Street food


Papdi chat

If you have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, recall how the story starts. Ashima reaches for the tin of Planter’s peanuts to mix with her puffed rice. She is attempting to recreate the popular street food available at every corner, every lane in the streets of Kolkata – jhaal muri. She adds the peanuts, some mustard oil, green chili to her puffed rice but it is not the same as what she remembers. Something is missing. The book stole my heart just by that vignette at the beginning – Ashima trying to recreate a comfort food in a land where she is new, everything is unknown. That is every immigrant at some point in their lives, isn’t it?

Papdi chat, as pictured above, is my absolute favorite street food that I make often at home. Either I have forgotten what the real thing tastes like or I have managed to create perfection or my palate has been compromised to think what I create is the epitome of papdi chat. No matter what the reason, I don’t feel like anything is missing from my concoction of papdi chat. Often I don’t have all the ingredients so I improvise. Today’s version included the following:

Papdis (wheat crisps, available in the snack aisle of Indian stores) – this forms the base. Top these with…

Half a cup of canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)

Half a boiled potato chopped into little cubes

2 tbsp of finely chopped raw onion (optional)

1 green chili finely diced – optional. If you like spicy, make it 2

2 tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves

1 cup of beaten yogurt poured over the mixture

2 tbsp of Chunky Chat masala

Half a cup or more, if you prefer, of tamarind date chutney

All this is topped with Haldiram’s Alu Bhujia (again available in Indian grocery stores)

I sometimes make it fancy by sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top.

Talk about burst of flavors in the mouth – crunchy, tangy, savory, sweet – perfection!

I say perfection and I am the only one who eats chat in our house. The non Indian and the part Indians do not care for it. I even go as far as to proclaim it as healthy – garbanzo beans, fat free yogurt, potatoes……healthy! At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.

The Namesake


Recently we discussed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in our book club. For some of the participants, the characters were not quite real. They felt good that they read the book but the characters were not authentic enough. For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a brief synopsis. The story explores the lives of a young couple, recently married, who come to the United States in the 1960’s from Kolkata. The husband is a researcher in a university in New England and the young bride accompanies him to build a life together. The marriage was arranged by their parents so they get to know each other, and fall in love in a completely new country, far away from parents and relatives. They make this country their home, raise their two children here, develop friendships yet suffer from a sense of displacement. They cherish the opportunity that America gives them, yet they pine for the loved ones they left behind. The later part of the story follows the life of their oldest child – a boy, who they name Gogol after Nikolai Gogol. You have to read the book to find out the reason for this unusual name. As Gogol grows up, he has issues with his name so he changes it to Nikhil in college not realizing the sentimental reason behind this name. The book talks about Gogol’s self realization as first generation American and the dichotomy of balancing his roots and his birthplace.

Gogol’s life interested me somewhat since I have two biracial children and one of them is trying to figure out where she belongs. But I completely and utterly related to Ashima, the young bride who came to bitter cold New England right after her marriage. Her desperate attempt to understand a new country and her efforts to replicate the experiences of home, here. The book has a description of Ashima trying to make jhal muri (a very delectable roadside snack in Kolkata) with puffed rice and Planter’s nuts but something is missing. Something is always missing when I make the traditional Musur dal, bati chocchori, alu kopi – a very simple Bengali meal, in this country. Is it the oil? Is it the taste of the vegetable? I am still not sure. When I fry the spices in hot oil, the aroma reminds me of home but not quite, not quite. Something is missing.

The sense of displacement grows faint with each passing year as I deepen my roots in the soil of this country. I understand it more, I start to feel like, yes I belong. I nurture sustaining friendships that make me feel loved but what I find missing is the shared history. I long for those who will share the memory when “Abhi na jao chodke ke dil abhi bhara nahi” plays in Pandora. It is not simply a song. It encompasses a part of my life. It is the memory of my dad crooning it as he tied his shoe laces when he got ready for work. It is the memory of loudspeakers during Durga pujo. It is the memory of coming of age and stealing glances at the boy I liked. It is the memory of the lobby of our university. It is the memory of people I sang this song with, it is the emotions that evoked in all of us as we sang it together.

It is the immigrant experience, never belonging fully and belonging to more than one.