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Pani puri is the antidote to the lost summer of 2020

(The Washington Post illustration; Greg Powers for The Washington Post; iStock)

One day, when this pandemic is history and we stop treating the world around us like radioactive waste, I plan to hop on a plane and fly nonstop to Mumbai, where I will stand within arm’s length of a street vendor and eat one pani puri after another from a small handheld bowl. I’ll watch the vendor, or chaatwalla, as he takes each golden puff of fried bread, pokes a hole into the hollow, fills the cavity with spiced chickpeas and potatoes (and whatever else is before him) and dunks the bite into a pot of pani, the cool water flavored with either tamarind or mint and cilantro.

I will feel the summer heat on my skin like a wool blanket. I will delight in the sounds around me: the low rumble of scooters as they race past, the air punctured by their bleating horns, and the polyrhythmic incantations of the tabla, emanating from a speaker invisible to the eye. I will savor the flavors of the pani puri as they flood my mouth, trying my best to live in the moment like Padma Lakshmi did as a child in Delhi.

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“I used to stand under the shadow of the India Gate monument, swatting flies and waiting my turn expectantly under the hot pre-monsoon sun,” Lakshmi emails, reliving her childhood experience with pani puri vendors. “I held my tin bowl in one hand and my uncle’s palm in the other. I could eat the spiciest ones just like the adults, and I wore this fact of pride on my face every time I forced one into my 3-year-old mouth.”

I will, in short, enjoy a full-contact experience with life again. It will be glorious.

But right now, I am — where else? — in my car, which is idling in an illegal parking spot just outside of Masala Art in Tenleytown (4441 B Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-362-4441; masalaartdc.com). It’s the closest I will come to Mumbai street food in the lost summer of 2020.

Ordering pani puri from a restaurant is the equivalent, I suppose, of listening to a string quartet and mistaking it for a symphony. I mean, at a restaurant, you are provided a set number of fried puri shells with every order. On the streets of Mumbai, you will stand next to a cart and eat, and eat some more, until you approach a state of satiety. Atul Bhola, the owner of Masala Art, says eating pani puri on the streets is both ritual and game.

“The story kind of goes that it’s normally a race between who is serving it, the hawker, and the people eating it,” Bhola says. “You cannot possibly have your fill with pani puri. Pani puri is something that should keep on coming, and you should just go on eating.”

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My order of pani puri from Masala Art is gone in, literally, four bites, one for each shell stuffed with seasoned chickpeas, diced potatoes, tamarind chutney and cilantro. I fill each shell with a splash of teekha pani, the murky, olive-colored water made in-house with mint, cilantro, chiles, sugar, black salt and more. The crunch of the shell is the first sensation, its crackle a kind of alarm, to alert the palate about the waves of flavor that are about to hit it like a tsunami. Tart. Sweet. Spicy. Herbal. Both stimulating and refreshing, pani puri feels like an antidepressant for when summer turns oppressive.

“It’s actually popular all year round, but more so in summer,” Bhola says. “It’s just too hot in India. They just want to kind of cool themselves down.”

The origin story for pani puri is, like those for many dishes, ambiguous. One trickster on Quora may have even punked a generation of food writers by suggesting a bogus origin based on “Mahabharata,” the epic Sanskrit poem. History aside, though, pani puri assumes different names. Depending on where you live in India, the street food could be known as puchka, golgappa, gupchup or pani puri, though purists will argue that there important regional variations among all of these snacks.

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But just as important, Bhola tells me, is that each vendor has his own take on the dish, and the variations can be as minute as the amount of chaat masala added to the pani. The chaatwalla knows, Bhola says, that a pinch of one ingredient makes the pani perfect, but another pinch might throw off its delicate balance. “The art is in the hands,” he says.

The art is not in my hands, however. As I sit on the patio at Bansari Indian Cuisine (2750 Gallows Rd., Suite H, Vienna, 571-489-8500; eatatbansari.com), a new Punjabi-influenced restaurant in the Virginia suburbs, I am served yet another variation of pani puri: a DIY dish in which chef Deepak Sarin gives you a handful of pristine puri shells, a metal container of spiced chickpeas, potatoes and chutneys, and a separate jar of mint-cilantro pani. You must crack open, stuff and water the hollows yourself. The beauty of this approach is that you get to play with the ratios and determine your own level. Personally, I like to pack the shells tight, to give them heft so that they’re not the Subcontinental version of soup dumplings, the water gushing everywhere.

But I realize I’m also a rookie at this game. What do I know? In Lakshmi’s memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate,” the author and TV host sort of tsk-tsks the DIY approach to pani puri. “Nowadays, you’re often presented with the components and required to assemble each bite yourself, which is a bit like your favorite chef presenting you with his mise en place of prepped ingredients. Pani puri is never as good as when a master makes it.”

In her email to me, Lakshmi says the Bengali Market in Delhi “has the best pani puri anywhere. I can eat upward of 30 at a time. It is the first stop on my food pilgrimage whenever I land in Delhi.”

You know where to find me when we’re finally clear of this mess.

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