My husband and I were sad when Mahesh moved south to Santa Clara. No more midnight Scrabble runs, no more weekend hikes that end with naps in the sun. But you can’t blame a guy for falling in love, buying a beautiful home, and starting an adorable family. Luckily for me, the happy couple still invite me to their dinner parties. One of the most memorable (and delicious!) was a chaat party where they filled and dipped and served an endless stream of pani puri.

Each puri — a pastry shell that fries up hollow — is gently thumb-popped to create a bite-sized receptacle for layers and layers of zesty fillings. That night’s version included lentils and chile sauce. Other recipes might incorporate potato, chickpeas, tamarind syrup, or yogurt.

The pani “water” picks up green color from fresh cilantro and mint. After filling the shells, our host dips each one in the pani and hands it to the next person in line.

For those who want a bit of kick, a splash of Mahesh’s secret ingredient adds some depth to the tamarind water.

The fun part is eating the pani puri in one, big bite! Through trial and error — and many ruined shirts — I’ve learned the trick is to lean forward slightly while enjoying each one.

The crispy shell, the blast of herbs, the chile zing, and the tamarind’s sweet-tartness make eating pani puri my own modest vision of heaven.

My favorite places to eat pani puri in between Mahesh and Amolika’s chaat parties:

Chatpatta Corner
The best, hands down, because Sunite Sharma fries her own puri on site! Not to be missed if you’re driving through Fremont: take the Decoto exit, head west one block, and then look for a nondescript strip mall in the shadow of a Jack in the Box. Go with lots of friends, and be prepared to have your pani puri served to you one at a time, just like in India.
34751 Ardenwood Blvd.
(510) 505-0400

Vik’s Chaat Corner
This favorite in Berkeley has expanded beyond it’s original dining room, a good thing for hungry diners eyeing lucky folks with tables. Their market next door is the place to stock up on spices, pickles, basmati and green mango. Or, for your own party, buy all the ingredients you need to serve up pani puri at home.
724 Allston Way
(510) 644-4412

Chaat Cafe
A popular lunch spot that is closer to campus and includes other vegetarian dishes on its menu.
1902 University Ave.
(510) 845-1431

With a touch more formality, this restaurant presents chaat in “small plate” fashion but retains its heart.
2636 Homestead Rd.
Santa Clara
(408) 246-8292

Real Ice Cream
Remember to save room for the amazing ice creams.
3077 El Camino Real
Santa Clara
(408) 984-6601

Pani Puri 18 February,2007Thy Tran

  • Kris

    I miss Vik’s! When I worked at Cal, I used to do my Friday lunches at Vik’s. I adored the lamb specials and the Pani Puri. The Indian food in my new homestate, Kansas, is OK. I’ll try to make it back to Vik’s when I visit Cali again.

  • Thy Tran

    Kris — Wish I could mail you some pani puri! If you’re near Lawrence, KS, try Ruchi. There’s a pretty international community on campus and though it might take a few more years for chaat corners to make it to the midwest, I know that they will.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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