Puffed rice, boiled potatoes cut into tiny pieces, diced tomatoes and onions, a lot of fiery chillies, a concoction of masalas, lime juice, peanuts, a splash of mustard oil, salt, and then garnished with coconut, coriander and ever-green bhujia – the ingredients that make up what Bengalis call jhal muri. Jhal in Bengali essentially translates to hot. Don’t get me wrong, it has nothing to do with the weather. It refers to the heat from chilli or the concoction of masalas or both together that lends the popular snack its name.
In Calcutta, eating jhal muri is a way of life. In the evenings over a cup of tea, during an ‘adda’ session, after a shopping or study session…jhal muri is eaten anytime, anywhere. It’s one of those versatile snacks thats enjoyed by all age groups. Some like it spicy, some forgo the spice altogether. Take my mother for instance. Not only would the person making it have to put freshly cut chillies, but also chilli powder and tamarind sauce in addition to the lime juice to give the snack a more jhal and tok (sour) balance. My sister on the other hand falls in the category that eliminates the jhal in the muri altogether.
I recall my favourite jhal muri seller back home. Every late afternoon, come rain or sunshine, he would set up shop opposite our place, at the corner of the road. By 5pm, a crowd would gather. Students, children with pocket money, daily wage labourers, teenagers and grandparents, office-goers way back home; everyone would wait patiently for their evening snack. It’s healthy (of sorts), filling and reasonably priced – the three things one wants in between proper meals. Ashok da would always have a smile on his face as he made the magic concoction, catering to individual tastes, likes and dislikes. Over the years I saw him age but he never lost his magic ability to make the most delicious jhal muri one could ever want. Friends would come from other parts of the city just to taste the deliciousness!
When I moved to Delhi some years ago, getting jhal muri was problematic. A snack so easily available back home, I’d have to specially go to Chittaranjan Park to get a taste or I’d have to make it at home. Making it at home is not an issue but the taste is not the same. The spicy masala mixture which greatly benefits the snack is unusually hard to master. Sometimes I just stick to a basic concoction of cumin, coriander, amchur and rock salt when the jhal muri craving takes over my system. It’s never as good as Ashok da’s but well, it’s a reminder of home. Don’t tell my mother but sometimes, instead of eating jhal muri as a snack, I think of it as a proper meal. After all, it’s so delicious that it’s my television show binge-watching companion. Popcorn who? It’s jhal muri all the way!