Thursday, 18 December 2014

Reading Habits #16: Reading out of peanut paper

A Reading Habits post is long overdue. The last one, The bitter taste of my tablet, appeared on October 28. I still read, of course; I just haven’t been writing about how I read, or in this case where and what I read.

It’d surprise non-Indian readers to know that, in India, you can actually read a story or an essay out of peanut paper. By that I don’t mean reading the literature on a packet of peanuts or something written on peanut paper; not that there is such a thing as peanut paper, although we do have something called butter paper (parchment paper) used in craft.

Here’s how it works. A fistful of roasted peanuts is one of the cheapest and healthiest street foods you get in Bombay (Mumbai) and elsewhere. In my city it costs Rs.3 to 5 ($0.05 to 0.08), the minimum price these days. Roadside hawkers use a small measure and serve it to you in a cylindrical cone made out of paper. The cone has a wide open mouth at the top and a closed pointed tip at the bottom. Imagine a miniature tornado.

This is the “peanut paper” I'm referring to. The paper could be anything, like a piece of newspaper or magazine, a page out of a school or college textbook or notebook, a cutout from an annual report or a red herring prospectus, or a leaf out of an old diary.

After eating your peanuts, you unroll the wrapper and read what’s on it. You’d be surprised the things you get to read, even if it’s incomplete. I have variously read a poem such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, an algebraic formula, a director’s report, an essay by G.B. Shaw, a company balance sheet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Moby Dick, to give you an idea. Sometimes the peanut paper is in other Indian languages like Hindi or Marathi.

Reading your “peanut paper” is a very old habit and I have yet to see one who throws it away without as much as a glance at it. Sometimes if you’re eating in a group then you compare your wrappers and find that you've all been eating out of the same book. And sometimes, you exclaim, “Hey, we studied this in school!” and then you crush the paper into a ball and toss it over your shoulder.

Unlike other street snacks, “peanut paper” remains clean after you polish off the peanuts. It’s mainly an after office hours snack though you can have it at any time of the day. They taste best in the rains. What it does is it educates and entertains you, however briefly, and kills your appetite till you reach home and have your dinner.

A slightly bigger paper cone is also used to serve sing (peanuts) and chana (chickpea) mixed with kurmura (puffed rice), small onion and tomato cubes, a shot of lime, a pinch of salt, and seasoned with a little powdered spice. It’s called chaat or bhel, a very popular snack that roughly means hotchpotch. Instead of eating with a spoon, you scoop up the concoction with a round puri (hard unleavened bread made from wheat flour) or a square piece of card paper, depending on how well-heeled the singwalla or bhelwalla is.

The sing-chana vendors are a common sight along the seafront, on beaches, and other tourist spots. They carry their stuff in a large circular wicker basket or metal container slung round their necks. Others sit along street corners, in narrow bylanes or outside railway stations, their sing-chana either heaped on a flat wood surface or stored in neat open compartments. They do brisk business.

The way I see it, you can eat and read out of your hand.


P.S.: I don’t have a picture of a sing-chana vendor but you can type “peanut seller” or “chanawala” in Google images and you’ll see what I'm talking about.

12 comments:

  1. Cool. I get a strong visual image of that. Sounds like a great little detail to flesh out a story.

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    1. Charles, the peanut seller can be seen in several Bollywood movies of the late 20th century.

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  2. What a lovely blogpost Prashant, I really enjoyed reading that. And then I looked up the Google images and spent ages looking at the photos....Thank you for brightening up my evening.

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    1. Moira, you're welcome. I'm glad you liked it. They are a common sight on the streets of Bombay. Next time I'll take some of my own pictures.

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  3. Very, very interesting, Prashant. I am a compulsive reader anywhere I see print. I can imagine a group of people comparing their peanut paper reads. Thank you for this post.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. Now that you mention it, one can read anything out of almost anything and anywhere. The peanut paper offers interesting reading material.

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  4. That has a real magic realism feel to it Prashant - shame you can;t do ice creams like that (bit messy) - love it!

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    1. Sergio, we can't do that with a lot of Indian street food. The newspaper is the most common wrapper for anything including fruits and vegetables; never mind the ink.

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  5. Great post Prashant. Nothing like that here....they don't wrap fish and chips in newspaper anymore.

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    1. Col, thank you. Street food is going to be around for a long time in spite of the proliferation of swanky Indian and Western junk food outlets. It's cheap and filling too. We often buy fish at our doorstep. The seller brings it in a large round metal bucket. He even cleans and cuts the fish for you.

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  6. Oh, this is awesome! Food history/culture is one of my passions besides books, so this information is delightful in every way.

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    1. Kelly, thanks a ton! Indian streets can be a photographer's dream. There is so much you can capture on a camera or on your smartphone.

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