Bhel is an addictively delicious Indian street food found especially along Bombay's beautiful beaches. Made with rice crispies, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and sev, it is also divinely vegan.
I grew up in Bombay, the capital of Bollywood, India's hyper-productive film industry, but Bollywood never managed to cast its technicolor spell over me.
I always found the melodrama and over-the-top acting hard to stomach. But there was one aspect of the movies that I just couldn't resist: the songs crammed between each Romeo-and-Juliet start and Cinderella ending.
Like the movies, called masala movies for obvious reasons, these songs (about half a dozen in each movie, give or take a couple) catered to every mood. There would usually be a raucous song sung by the hero and his friends before he'd found the love of his life, and perhaps one sung by the heroine with her friends. A couple of romantic numbers when the two had finally discovered-after many fights- that they couldn't live without each other. And a sad one or two after they'd been forced apart by the "villains," usually their parents. All songs were- and still are in today's movies-strictly in playback, meaning the voices you heard belonged to people who were not the ones you saw on screen.
Every night, my dad - a big fan of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, both popular actors of his childhood - would fall asleep listening to the radio playing Hindi oldies from the '50s and '60s. They were silken melodies, sung by India's greatest playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhonsle and Kishore Kumar. The music would drift in from the next room and although I was supposed to be fast asleep, I couldn't help but lie awake in bed listening to those enchanting voices. I'd want them to never stop, but they did, every night at 11:30, after which the static crackled into the night until my dad woke up to turn the radio off.
Those songs spoke about love, anger, happiness, pain, playfulness and confusion. They left such a lasting influence on me that even today, whether I am high or low, I turn to a familiar song to comfort myself. It may sound corny, but believe me, it never fails.
Still, when Sunshinemom Harini announced her super-fun Jukebox Cooking Challenge event calling on bloggers/cooks to dish out food inspired by a song, I was a little flummoxed because I couldn't think of a song that inspired me to cook. Until I started to think about why I cooked, and when.
I cook, as I guess many others who love to cook do, when I'm perfectly happy. I cook when I'm sad to make myself happy. And I cook for those I love.
Given this strong connection between food and feelings, I chose a recipe based on a theme that is close to my heart, and ties in perfectly with songs AND food, at least for me. The sea.
Because many Indian movies were shot in Bombay, an island on the Arabian Sea, lots of Indian movie songs happen around the sea. From a pensive Dev Anand singing Jayen to Jayen Kahan, lost and a little turbulent like the vast ocean that unrolls before him, to Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai sung by a frolicking family, to a deep-in-love couple weaving dreams about their future with Do Deewane Sheher Mein, the sea provided a perfect and spectacular backdrop.
When I was growing up, an outing to the sea, which was about a mile from where I lived, was a weekend must. We'd go as a group, with family, friends or both, but no matter how often we went, or with who, one thing was a constant: you absolutely had to have something to eat. That, most often, was roasted, salted peanuts, bought from one of the many vendors who walked around with baskets slung around their necks, or Bhel.
The Bhel would be put together right before your eyes, with a splash of this ingredient and that, and then all of it mixed together with a deft hand and served up in a newspaper cone. The end result was magical and the flavors danced on your tastebuds long after you'd licked every last bit off your fingers.
For the event, to go with my bhel, I chose one of my all-time favorite Hindi songs. I love it in good part because of the absolutely ethereal voice of Lata Mangeshkar which weaves perfectly the image of a rainy, romantic afternoon by the sea (a perfect time for some Bhel! Beware the raw-onion breath, though :)).
I've embedded the video of the song because I really wanted to share with all of you its wonderful images of a rain-drenched Bombay in the '70s when it was, presumably, still a glorious, beautiful city where one could walk for a few minutes on a street without getting smacked in the face by a ton of smog and pollution. The video, shot in South Bombay, includes such landmarks as Flora Fountain (a very brief glimpse) and the Rajabai Tower of Bombay University, all British-era (and now Heritage) architecture.
When Moushumi Chatterjee, the actress in the song, walks along Marine Drive, teetering on the edge of the promenade wall, I am reminded of days gone but never forgotten. For those unfamiliar with Indian movies, the gawky guy in the video is Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's best-known star (not the greatest actor, in my opinion, although I'm sure there are many Indians who'll disagree.)
Rimjhim Gire Saawan
Sulag Sulag Jaaye Man
Bheege Aaj Is Mausam Mein
Lagi Kaisi Yeh Agan
I hate to translate this because even beautiful songs fall flat in another language, so I'll give you the gist: she's singing of the fire that the pouring rain evokes in her heart. Sounds mundane, I know, but in Lata's voice, it just isn't.
Here's to my home, Bombay, the pull of the sea, and those wonderful, wonderful oldies! And thanks, Harini, for hosting this lovely event.
More Mumbai street food recipes
Bhel and Date-Tamarind Chutney
- 3 cups rice crispies
- 1 cup khara sev (Optional. These are the squiggly yellow things you see in the picture, available in Indian grocery stores. I also sometimes find it in the Indian grocery section at Whole Foods)
- 1 medium onion (finely chopped)
- 2 green chili peppers (minced)
- ½ cup cilantro (chopped)
- 2 red potatoes (boiled and finely diced)
For date tamarind chutney
- 4 dates (soaked in water about 15 minutes until soft and seeded)
- 1 teaspoon tamarind extract
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or cayenne)
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds (lightly toasted)
- Salt to taste
Make date tamarind chutney
- Blend the tamarind, dates, red pepper and cumin into a fairly thick paste. Add salt to taste
Assemble the bhel
- Mix up all the ingredients, including the date-tamarind chutney. Add salt to taste.
- The bhel goes wonderfully with little puris, which are refined-wheat crackers deep fried in oil. Since my bhel is quite healthy, I decided to forego the puris which are also quite easily available at Indian stores.
Hi! Is tamarind extract the same as tamarind water?
Hi Jami, it is the pulp extracted from the tamarind pod. You can find it on Amazon--type in "tamarind pulp" or "tamarind paste."
denduluri devaki divya sundari
Hi Vaishali, I love love your blog. You truly have an almanac of healthy, vegan recipes. I love the bhel recipe you posted, but am unable o find unsweetened brown rice crispies. Can you please let me know what brand you use?
Hi Divya, thanks for your lovely words. I bought the crispies at the Indian grocery store here-- I don't remember the brand name because it was a while back. They were not sweetened. The ones you get as cereal in supermarkets here are always sweetened.
I know this is an old post but I just stumbled upon it. I absolutely love the way your posts are so straight from the heart Vaishali. I am not a Mumbaikar, but most of my husband's family is from there and they always rave and rant about how Mumbai is their lifeline.I have been there once in 2010. But I don't think a 4 day visit could justice to the multi-dimensional city that Mumbai is. and in the 4 days I did not get to see the Juhu Beach. can you believe that? Oh well, that calls for another visit to his family 🙂 and thank you so much for sharing the song. I grew up in Chennai and my family rarely watches movies or listens to filmy songs. So when some of my friends go on and on about the glorious 70's era of Hindi songs, I just don't know what they are talking about. But this song is so mesmerizing. The heroine is pretty and looks REAL unlike the plastic dolls of today. Love the rain drenched feel of Mumbai. I met my husband in the peak monsoon season in Chennai. I remember side-stepping puddles on the way to meeting him and coming home to listen to the pitter patter of raindrops all the while reminiscing about our secret escapades on the streets of Chennai. The song reminds me of all that! Gosh, this is a long comment, but I so loved this post!
Thanks, Thamarai, I am glad the post brought back good memories for you: I smiled as I imagined you making your way along the rain-drenched streets of Chennai on your way to your secret trysts. 🙂 I have many great memories of Chennai in the rain too. And yeah, Moushmi Chatterjee is so pretty in a real way, isn't she? Those surely were the glorious 70s.
Jay, I could argue with you on that forever. 🙂 I think the Lata version surpasses Kishore's any time.
She's far more melodious and her voice has that haunting, wistful, yet sweet quality that's perfect for the rainy day and the lyrics.
Wonderful post, I do however like the Kishore Kumar version
Mumbai favorites - bhel puri, Juhu Beach. Yummy!
Dr. Rupa Atul Shah and Dr. Atul K. Shah
I am so glad to read your blog! I told about your blog to Mumbai vegans! We meet once a month. Your recipes are so good!
We live in Mumbai. We are sad about what has happened here. It will take a while to feel better.
whenever you do visit Mumbai, you are welcome to visit us. It will be nice connecting with the Vegans in Mumbai.
That dish looks wonderful...so many colors and flavors.
I hope all is well with your family in Mumbai. It is very horrifying to see what is going on there. My prayers are with all of those who are there.
I too grew up in Bombay and lived there till I got married and came here. There's absolutely no place like it for me.
I am a little shocked and saddened by what's going on there right now.
nice to read about Mumbai, seems after the terror attack ppl are in a panic. Don't know when things would change !
I *just* learned recently about those "yellow squiggly things." How funny! How lipsmackingly snackable, too. :}