gol gappas

The one Delhi street food we refused to eat on the street was gol gappas.

Gol gappas are hollow spheres of fried dough stuffed with potato, onions, and chickpeas, and dipped in a brown-green soup of spices. The vendor hands you an empty plate, pokes a hole in a sphere, shoves in stuffing with his finger, plunges the sphere into a giant vat of spiced liquid, and then places it on your waiting plate. You grab it and pop it into your mouth whole, before the water melts through the dough.

When you bite, the gol gappa explodes. There’s far more liquid than you’d ever imagine the little sphere could contain; it overwhelms your tastebuds and fills your mouth and, if you throat isn’t ready, makes you choke. You chew and smile and try not to let the juice drip down your face, and you keep your plate right below your chin just in case it does.

Gol gappas seem to occupy the same part in Delhi culture as Taco Bell in America: they taste best late at night when surrounded by friends. Gol gappas serve both as the evening kickoff and the evening nightcap. Crowds of men and women congregate around the nearest gol gappa vendor in the wee hours, each holding out their plate, their eager faces lit by the white glow of the gas lamp, laughing and chatting and popping their balls and asking for more.

It wasn’t that we didn’t like the flavor of gol gappas, although they did tend to be heavy on chaat masala, a spice sprinkled on everything from street food to lemonade that, to us, tastes vaguely of rotten egg. No, we avoided gol gappas for a different reason: the sight of the vendor plunging the spheres into the soup with his bare hand. Over and over again.

Look: we know that one can’t enjoy India if one is paranoid of a few little germs. But the sight of so much unfiltered water coming into contact with so much sweaty skin was too much for our sheltered suburban sensibilities to bear. (If you’re Indian, feel free to make fun of our pasty white cowardice; in this instance, you won’t be the first.)

So we would only eat gol gappas at Dilli Haat, the government-run crafts bazaar where, we were assured, the vendors cooked with filtered water. We were heartened at Dilli Haat to see the gol gappa vendor wearing gloves, and heartened further to see that he was only dipping deep enough to submerge them, as opposed to the street vendors, who seemed to prefer plunging their hands in up to their wrists.

The guys at the stall would laugh at us as we’d chew and swallow and cough and sputter, or else try to take it in bites and send juice squirting all over our shirts. Our Indian friends would laugh at us for our excessive precaution: filtered water, they said, ruins the flavor of the gol gappas.

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36 responses to “gol gappas

  1. You made me a non-fan at “shoves in stuffing with his finger.” I have to confess, I’m a germaphobe when it comes to food prep. I’ve had food poisoning too many times. These sound good in theory though….

  2. Don’t worry..even I’m wary of getting them (they’re spelt gol gappas, btw) from anonymous street vendors.
    For the good stuff- i.e. made with filtered water and gloves- you should go to Nathu Sweets in Bengali Market (near Connaught Place) or even better- Haldiram’s in Old Delhi (just on the street outside the Chandni Chowk metro station)

    You are no longer staying in Delhi, correct?

  3. I love gol gappas… Visit Jaipur if you can!! Ask for Gol Gappas made of Sooji… They are crispier, tangier and the spice syrup is actually minty and not full of chaat masala!!!

  4. Aah that sure made my mouth water. The best thing is that you will find different kinds of gol gappas everywhere. Here in Pune it is called ‘Paani Puri’ in Marathi language.

    I wonder why some people deliberately eat from street vendors just to show off that they are immune to all kinds of germs. My mom generally gets the liquid and the puris (both are available packed) and we prepare them at home.. why stop at 5/6 in a single plate when you an have 50 at home in a sitting ;-)?

  5. “If you’re Indian, feel free to make fun of our pasty white cowardice; in this instance, you won’t be the first.”
    Sorry to disappoint you, but I am an Indian, born and raised and I am also squeamish about gol gappas for the same reason. So don’t be too hard on yourselves, I ride the same train.

  6. Matt Pichette

    I spent a few months in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and had plenty of paana puri (gol gappa). I got over the squeamishness my first week after visiting Marina Beach. I bought a glass of sweet lime juice from a beach stall and after handing back the glass to the vendor I saw him put the dirty glass back into the same tray of unfiltered water that he had taken it from.

    I figured if I survived that then from that point on there was no point in worrying. Chaats were too good to pass up.

  7. My husband is full of stories of how he used to sneak out with friends to purchase pani poori – his mother (and the parents of friends) didn’t want them to eat it from street vendors, for the same hygiene reasons you list. We eat home-made ones on occasion, but apparently the lack of germs ruins the flavor.

  8. I completely agree with Jenny on the germs and gol gappas part. Despite me being a Delhite for 23 yrs of my life, born and brought up there, i have never hated anything so much as roadside Golgappas and papri chaat. How people manage to survive that thing, is beyond me, I wouldnt even it Dilli Haat or the swishest joint just for the hygiene factor!

  9. Pishabh Badmaash

    I like gol gappas because they produce a firm and odourful post rectal discharge when they are fully processed by the stomach only

  10. jenny and dave

    Rex – We are now living in the little India part of Singapore.

    People, if the descriptions of gol gappas made you hungry, you have to check out our post on Roshan di kulfi which includes photos you’ll wish you could shove in your mouth:
    http://ourdelhistruggle.com/2009/04/15/roshan-di-kulfi/

    ta/Jenny

  11. I was goin’ to suggest the more hygienic option when later in the post I saw you had already discovered them.

    I think if the often gruesome sight of their preparation & handling doesn’t bother you, then there are no issues for the germs in them are as much as in the nearest bottle of Mountain Dew.

  12. Gol gappas can be had germ free at any Haldiram join in Delhi and they are delish!
    I wouldn’t compare them to taco bell….no no no.

  13. I’ve eaten pani puri/gol gappas off the street on a couple of occasions, both in Mumbai and Kathmandu (they have them there as well!) and surprisingly survived just fine. I don’t make a habit of it though. I hear that they’re particularly to be avoided during the monsoon season. The newspapers are always full of warnings about them around this time.

    An interesting version of gol gappas in Delhi is vodka gol gappas. You can get them from Punjabi by Nature. They’re not for the feint hearted, however. Once you get them into your mouth they’re really hard to swallow, and you end up with a mouth full of spicy vodka mixture! Choking is a common reaction.

  14. Gol gappas are probably the deadliest street food available in India. Its one of the rare foods that a lot of local Indians would avoid having it from the street vendors.

  15. Siddharth Agrawal

    I’m glad you took the safe route. I’d rather have Americans come back to the States happy and healthy rather than crying about how its all India and its people’s fault that they got sick.

  16. My mother put all street food on the prohibited list while I was growing up in Bombay in the 70’s. So it’s just not foreigners who are afraid to eat the stuff. But I still ate it whenever I was sure nobody was looking. I never caught anything from this. And we kids always claimed that chaat from a restaurant or made at home was too hygienic to be tasty.

  17. Gol gappas are not the most dangerous food. Sugarcane juice is. I drank it just once when I was about 15 and thought I was going to die after that. Never touched the stuff again. Any my mother nearly killed me after she found out how I got so sick.

  18. It’s funny you mentioned this food. On Bizarre foods with andrew zimmerman, it’s the only food he refused to eat while he was in India and it was because of the unfiltered water. Have you watched that episode?

    That’s the only rule he adheres to when he travels to 3rd world countries: never drink tap water and so far, he’s never gotten sick eating anything.

  19. Hey.. nothing is perfect.. a coin has a head n a tail.. so.. njoy India.. with a little bit caution but do keep ur eyes wide open to see how beautiful it is.. the love, the rich cultural heritage, the values and sentiments associated, a diverse culture that will always welcome you to this soil.. and will gift you an everlasting remembrance forever… Try to build perspective B.. than u’ll feel the ultimate pleasure to be in India …

  20. Regarding ‘chaat masala’ and your perception of ‘tastes vaguely of rotten egg’ – you are spot on. That is from the sulphides rich black salt (Kali Namak) used in this and few other masala powders. It is an accquired taste, but once you are hooked, you want it on everything !

  21. You will eventually see that set of bacterium in New Delhi – the way that I look at it is: why not build your immune system sooner than later?

    It’s likely safer than sushi, which may be carrying other toxins (beyond just the bacterium) *and* it’s not the slow death of saturated fats as provided by North American fare.

  22. “pasty white cowardice” LOL, you are only wise: A true blue Hindustani like me has had the Delhi Belly from gol gappas too many times not to applaud your circumspection 🙂

  23. You’re absolutely right to take these precautions. I was born and lived in Delhi till about 10 years back – I love gol gappas but I wouldn’t eat at a street vendor either. Some of the restaurants serve them at the table – the dry golgappas, the stuffing and the spiced water all comes separate and hygienic and you mix them up yourself. I prefer this over the street vendor – but I know that a lot of my friends would call me a pussy because of being overly precautious.

  24. Some of us can eat gol gappas any time /even all the time. They are called Pani puri elsewhere. We have ‘Chhat’ parties at home to make sure the water is good. But have had them from street vendors when young and fearless!!

  25. Gol Gappas are supposed to be had from street vendors. Thats their thing!!!

    You have ruined my day, now where will I find a Gol Gappa stall in Gurgaon (Cyber Greens – near your old office 🙂 ) at 11 in the morning!

  26. I have just discovered your blog and I LOVE IT! When I have even more time I am going to read all of the entries. I too lived in India (in Mumbai) and went through a lot of the same things – and I love the painting of you in the auto-rick!

    I ate gol gappas (and pani puri – are they the same?) and never got sick – I got sick once only – on a weekend in Goa at an Israeli run restaurant that the guidebooks RAVE about.

    I have a ton of India stuff on my own website if you are interested!

    Cheers – Violet Dear

  27. Ah yes. Theres an important lesson I learnt from my sister, a long time ago, and I’d like to share it with you:

    “The secret ingredient, behind that taste and masala, is that guys sweat. So its not the place that matters, or which corner you get it at, but the paani-puri-waala that you should judge.”

    It’s weird that Bangalore is full of these stalls: but I’ve found THE guy, and love the paani-puri. Too bad his brother serves now, he doesnt get the same taste!

  28. If you are in Delhi again try Bengali market for ‘Bisleri’ water pani puris. As hygenic as you can get!

  29. The sulphur note in chaat masala is asafoetida- not my favorite smell, either.

  30. Pingback: 5 jokes about Delhi I don’t understand « Our Delhi Struggle

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  32. Street food is the reason I have such a strong immunity.:D. My family is a bunch cleanliness freaks and my mom prefers making it all at home but somehow, unless you’re watching that completely unhygienic man making it in front of your eyes, you don’t salivate as much!

    Trivia-I am from West Bengal and we have the best ones here!

  33. Pingback: how to enjoy Delhi during the Commonwealth Games (despite what the media says) | Our Delhi Struggle

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