Bread slathered with butter is tasty, but bread fried in butter—the South Asian puri (or poori) —is glorious. The word “puri” derives from the Sanskrit pura, meaning “puffed up.” When bread dough, minus the yeast, is rolled out thin and then fried—preferably in ghee, or clarified butter—it puffs up into a lovely pillow, glistening with a silky sheen of fat. The first bite into a puri releases the fragrant steam.
Puri is the shared beloved tradition of a region divided by nation, religion and socioeconomic class. Across the South Asian subcontinent, this deep-fried flatbread takes the name luchi. The same crisp spheres of dough, filled with a spicy mixture of water, tamarind, chili, potato, onion and chickpeas, are known as gol gappa. No matter the name, or the variation, the delectable, sizzling alchemy of dough and oil is savoured by all South Asians, be they schoolchildren, office workers or rickshaw drivers.
The tradition of fried breads has crossed oceans, far beyond South Asia. Beginning in the 19th century, Asian migrants have taken their puri recipes with them to Africa, the Caribbean, North America and the British Isles. Over the years, the puri has evolved. In the Caribbean, for example, puris lost their fat content, re-emerging as rotis stuffed with seasoned ground lentils and then baked. In other places, migrants have kept the tradition of fried breads intact in their diaspora community as a loving reminder of the homeland, whether the puris are prepared at home or, more likely, obtained from a neighbourhood food shop or a local restaurant.
How do favourite traditional foods, such as the South Asian puri, change over the years as they’re transposed across the globe? What do they represent to migrants and their diasporas? Here in our South Asian community in Scarborough, the small, family-run restaurants and shops, as well as the internationally successful franchises can provide some answers. One such franchise is Saravanaa Bhavan, a 25-year-old restaurant chain with 48 outlets around the world—India, Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Sultanate of Oman, U.K., U.S. and Canada, including Scarborough.
Among the numerous delicious culinary offerings at Saravanaa Bhavan, puris are brought to virtually every table, where they are savoured by patrons in very different ways. For some, the bread roots them to a far-off place, perhaps their birth country, and allows them to imagine themselves as staying true to tradition—and resisting the encroachments of globalization. Still, for others, puri is simply a wonderful ethnic food, exotic, alluring—and a reason to celebrate globalization.
Dan Bender is a Canada Research Chair in cultural history and analysis at UTSC.