Ode: The Gol Gappa at Spice Room
It was our first foray into the bustling streets of Kathmandu — zippy motorcycle taxis kicking up dust as they whizzed by inches from our bodies, women laden with babies and cargo on their backs, straps across their foreheads to balance the load, and the occasional waft of piss or mud or something worse as we crossed dank alleys. We were freshly showered after 30 hours of travel, tired but energized.
Our young guide, encouraged by my enthusiasm for food, had already stopped us at a fresh juice shop, where we’d sipped at icy cold pomegranate and watermelon refreshers. But then she saw something ahead and smiled — a pani puri stand.
“Are you ready for real Nepalese street food?” she asked me, before leading us over. Our guide quickly spoke with the teenager working the stall, and with one gloved hand and one hopefully clean one, he dished up a plate of crispy globes filled with potatoes and chickpeas along with a plastic cup of cloudy water. We sat on a bench barely shaded from the punishing morning sunlight, and our guide told me I could pour a splash of the spicy mint water into each little ball before popping it into my mouth.
My first bite was even more of a cacophony than the streets of the city had been — a spicy, crunchy, velvety explosion of texture and flavor.
“Oh damn,” I said, splashing mint water into the next cup and chomping it down.
“Easy there,” my girlfriend Rachael said, concerned for the gastric explosion she was sure would follow sometime soon. “Maybe don’t eat all of them.”
“And you don’t have to put the spicy sauce into every one,” our guide said, also looking concerned. “Try some without.”
That next cup was fine, and still spicy, but the extra pickle mint acid jolt of the sauce was what made for the perfect mix, so I went back to splashing it in.
After I’d consumed a couple more crispy dumplings — our guide politely declined my offer to share — I decided that I’d had enough. But the look of approbation on the faces of our guide and the young shopkeeper made me realize my mistake. They were offended — you don’t throw away food in an impoverished country.
So I powered down the rest of the pani puri right there, smiling through my upper lip sweat and burning esophagus, authentically loving every single bite. Then I paid the shopkeeper the 15 cents he charged me, put my hands together and bowed in thanks, and we continued our urban exploration.
Back here in Denver, the gol gappa (aka pani puri) at Spice Room costs a bit more than I paid in Nepal, but it still captures those street food flavors.
The garbanzo puffs are delicate beauties, and the fillings make the dish — crispy booni in spicy mint water plus a creamy mix of potatoes, garbanzos, and crunchy aromatics. You spoon a little of both into the cups yourself before adding a dollop of tamarind chutney and taking a bite. That perfect cacophony of goodness is topped off with the sweet acid pop of the chutney while the little puff cup dissolves in your mouth.
Spice Room’s gol gappa aren’t as spicy as the ones I tried in Nepal, but they’re more complex in flavor and texture — and you’ll want to take your time with them, scooping in different allocations of fillings while you sit comfortably and sip the glass of wine you ordered along with them.
Order them as the start to a full-on Indian feast or along with the restaurant’s other sharable, chaat snacks shared among friends. But either way, order two sets. One is never enough.