantation. He must make several trips back and forth before he begins peeling.
“When it’s moist, it’s easy to peel,” says the 55-year-old. “That’s why we cut them early in the morning and soak them.”
When the clock hits 10am, Piyathilake comes back with the last batch. After five hours, he has collected the branches of 200 trees. Sweat trickles down his forehead. A resident kitten swats at his feet, but Piyathilake ignores it and rushes in for a shower.
After a two-hour break, he sharpens his knife by scraping the outer bark of the branch and then he gets to work. “This is what my father and his father did,” he says. “Now my sons are cinnamon peelers.”
Piyathilake has been peeling cinnamon for the last 43 years. He learned the craft from his father in their village in Elpitiya, 70km north of the Runage family estate, where his children live with his mother. At home, cinnamon trees adorn their back yard, Piyathilake says. “But it’s a small garden so we can’t harvest cinnamon every day of the year. We don’t make much money there. So I work here with my wife. We only see our children once in every four months.”
Piyathilake is so adept at work that he can masterfully strip off extremely thin barks of the cinnamon branch by merely measuring them next to his index finger. After peeling the outer bark, he makes two cuts on two opposite sides before peeling off the inner bark. A half a length cut of your smallest bone is for Alba, Piyathilake says. For “rough” or H1 cinnamon quills, Piyathilake uses the length of two bones of his index finger.
However, even for experienced generational peelers like Piyathilake, making extremely thin Alba cinnamon is profitless. By 10pm – when he sets off to sleep – Piyathilake can have peeled about 5kg of lower grade cinnamon, earning about 2,500 rupees ($12.50) per kilogramme. “But I will only make just one kilo of Alba for the whole day,” he says. “Alba is smaller and lightweight so you need to make more quills to make up a kilo – that earns me only 4,300 rupees [$21.50].”
When Piyathilake removes the inner bark, it curls up within a few minutes under the shade. These barks are then stuffed with small cuttings of the bark called quillings to make one 42-inch (1 metre) quill. Quills are placed on ropes under the roof for drying. After three days, peelers pack them into bales and send them off to the factory.
For Piyathilake and his family, cinnamon is their bread and butter, but it is also much more than that. “It’s a craft you have to master for years. I started peeling cinnamon when I was 12. It took me several years to strip off thin layers of the inner bark without damaging it,” he says.
For producers like Runage, however, it is not always easy to find skilled labour. At the Carlton estate, Piyathilake is one of their last experienced peelers. Runage feels that finding generational peelers is one of the biggest challenges in the business today.
“Peeling cinnamon requires hard labour, so the younger generations don’t want to do it any more. They prefer office jobs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these office jobs will pay you more than peeling cinnamon, but an office job has a better social image today,” says Runage. “People consider peeling cinnamon as a low-level job, so it’s difficult for us to find experienced peelers now.”
Back at the estate’s main building, grey-haired Heenipellage Chandra sits on a floor mat, her eyes focused on the cinnamon bark she peels. For 10 years, the 62-year-old has walked to the estate daily to peel at least 3kg of cinnamon. Chandra recalls Runage’s father visiting her house in the late 1980s. “He came to meet my father-in-law and buy cinnamon from him.”
Chandra has been peeling cinnamon at home since she was married. “Somewhere in the late 1970s,” she says, trying to recall her wedding day, “Husband’s father and his father, all of them peeled cinnamon.”
But Chandra’s children do not peel cinnamon any more. Both her 20-something sons do office jobs, says Chandra as her eyes twinkle with a smile. She is proud of her sons. They have climbed the social ladder.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, most resident cinnamon peelers left for their homes during the months-long lockdowns. Runage had to shuffle his staff around to find labour; women from the factory were relocated to the estate to peel cinnamon.
– AL JAZEERA
India child marriage arrests leave families without breadwinner
Crackdown leaves poor families in Assam state without main breadwinner as campaigners say arrests are the wrong way to tackle
Aged 15 and already pregnant after marrying last year, Pinku Das Sarkar has no idea what to do following her husband’s February 2 arrest in a controversial police crackdown on child marriage in northeastern India.
He is among more than 3,000 men, priests and Muslim leaders who have been jailed over the last month in the state of Assam on charges of violating the country’s widely flouted laws against early marriage.
“It was 11pm and we were about to sleep when four policemen came and whisked him away. I didn’t know what was happening. I just cried all night,” Sarkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she sat outside her brick and bamboo house in Radhanagar, a village in Assam’s Nagaon district.
“I really don’t know what to do,” said Sarkar, who relied on the small income her 26-year-old husband made by selling sugarcane juice from a cart.
Marriage under 18 is illegal in India, though almost a quarter of married Indian women wed before their 18th birthday, health data collected between 2019 and 2021 shows.But huge progress has been made to turn the tide on child marriage in recent years.
As recently as 2005-06, 47 percent of women got married before 18, and women’s rights campaigners say better educational access among girls and awareness campaigns in communities where the practice is culturally accepted brought down numbers.
Police action to tackle the issue is rare, however. Less than 2,000 people were arrested across India for arranging or participating in child marriage in 2021, the latest official crime data shows.
The Assam crackdown has been condemned by women’s and anti-poverty campaigners who say it unfairly punishes poor families who marry off their daughters due to financial pressures, and leaves thousands of families without their main breadwinner.
“Criminalising those who are already poor is not the best way to deal with a social problem,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a nonprofit.
“These young pregnant girls are left without any help, with their main support gone,” she said.
Presenting a petition to the Gauhati High Court in the state’s main city, dozens of campaigners called instead for improving girls’ access to education and information on sexual and reproductive health to help prevent child marriages.
A few miles from Sarkar’s home, Gulsona Begum said her security guard husband was imprisoned on February 7 just two weeks after they married, saying his arrest had left the family penniless and facing an uncertain future.
“My father-in-law is physically handicapped and we have no source of income now with my husband in jail,” Begum said at her house in the village of Amlipukhuri.
She said she was 18, but police say she is still a minor and has no documents to prove her age.
“Now that he has been arrested, he will most probably lose his job,” she said. “We are managing to eat for now with the help of our neighbours and relatives … but I don’t know what will happen to us.”
Fearing arrest, several men have fled to neighbouring states, leaving their teenage wives at home, village residents said.Defending the state’s approach, Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters that no cases of child marriage had been reported since the police operation began.
He said that of the 3,047 people arrested so far, about 251 have been granted bail.There have also been questions about whether the crackdown targeted Assam’s Muslim community, which accounts for about a third of its 34 million people.
Most of the arrests took place in districts with a large Muslim population, said human rights lawyer Taniya Sultana Laskar.
Sarma, a prominent figure in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, has said action was being taken against people, irrespective of their faith.
He has cited the state’s maternal mortality rate of 32 percent among girls married before 18, which is higher than the country’s average of 23.3 percent, government health data shows.
Back in Radhanagar village, Sarkar’s father-in-law said his son’s arrest had forced him to question his decision to encourage the marriage, thinking it would be mutual support for the two families.
“Pinku’s mother is a domestic help and … lost her husband young. We had no woman in the house after my wife died. So it was a solution for both our families’ problems as I saw it,” he said.
“I understand child marriage is wrong and I feel helpless now when I see Pinku sad all day. I don’t even get work easily at my age. I worry what will happen when the child comes,” he said.
For now, a couple of neighbours have stepped in to help, taking her to hospital for a scheduled pregnancy check-up.
But she said she misses her husband. “His presence gave me support. He is my strength,” she said.
– Al Jazeera
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