Dr Latiful Bari, a food safety and hygiene specialist at the University of Dhaka, says love for the snack is deeply embedded in the country’s collective identity: “Ask someone what he would like to have with his evening cup of tea, and if the answer is jhal muri, understand that they are bengali nationals.”
The locals also developed unspoken rules of etiquette. Using a spoon is a cardinal sin and reveals amateur status, Mitra said. And, according to Hamilton, the gesture of pouring a small pile of jhal muri into one’s hands before tossing it into one’s mouth with fluidity, precision and a bit of abandon is difficult for a non-Bangladeshi to master.
Like its resilient inhabitants, it is a brave and fiery food. Because when the muri-wallah gruffly asks, “How many jhal?”, it’s like asking if one is playful enough, bold enough – Bengali enough – to face it.
While some vendors are experimenting with high-end ingredients, such as boiled egg or quail, for purists, jhal muri will always be a robust vegetarian (and vegan) dish, where unpretentious ingredients are turned into a sublime and satisfying symphony. “I think [this gentrification] is a fad,” Mitra said. “Jhal muri is eclectic, not a one-size-fits-all, Michelin-star chef endorsed. In authentic jhal muri, no two bites – even from the same thonga – are alike. [Expensive meat add-ons] just don’t have that element of thrill.”
Ultimately, Bangladesh‘s spicy snack is an ode to ingenuity and finding mystique in the mundane through a clever balancing act. Too dry, and it tastes like cardboard, Hamilton said, and if you make it ahead of time or get the liquid ratio wrong, it’s likely to go stale or soggy. But well done? “It’s quite an experience in itself,” she said, “You get a bit of everything.”
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