Any good gallery has participatory art to let the audience engage in the creative process. So when owner Atul Bhola chose "Masala Art" for the name of his new restaurant on Wisconsin Ave, he made sure to include pani puri on the menu.
My friend Rupa, who just got back to D.C. after a year in India, explained that, when you order pani puri, all you get is an egg-shaped ball of paper-thin fried bread. The rest is up to you, Picasso.
She frankly questioned whether I was game for the challenge. "It's a lot of work," she warned. "And you have to eat the whole thing in one bite."
I brushed aside her concerns with a guffaw, called over the waiter and demanded a large plate of this intriguing Indian street food.
He returned with four gold spheres, slightly misshapen like a seabird nest, each perched on a ceramic soup spoon as if ready for catapulting. I was a little upset that they'd already poked a hole at the top. I could've done that; masala artists are so micromanagerial.
Inside each ball was a mix of diced potatoes, chickpeas, and chutney. But there wasn't enough, so I reached for more stuffing. Rupa watched in horror as I sacrilegiously crammed another appetizer, the bhelpuri, into the ball. Don't judge me. Bhelpuri is an excellent salad/stuffing of puffed rice, chickpea vermicelli, chopped onion, diced mango, cilantro, and tamarind chutney.
The last step in creating my masterpiece was a tricky maneuver fraught with danger. It was time to pour on the jaljiri, or "spice water." It's a dense minty liquid, laced with cumin and fennel. It's also the exact same water that makes you protector of the island on Lost. The more you pour into the little hole, the better it tastes, but if you get carried away, the fried bread falls apart.
Go away, I thought as the waiter watched and recklessly encouraged me to, "Keep pouring."
Luckily, the puri retained its crispiness. Between the fried bread and the bhelpuri, I don't know if I've ever had so many different textures in one bite. Phoochka! - is what it's called in Eastern Indian states instead of pani puri because of the bursting sound when eaten. The spice water gives it the kind of kick that led Thi Nguyen of the L.A. Times to call it a "gazpacho hand-grenade."
It was like a giant piece of popcorn filled with Indian spices, and I wanted more. In India, roadside vendors serve the puris one at a time and keep count of how many each person has had - often as many as eight.
Tip for your next dinner party: spike your pani puri with some vodka. Drunken party puri is the latest fusion trend at upscale Mumbai social events.
Other recommended dishes at Masala Art:
Tiranga Paneer - Exotic kabab made with home made cottage cheese and layered with tri colored stuffing
Adraki Lamb Chops - Ginger flavored, cumin marinated, juicy lamb chops done to perfection in a delicious sauce