Bhel is a chaat- a streetside snack made of crispy puffed rice, coriander, mango, onion, sev, potatoes and chutney. When eaten, it is supposed to conjure memories of Bombay’s streets and warm sea air, and specifically, of the vendors on Chowpatty beach, their pink and yellow neon lights flashing into the evening as they make and sell bhel in bowls. When my parents were growing up in Bombay, they would spend Sunday evenings on Chowpatty, indulging cravings for their city’s bhel. The water used to make the chutney might have been unfiltered and speckled with imperfections, but perhaps that was the essential ingredient to create the harmonious picture of a whole family sitting crosslegged on a blanket in the sand, scraping up every last coriander leaf and crunchy, sun-colored mango.
In my experience, Indians, both in India and abroad, are crazy after bhel; it’s a sort of love affair, a special treat that never loses its charm. And although it’s not difficult to make at home, people will persevere in finding it- my aunt, when she was visiting from Chicago, spent her time seeking out a chaat house in New York that served good bhel; she wanted to find a place that could feed her a taste of her home. The tongue responds to something in the spicy sweet mix of chutneys, and the satisfying crunch of the delicate white mumra (puffed rice), and makes people- my brother, my parents, their friends, all salivate. So imagine the excitement in my house on Friday after my aunt called us over for a bhelpuri dinner.
Bhel was born as a Gujarati dish but evolved into a meal that could be tailored for tastes across India. Jains eat their bhel with tomatoes; Bengalis add red pepper and mustard oil to theirs. Bombay style bhel evolved from UP bhel, and it is known to be loved by everyone, regardless of the region they call home.
For you, a photo guide to assembling bhel:
You start with a base of puffed rice, puri, and sev
Then mix in your potatoes and red onions
Heap in handfuls of coriander, unripe mango, and lime for fresh tastes; salt and chilli powder according to preference
Pour on the date and tamarind chutney and the coriander and mint chutney
Top with crushed puris and sev and serve promptly!