"What's in a name? That which we call phuchka
by any other name would taste as delicious."
Pardon, the twist in the Shakespearean adage but it is true nevertheless. Call it phuchka, pani-puri, golgappe or gup-chup, depending upon which part of the earth you are walking on, it will tickle your taste buds the same way as it does elsewhere. True, its taste and style of serving vary from place to place but ochre yellow crispy balls are easily recognisable. In Kolkata though, it is easily the undisputed king of street fare and surges in the popularity chart compared to jhal muri, bhel puri or various chats. No wonder even filmmakers eager to showcase Kolkata, have a scene or two where the lead pair is shown having phuchka. Remember that scene from Parineeta where Vidya Balan is shown feasting on phuchkas in front of Victoria Memorial? That's a quintessential scene of Kolkata for many.
Kolkatans have virtually grown up savouring this street side wonder that is phuchka. Preparing this fare is though an intricate affair and requires skills honed by years of experience in not only rolling out the round hollow balls, but the accompaniments including the mashed potato filling and tetul jal (tamarind water). Now the avatars of phuchkas are many, ranging from normal phuchka dipped in tetul jal to Dahi phuchka, which adds a dollop of curd on the tangy spice mix. Another avatar doing the rounds in recent years is the traditional phuchkas served by dipping them in sweetened water. And you may also ask him to prepare churmur, where the same ingredients are used but the phuchkas are crumbled and added to the diced boiled potatoes and masalas.
So what really goes into making this street food a straight hit among people of all ages?
Phuchka: Whole wheat, white flour, shuji (Semolina) and salt are the basic ingredients that go into making of phuchka. The ingredients are knead into smooth dough and then divided into small round balls which are then flattened to form thin circular shapes with a rolling pin or belan. Rolling out these wafer thin puris is the most intricate affair and requires great skill. Once prepared, these are fried in heated oil and swell to form round crispy balls.
Phuchka masala: This is what tingles your taste bud with its tangy flavour. Coriander seeds, cummin seeds, cloves, cardamom, mouri (Fennel Seeds) and jowan/ajwain (Carom) are all roasted dry and grinded coarsely to a powder.
Tetul Jal (Tamarind Water): Just like there cannot be a performance of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, tetul jal or the tamarind water is indispensible when it comes to serving phuchka. Salt, black salt, the special masala, red chilli powder, tamarind paste, lime juice , Gondhorjaj lebu (Bengali Lime), coriander and mint leaves are all mixed in water to give it the special sweet and sour taste. While some may question the hygiene quotient of the water, the phuchkawallahs will vouch for the tap water over distilled mineral water. Unfazed by doubts over hygiene Sukumar Mondal, a phuchkawallah from Behala rejects the proposal of using purified water saying, “Otey taste hoyna.” Well, may be the impurities make tetul jal what it is.
The mashed potato filling: Inside the hollowed (or haloed!) phuchka nestles the mashed potato filling while being served. Boiled potato, mashed thoroughly with phuchka masala and green chilli paste, salt and black salt, tamarind paste along with the crumbled phuchkas, Papris and boiled chickpeas goes into making the filling. Here is the scope for customisation; you may like the filling to be spiced with an additional dash of green chilli paste or red chilli powder or a little more khatta (sour) with a dash of lemon. One may ask for a sukha that is without the tamarind water and a freebie at the end to which the phuchkawallah adds another dash of salt or lemon juice allowing you to sign off for the day at least.
Last but not the least, phuchkawallahs are tremendously environment friendly since they mostly do not use thermocol or plastic plates in place of sal leaves shaped into small bowls to serve phuchka.
The phuchka making and subsequent delivery to the roadside stalls is an organised affair in itself. For a start, phuckas are mass produced in dingy cramped rooms in the slums of Kolkata, which includes the shanties of Chetla near Taratala, Tollygunge to name a few. These phuchkas are then bought by middlemen or Mahajans. The traditional wicker basket or the glass boxes storing the puchkas, the steel pot used to store the tamarind water and the familiar red cloth and a stand are also supplied by the middlemen to the streetside vendor. His ingredients too, are supplied by the same middleman. Krishna Prasad, a phuchkawallah who sells his wares at a petrol pump in New Alipore area related the secrets of his trade. “I came from Samastipur district of Bihar in order to earn a living. My cousin introduced me to a Mahajan who resides in Tollygunge. Every day I borrow these wares and phuchkas from the Mahajan and sell my fare on the streets”. Shyam Bihari Shukla, another phuchkawallah who sells his fare near the Tollygunge Metro Station related the same tale. “I usually make between Rs 150-200 per day, after deducting the amount I have to pay back to the middleman”, Shukla said. Well, that's modest by any standard but there are many vantage points in the city where they do earn much more. And these spots often change hands for a couple of lakhs. As a phuchkawallah selling his wares at Lyon's Range once confided that he had “bought” that spot for two lakhs from another migrant who wanted to return to his village in Bihar.
According to a very rough estimate, there are more than 5000 phuchkawallahs in Kolkata, setting up their stands in various nooks and corners of the city. By now you must have guessed that Kolkata's phuchkawallah is a reflection of its cosmopolitan culture, mostly hailing from UP and Bihar to eke out a living in the City of Joy.