Jhalmuri: The Story Behind Bengal’s Favourite Snack
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

West Bengal has always been a food-lover’s paradise. From its cha (tea) served in earthen cups called ‘bhar’ to its diverse variety of vegetables, its unique Kolkata style Biryani and the most loved ‘mishti’ (sweetmeats), it has something for everyone. Its street food is not to be left behind either. The snacks, lovingly called ‘Jalkhabar’ in Bengali include the phuchkas (pani puris or gol gappas in the rest of India), the famous egg rolls, chops, cutlets, begunis, telebhajas and singaras (made with potato, cauliflower and peanut filling). 

  Video credit: Banglar Rannaghor

The bustling shops in the nooks and corners of Kolkata selling these snacks draw a crowd at almost all times of the day. The most loved among these is the simple yet mouth-wateringly delicious and timeless Jhalmuri. For most Bengalis Jhalmuri is an emotion. It’s a snack that is connected with memories and emotions. It's also a sort of comfort food that they can go to at any point in the day. ‘Jhal’ in Bengali translates to spicy and ‘Muri’ means puffed rice. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Allure Of Jhalmuri Across Every Bengal Street

You can spot a Jhalmuri wala in almost any part of the city. Onions, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, chanachur, a dry spice mix, a dash of lime juice, fresh coriander, and finely chopped green chillies are thrown in with the puffed rice and then mustard oil is drizzled for just the right amount of kick. Every Bengali has their go-to Jhalmuri guy who they can swear is the best in town.

The ingredients are put into a paper cone (often made with old newspapers) and the Jhalmuriwala gives it a shake with the expertise of a seasoned bartender. The fresh and full of flavour snack is so easy to put together that it is made in almost every Bengali home. While it is a chai-time adda favourite, it's eaten at almost any time of the day when you feel like you need a pick-me-up but don’t want to spend too much time whipping something chatpata up. 

While the ingredients are few and the technique is simple it is balancing the flavours that need expert judgment. Not too salty, not too sour, and certainly not too fiery where the spice overpowers all other flavours. The puffed rice needs to be crisp and not soggy. Puffed rice has been eaten in Bengal for centuries. It's been a staple for generations and is often eaten with milk and sugar or used in other traditional snacks. On many occasions puffed rice is mixed with chopped onions, green chillies and mustard oil in a simpler preparation when made at home. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History Of Jhalmuri

The Jhalmuri in its current avatar is believed to have first made its appearance in West Bengal during the British Raj. It is said to have been brought to Bengal by migrant workers from the State of Bihar. During the Second World War, Kolkata was the capital of the British Raj. It was the time when there was an influx of migrant workers in Bengal. 

What is interesting about the Jhalmuri is that while it was already being consumed in Bengali homes in a particular version, it is the Bihari workers who recognised its potential to become a popular snack. That’s the time when tiny shops selling this snack mushroomed all over the city. It seemed to find popularity with both the British and the locals. While the snack was a combination of Bihari and Bengali ways of eating, it soon became Kolkata’s own and a significant part of the city’s cultural identity.

Today Jhalmuri is popular not just in Bengal but in different parts of India and even some parts of the world. British chef Angus Denoon drew attention when he started selling the humble Jhalmuri on the streets of London. Denoon first tasted the Jhalmuri in the the City of Joy and fell in love with it. He knew then that he wanted to take it to England with him. In 2019, a video of the British chef selling Jhalmuri outside the Oval Stadium in London, when the India-Australia ICC World Cup match was on, went viral. His stall ‘Everybody Lovelove Jhal Muri Express’ has become increasingly popular over the years.