100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 19, Dahi Puri at Shri Balaji Bhavan
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg The dahi puri at Shri Balaji Bhavan are like delectable little jewels.
I don't think I've ever met an Indian dish I didn't like. That said, a lot of curries and stews tend to run together in my mind. Ruddy, spicy chunks of meat or cheese with lentils -- north Indian cuisine involves many variations on a theme. South Indian food does, too, of course, but there's one dish that always manages to stick out in my head as truly spectacular: Dahi puri.
Dahi puri remind me of little Fabergé eggs; it's their complexity and delicate nature. They're available all over the Mahatma Gandhi district in Sharpstown, but the best I've discovered come from a little hole-in-the-wall joint in a strip center between a sari shop and a halal meat market. It's Shri Balaji Bhavan, and it's arguably the best spot for south Indian cuisine in Houston, thanks in large part to the spectacular dahi puri.
One of the women behind the counter once explained to me that even within a particular region of India, the food varies greatly in amount of spice or sweetness added. She happens to be a fan of savory food with a little sugar, and that's exactly how they do it at Shri Balaji Bhavan.
They may look simple, but each bite contains a pop of flavor.
Dahi puri is a traditional dish in which puri shells -- think golf-ball-size thin and flaky vessels, closer to flat than round -- are cracked at the top and filled with exotic chutneys and yogurt. Inside the shell is a single chunk of potato that appears to have been cooked in turmeric and taken on a yellow hue. On top of that is a bit of spicy green chutney heavy on the cilantro and a spicy red chutney with a slight chile pepper heat.
Then the sweetness is added in the form of a mild yogurt that fills up the shell to the top, before the whole thing receives a sprinkle of chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro and sev, crunchy chickpea noodles broken up into small pieces (think instant ramen, only more flavorful).
The first time I ate dahi puri, I didn't know what I was getting into. I took a bite out of the shell, and liquidy yogurt and chutney spilled all over my hand and my plate. After that, I learned to stuff each tiny jewel in my mouth all at once, letting the flavors pop in my mouth with each crunch of the shell.
Even now that I know what to expect, that first crunch and release of flavors still manages to surprise me a little. And I just love being surprised by delicious food.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.