|Manoj Thanki’s legendary flavour bombs shall henceforth be known as ‘Kastooris’.|
I have been noshtalgic lately for Kastoori, SW17’s legendary Indian vegetarian restaurant, run by the Thanki family. According to Manoj Thanki, ‘from 13th February 1987 up until 23rd November 2010, Kastoori was my life and breath,’ but then his lease expired. Loyal customers were bereft. I would have been more upset at the time, myself, had I not been leaving for India, but now that I am back and have been through big changes, I’m sad to find the familiar old frontage absent from Upper Tooting Road.
Noshtalgia, as scholars of Proust will recollect, is a taste memory associated with a particular time & place. In the case of the dahi puris that were the signature starter at Kastoori, multiple occasions. After first turning on to Kastoori’s ‘famous taste bomb’, on subsequent visits I habitually ordered two plates as we were seated: one just for me; t’other to share while perusing the menu.
‘TO BE EATEN IN ONE!’ said menu declared: ‘CRISPY PURIES (sic) FILLED WITH DICED POTATOES, CHICK PEAS, PUFFED RICE, ONIONS, PANI SAUCE, SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE AND TOPPED WITH YOGHURT SAUCE’.
A puri is an unleavened bread, most commonly served on the sub-continent for breakfast, that is deep-fried and puffs up in the process. Pani puris are smaller and made crisp with semolina in the dough. Crack a hole in its shell and pack the puri with a variety of textures and spicy flavours. Pop the whole thing in your mouth, but before you do, dunk it swiftly in the pani water so that the puri collapses rather than crunches on the tongue.
|Stuffing puris at the puri party!|
The basic puri filling is usually chick peas and potatoes, diced or mashed and spiced, of course. Highly spiced. As Tarla Dalal says, ‘after a round of spicy pani puris, eating dahi puris is the perfect way to soothe your palate. Dahi puris are a favourite with children as well as with adults who cannot handle the fiery pani puri. What makes a dahi puri truly divine is obviously the humble curds which are made daily in every Indian household.’
The creamy dahi – yoghurt – contrasted with the sour-sweet tamarind, combined with the collapsing crunch of the puri, are the flavours and textures that compose my taste memory of Kastoori puris. I resolved to recreate them. Kastoori may be gone, but Dadu’s, the supermarket next door to its old premises on Upper Tooting Road, goes on and it purveys all one needs to manufacture one’s own imitation Kastoori puris. Given a few more clues, like.
There’s this old article from The Grauniad: ‘Manoj Thanki is fixing me one of his celebrated dahi puris. In one hand he holds a round, crunchy case about the size of a golf ball, like a giant Rice Krispie with a hole in the top. With the fastidiousness of a scientist mixing volatile chemicals in a test tube, he spoons in precise measures of tamarind sauce, dates, jagaree, nuts and yoghurt before carefully passing it to me. “What they would do [in India] is dip it in a pani, which means water,” he explains, “then put the whole thing in the mouth, and it just collapses with the taste.”
Not only does it taste delicious, it makes my head spin mildly.
“Yes,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Some people have described it as the taste bomb.”‘
OK, Manoj, mate. We get that you are a molecular alchemist who manufactures beguiling taste bombs. What we need to know, in order to replicate those exquisite explosions on the palate, is their secret ingredients: ‘tamarind sauce, dates, jagaree, nuts,’ but in what proportions? And does he really mean, ‘nuts’? My taste memory does not include nuts.
In the recipes I’ve scoped out online – Sharmi’s is a keeper – the added crunch usually comes from sev, deep-fried gram vermicelli, which is a popular savoury snack, or chaat. Sev comes in various gauges, the finest being ‘nylon’. It is not, however, mentioned among Kastoori’s ingredients, although Manoj does include PUFFED RICE, aka mamra, which really are like anaemic Rice Krispies.
Dates & tamarind, kharjur & imli, are the basic constituents of a sweet’n’sour chutney that is an essential component of many varieties of chaat. The addition of jagaree – unrefined sugar, more usually known as, ‘jaggery’ – makes it sweeter. This is no doubt what the Kastoori menu described as SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE, but what exactly is PANI SAUCE?
|Sharma’s puri shack at Chowpatty Beach, Dec. 2010|
As Manoj did not quite explain to The Guardian guy, at Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai, customers stand around the puri vendor – on the left, Mr Sharma – who moistens the laden puri by dipping it in the flavoured pani water that’s in the bucket in front of him before passing the fizzing taste bomb to the next lucky customer. Note his hygienic disposable glove. Of course the pani water itself is liable to be teeming, but I went for it and suffered no severe gastrointestinal repercussions.
Manoj has modified this pani water for more refined restaurant service, but gives no clue as to what he puts in it. I went to Dadu’s with the vague plan of asking the lady behind the till, but swiftly found a packet of Pani Puri Masala that mixes a teaspoon to a cup. I had a harder time locating Chaat Masala, but was directed to Achar Masala: ‘chilli powder, salt, fenugreek, sesame seed oil, dry mango powder, mustard & asafoetida’. It is the properly vivid red.
A box of 40 puris cost £3.99 and I spent about another twenty quid at Dadu’s. Natco do a tamarind & date sauce, but it’s a bit sweet; I preferred the ‘home made style’ chutney by Sagar, who don’t have a web site and whose business address reads like it’s a house in Edgware. I was glad to discover Mitchell’s green chilli sauce, apparently a Pakistani insitution since 1933, which I preferred over the other jar of green chilli wot I got.
In the absence of freshly home made curds, I bought Greek yoghurt from the Turkish shop, Oli’s, where I also got coriander and a couple of Nicola potatoes. My chick peas had been soaked overnight, natch., and very slowly simmered as I carefully skimmed the fart froth, eliminating flatulence. If I was Indian, I would’ve spiced them as they cooked. Kastoori refers to DICED POTATOES, but I mashed mine, using a ricer and mixing in a teaspoon of haldi & jeera – turmeric & cumin.
As its name suggests, the dahi is the crucial ingredient of dahi puri. Of course, the yoghurt has to be fresh and chilled, but most importantly, it must be neither too thick or too thin, so that it pours into and fills the puri without making it too soggy . Kastoori puris are TOPPED WITH YOGHURT SAUCE, not with yoghurt. Some recipes suggest adding sugar to the yoghurt and beating it with a fork to make it sweeter and lighter. I simply used fresh’n’creamy Greek yog. and diluted it a little with filtered water. Next time, I’ll try lemon juice.
|Puri station with pani water bottom left.|
I set up a puri-stuffing station in my kitchen and experimented with various combinations in different proportions, tasting until I got close to my memory. Then I took everything up to the roof, where my neighbours were celebrating a birthday in the evening sunshine, and set myself up in a corner, stuffing puris until and inviting revellers to dunk ’em in the pani. It was fun and the puris went down well, even if they were not quite as gob-smacking as I remember Kastoori’s.
I’ll definitely be having more puri parties this Summer, but am hoping that Manoj Thanki will revive Kastoori, if only for one night, to cater for his fans who congregate at a ‘Bring Back Kastoori‘ Facebook page and are actively seeking a venue. Join us!