Bhel for Beginners

Bhel is not rocket science. It is delicious and versatile. You can make it from scratch or from half-scratch. You can make it with two chutneys or three. The two-chutney variant seems the most common: plummy-brown tamarind chutney and ubiquitous minty-green chutney. The tamarind will be sweet and tangy; the green will be a fresh punch of cilantro and/or mint, which you can make very very spicy with 3-4 chili peppers or keep milder than a white kitten. Your call.

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Bhel: There are lots of ways to this.

As noted in earlier posts, the basis of the Bhel is a puffed-rice, peanut, gram-flour medley that you mix with boiled, cubed potatoes, chutneys, fresh fruit and then top with a garnish of tomato, onion, cilantro and the thin crispy noodle known as sev (sounds like: save). You certainly can make the bhel mix yourself. But as a blogger I’m here to give (and get) A-grades for effort, not for authenticity. I buy the mix and the tamarind chutney, which are available anywhere Bhel mix and sev are sold. I do make my own green chutney – a blend that gets its green from cilantro, not mint. You can google and gather numerous green chutney recipes easily. The minty chutney is fine to use here, if you prefer.

So the recipe goes something like this:

VERY BASIC BHEL

  • 7-10 ounces Bhel Puri/Bhel mix
  • 1 medium red potato, cooked and peeled and cubed into small pieces
  • 8-12 ounces of tamarind chutney
  • 6-8 ounces of green chutney
  • 1/3 cup green apple OR green, raw mango – cubed into small pieces
  • Cilantro, tomato, red onion, wedges of lime, sev (crispy rice noodles) – for garnish.

1. Make or buy the chutneys. Most mixes come with instant chutney packets. So that’s another option.

2. Get that potato ready.

3. While the potato cooks, chop the cilantro and dice the tomato and red onion. Don’t mix them together, however.

4. Now get ready. No more distractions.

5. Combine the potatoes and the bhel mix.

6. Add the chutneys. Mix, mix, mix. The concoction should whisper to you like a bowl of rice krispies in milk: snap, crackle, pop, gentle hiss, repeat. The chutneys should coat the bhel/potato mix so every puff and cube glistens. Again, I use more of the tamarind than the green chutney. Don’t add all they chutneys at once. Pour, mix, sample, decide. Repeat until it’s got the right spice and zip for your taste.

7. Throw in your fruit of choice: granny-smith apple or green mango.

8. Garnish to your taste. I start with the tomato, then the onion. Sprinkle that cilantro. Save the best garnish, that’s the sev, for last.

9. Squeeze a little extra lime on that. Serve!

IMPORTANT NOTES:

You can use Idaho or Yukon potatoes, but red is my first choice always. Be sure you don’t overcook that potato. Mashed potatoes are for Thanksgiving not Bhel Puri.

You can make a giant batch of bhel puri and blend in the chutneys all at once, but I don’t recommend this. Ask your guests how they like it: spicy or sweet, dry or drenched, then mix a bowl per-person, one at a time. This way you control the spice and accommodate each diner individually. Bhel puri gets soggy quickly. Mix the chutneys, garnish and serve right away.

About those chutneys: I have not hit the right balance between the right chutneys, nor have I mastered the perfect chutney to bhel ratio. I think this might be a case of “more is more,” not “less is more.” The bhel should be flavorful and moist. So I’ll be adding more chutneys to subsequent batches.

Once I master a recipe that features the perfect flavors in the perfect proportions, I will quantify and share here. I know I know. You cannot wait. But don’t let anticipation stop you from experimentation. Make Merry, Make Behl!

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AutoBHELgraphical

After nearly 15 years as an educated and consistent consumer of Indian food, one reason I’m now finally making the effort to make this food for myself is this: I’m tired of all the long faces. When people hear I’m married to a Desi guy, they get interested and excited. First, they get interested because they look at our kid(s), and I know they’re trying to figure out the genetic equation. This is especially true of my eldest son. I can sense the questions they’re thinking, though few people are so bold as to utter them aloud:

  • “Reddish hard, blue eyes? And he is Indian?”
  • “Blue eyes, milky-pale Wisconsin complexion? Is the Indian guy his stepdad?”

Anyway, my oldest is most like me, a three-generations filtered version of Euro-Milwaukeean: Germanpolishirish. We freckle on the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer and we attract cell-phone photographers when we vacation on the Arabian Sea.

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Then people get excited. Everyone who likes to eat wants to know someone who makes Indian food. Some questions are uttered aloud:

  • “Can you make Indian food?”
  • “Tell me you make thalis!”
  • “Who taught you how to cook Indian food?”

Anyway, I feel bad saying “no.” Plus, the older I get the more folks I meet who are making the effort to learn how to make thalis and chutneys and curries for themselves. If they’re investing the time and patience to master moong daal omelets and that delicious, breakfast-time study in contrasts known as masala dosa, then why not I?

I took my first lesson from my mother-in-law (MIL) ten years ago. We started with bhel puri, but all I remember is the tamarind chutney. Bhel is mixed with 2-3 chutneys depending on the recipe, and the deep-brown, limey, syrupy tamarind chutney is the best. My MIL made this from scratch and she spent what felt like an eternity blending, diluting, spicing and perfecting the chutney. The chutneys need to be thin enough to spread easily and liberally over the puffed-rice/chopped-potato mixture that is the foundation of bhel puri. I asked my MIL to repeat the names of the ingredients, the exact ratio of water to tamarind paste. “Little bit of this, little bit of that; Pinch of this, maybe a few drops of that; It depends on what you like,” were her stock replies. I found the flexibility of her approach exhausting and indecipherable. I quit that night.

Now, with a few shortcuts and some words of advice to you, I am back. And I brought bhel.

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