Served by vendors from a setup that gives the word ‘utilitarian’ a run for its money, pani puri is, in every sense, a material manifestation of the elusive emotion called “simple joy.” This innocuous street snack is also a great leveller – at a pani puri stall, you will see besuited businessmen step out of sleek cars to join the queue alongside the city’s poorest residents.
One of the 16 Mahajanapadas (great kingdoms in Sanskrit) of ancient India, the Magadhan empire was situated on the banks of River Ganga in what is now west-central Bihar. Lively accounts of Magadh and its capital, Pataliputra, are available in the travel diaries of the Greek historian Megasthenes and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang.
It is believed that phulkis (the precursor to pani puri) first originated in Magadh at a time when several traditional specialities of the region, like chitba, pitthow, tilba and chewda of Katarni rice, were evolving. The culinary genius who invented them is lost in the pages of history, but if Indians had known who invented pani puri (or whatever you call this yummy snack), they would have thanked that person for generations!