Chhappan Dukan

When I was planning our weekend in Indore, the street food came highly recommended from many bloggers. The food shops in Sarafa Bazaar open late in the day. We walked through the area one evening when they were just setting up, and decided we would come back the next night. Things worked out otherwise. We had three wonderful sit-down dinners in Indore, and had to miss the night bustle of this bazaar.

We decided to drop into the famous 56 shops of Indore. In my imagination it was something between a covered market and a food court. Visually Chhappan Dukaan is disappointing. The shops line a wide street (featured photo). It was as clean as it is reputed to be; Indore deserves its tag of the cleanest city in India. One side of the street contains the stand up places, the other all the sit-down places. Three days of eating had not left us much appetite, but we decided to sample the best that we could.

One simple technique that we’ve honed over decades of traveling around the world is to watch where the locals go. They led us first to a shop where samosas and kachoris were being fried. The Family asked for advise. A young father with a child told us what to have if we wanted to eat only one thing. There was only one of that left. We split it; crisp, flaky covering with a wonderful spiced filling. Our advisor had disappeared before we could thank him. Next door was a sweet shop. My friend pointed out a sweet that could have been savoury by looks. The Family knew it by name: ghevar. The crisp covering held a filling of mildly sweetened mawa mixed with nuts. We walked along to the next knot of people. “Johny Hot Dog” was plating up a version of burgers. The Family asked for a veggy burger and my friend and I opted for a mutton burger each. Soft, lightly warmed bread with a good layer of butter covered a wonderful kheema patty.

We crossed the road and sat down in Bittu’s. That menu is something special all right; the specials are written in Hindi. Everything else is presumably not special, and can be in English. We ordered three of the special written in bold fonts: dahi vada. A lifetime ago this was just emerging from the south of India, and was a hit with my friends from school whenever they came home to eat my mother’s interpretation. Now it has spread beyond India. The version we had came in square melamine bowls with a liberal sprinkling of chili and jeera powder over a mildly sweet yogurt. The vadas had melted into the dahi. This was as much as we could eat.

My friend had one more stop to make. We crossed into a tiny shop selling namkeen. It stocks ramdana laddus made with jaggery instead of sugar. This was a novelty for us. The shop had only one packet of this left. So we split the packet for later tasting.

So here is a call back to my original guides: Selcouth Explorer, Taste Memory, Megha, and Follow the Eaten Path. Thanks for introducing me to a great experience.


Sunday lunch

As I began to think about Sunday’s lunch, inspiration was provided by delightful memories of our holiday in the Himalayas. In that wonderful hotel by the edge of glacier-fed Falachan river, Ram, the cook produced one lovely dessert after another. There were two each day. The high point of a day were these chocolate balls, lightly dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece complained that she didn’t like coconut. I suggested that she could have the previous evening’s Banoffee tart. She did have that, but after she finished the chocolate ball!

Assam-chinese food

It never comes as a surprise when you get to a highway eatery and find that the menu features “Chinese” food. This usually means curry with noodles. At this eatery near Golaghat in Assam, somehow chole bhature was included under Chinese. In the true spirit of Punjabi practicality, I did not worry about the classification, but was satisfied by what was served up. More than satisfied, in fact. The chhola was the local ghugni. The batura were luchi writ large. This thriving eatery has discovered marketing: the local luchi-ghugni could be passed off as the more well-known chole bhature without offending anyone.

Never one to pass up familiar food, The Family ordered an onion utthapam, and pronounced it completely edible. In the last sixty years, dosas and utthapam have unmoored themselves from the south of India, and set sail on the sea of pan-Indian food. We love to churn this sea whenever we travel, because it throws up gems more often than poison.

The piece de resistance was the unremarkable looking thing in the photo above. These cubes of chhana mildly sweetened in syrup were the perfect ending to the meal. As I travel in Assam, Bengal and Odisha, I come across more and more varieties of this kind of sweet. This was special, possibly a local invention, since it seemed to be just called chhana. We called for a chai, and a second helping of the chhana.

Dharwad special

I spent a day and a half in a meeting held in a beautifully restored old building in Dharwad. The only thing I knew of the town was that its pedas were a specialty. When I wrote about my trip back, a fellow blogger pointed out that I should also have tried other local sweets called kardant and kunda. Too bad I didn’t know of those; the kardant seems especially intersting.

At the end of the meeting, I traveled back with a box of the famous pedas. Each piece seems to be an unique hexagonal shape. But there was more; the pedas were similar to the north-Indian variety, except that the milk was caramelized. The story behind these sweets is interesting. As I suspected, the pedas were brought here a couple of centuries ago by a family from Uttar Pradesh who fled the plague that was then raging in that sub-Himalayan state. The recipe remained a closely guarded family secret until recently, when it must have been reverse engineered by others. The next time I’m in Dharwad time I wouldn’t mind comparison tasting to figure out which shop makes the most interesting varieties.

Street food heaven

The new moon was sighted last night, so today is the Id that ends the month of Ramazan. I thought this might be a good time to bring out this year’s collection of photos which show the food available at nights during the month of religious remembrance in Islam. As always, click on any of the photos to start on the slide show. For the practicing Muslim, Ramazan is a month of daytime fasts; food is allowed only between sunset and sunrise. The food streets around Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai are brightly lit and dense with people during this time.

I missed most of the month due to travel, but made sure that in the last week I tried out my favourite places. The food street is surrounded by shops selling shoes, clothes, jewelery and perfume: all of which are de rigeur for the Id lunch. Id-ul-fitr, as you might guess, is a major festival with a daytime feast being a focus. Id mubarak to all.

Lunch at Jalori Pass

While we discussed the practicalities of traveling to Jalori Pass from the hotel, Dilsher told us, “For lunch there is a dhaba which serves rajma and rice.” Nothing else needed to be said on this matter. Since Dilsher had a wonderful cook, I took him on trust.

There were a few dhabas on top of Jalori pass, but when we said the magic words “rajma chawal”, it was clear where we would eat. From outside it looked like the hut was actually a general store in a village. The (slightly broken) windows were packed with the usual quick eats which cause elevated levels of blood pressure and sugar for those who would like to pay for the privilege. Only a few stickers distinguished it from any number of such little shop windows: the Tripadvisor sticker was a standout, another said something about Himalayan Motorbikers.

Inside, on the counter, in plastic jars were the reminders of my youth. In the days before junk food came out of factories, it was made by hand, and stored in glass jars in just such gloomy shops. The glass jars have turned into plastic jars, but suddenly I had the feeling that I had come home after a long time. How did we avoid the lifestyle diseases which plague our children? It cannot just be that factory-made junk food has chemicals which we never got (the words trans-fats and high-fructose cornstarch roll so easily off our tongues now), for some jars had toffees. These are the goodies that I and my friends would hoard in ones and twos when, as schoolchildren, we had money to buy them. No, it is not just the new foods, it is also the increased prosperity that has brought these disorders with them.

The Young Niece knew better than to look longingly at the bottles of poison displayed so colourfully in another window. During the trip her indulgences were largely restricted to the hours between sundown and dinner, at the same time as ours. The minivan which you see outside the door disgorged a very large family who sat here and had little bits to eat. The children, mostly younger than The Young Niece, had plates of maggi noodles, while the adults ate rajma-chawal. That was a pattern we were happy to replicate. When we ordered rajma-chawal, The Young Niece ordered a maggi instead. After polishing off the rajma, we could mop up the remaining rice with a pakoda kadhi.

The food was wonderful, as I’d suspected it would be. I had to take a portrait of the cook in the little corner of the hut which served as his kitchen. You can see the pots of rajma and kadhi simmering away on the chulha. The man lives in a village a little way down the road and comes up here every morning to open up his shop. He made us a chai as we chatted about high seasons and the closing of the pass in winters. He says the traffic has been increasing over the years, and if it were not for the new dhabas which opened up here, he would not find the time to serve food to everyone who stops here.

The Family had noticed him making something else in the morning when we had a chai before leaving for our walk. After taking his photo, I noticed a big thali full of something that looked like a halwa. When we asked he said it was besan. I’ve only had it as a laddoo before, but the rhomboids he cut and gave us were rather nice. I guess shape does not matter when it comes to things like this. As we were praising the food, Soni, in his usual charming manner, said that the Punjabi version was much better. We all agreed that since the Punjabi version was not available right now, what we were having was the best. This was one of the tastier versions of the sweet I’d had, and I packed up some to take back to work.

I was moving about the shop as we talked, and took a photo out of the window behind us. It looked out on to a wonderful view that we’d seen in the morning. You could open up the door which you can see in the photo with the pots and the kettle, and walk out on a narrow platform overlooking a sloping meadow and the road snaking its way down to the plains. I didn’t want to forget about this little dhaba, with its genial cook who gave us some of the best food in the world 3 Kilometers above Mumbai.

I walked out on that narrow platform and looked again at the view. It was still windy; passes always are. But it had warmed up since we sat out here and had our breakfast. Everyone had taken off some of the layers we had worn then. A last look, and it was time to turn and head back north.

A month’s worth of desserts

The cheesecake which you see above came close to being my favourite sweet of the month. The old-fashioned Parle-G biscuits around it gave a nice crunch to the dish. The sauce at the bottom of the dish was a rabdi which did little jiggs on your tongue. The Gems on the plate looked nice, but I couldn’t imagine they would do anything to the taste, so I let the secret sharers take them away. A lovely retro-modern dessert, which I wouldn’t mind eating again. This was The Family’s favourite of the month.

A working trip to Odisha wouldn’t be complete without digging into chhanapoda. This is lightly sweetened chhana bunged into a hot oven until it becomes crusty. It can be lightly dusted with cinnamon, or not. I like it either way. It doesn’t last more than a day, so I spent my youth hearing about it without ever eating it. It was not so far back, on my first visit to Odisha, that I finally tasted it. I can’t do without it once in a couple of years.

This is a kairi tart to beat all kairi sweets from your local canteen. The taste is amazingly tart on the tongue, with an aftertaste of sweet. The mango flavour suffuses the dish. The salt, the light sprinkling of red chili powder, and the crisp pastry all go so well together, that The Family took a photo of me grinning loopily after finishing this. This was definitely the dessert of the month for me, and the runner up for The Family.

This was a nice chocolate sweet which wasn’t very inventive. Good cooking, nice presentation; just the thing to have with two nieces who are both chocolate fanatics. I wouldn’t mind having it again when I’m ahead of the game in terms of calories.

What a lovely presentation for a coffee mousse! It is billed as a hoity-toity Kerala coffee, sweetened with jaggery and accompanied by banana fritters served on a banana leaf. It is just coffee mousse with banana fritters, but a nice end to a meal. I liked the fact that it was served in a coconut shell. And I loved the plate it came on.

The enumeration of the month’s best wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the mouth freshener. It came in this complicated stand which holds lollipops filled with Bailey’s. This is undoubtedly the most interesting digestif that I’ve had in recent times.

Remembering village markets

I blogged about village markets of Assam some days back. I knew that The Family was also taking photographs, but I didn’t suspect that the photos would be so totally different. Here is a gallery of things that she noticed.

The piles of vegetables are things both of us saw. But she also noticed mosquito nets, bottles of honey, cane baskets, brooms. I did not look closely at people setting up their stalls, nor at tea gardens. She was not paying attention to cattle markets, or fish. Is this a gender difference?

Breakfast in Barjuri

One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to stop at a roadside dhaba in a little village and sample their food. Not only do you get a feel of local food habits, you also get to meet people. Early in the morning, on our way to one of the further ranges in the forests of Kaziranga, we stopped at a tiny village. The sky was light, although the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick clouds. I was surprised to see this young boy awake and already on his full-sized bike. I think he was delivering newspapers, but he wouldn’t reply to my questions. I tried three languages, so I think he was just not in the mood.

Across the road one shop had opened up, and the owner was cleaning out the dry leaves which had collected overnight in the area in front of the shop. I was very amused by the long bamboo which one man was carrying on his shoulder. It was probably a reasonable load, but the skill involved in moving this around was considerable. I saw the long bamboo bob up and down quite a bit. Bamboo is a common building material here, and the other people around ignored this sight.

The dhaba was already doing good business. The highway was already busy, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. The signboard told me the name of the village: Barjuri. The well-dressed couple sitting at the table in the middle had driven up in a car, and were busy with a paratha and bhaji. It looked good.

I sidled around to take a photo of the cook. He was having a conversation with one of the customers. When he realized that I was trying to take a photo he became silent and concentrated on cooking. I guess this is an image thing. No matter; I can vouch for the fact that he is a very competent cook. The traditional earthen chulha fired with coal can produce great results if the cook is good, but the amount of smoke it produces is not inconsiderable. I always wonder whether there is some better and cheap alternative. So close to Dibrugarh and its refinery, I’d expected more use of cooking gas. I’d forgotten about the entrenched problems of governance in this state.

As I waited for my food I walked over to the tiny brick room next to Gopal’s. This turned out to be Barjuri post office. It would probably open at 10, four hours later. I haven’t been inside a post office for years, and I wished I had been here when it was open. The locked door was just two planks of wood reinforced by cross pieces. I’d grown up in houses with doors like this. I hadn’t seen a post box for some time too. The ones in cities have been removed or are hidden behind new construction. It didn’t look like this post box was in use either.

It was clear why. The slit below the window is the modern post box. I guess when the post office opens the window becomes a service counter. “It can’t be such a small village,” The Family said, “if it has a post office.” That sounded correct. There must have been more of the village off the highway. There was a substantial market next to the post office: a long row of shops, all closed for now. Gopal had got our breakfast by now. We had our chai, ate the pakoras, and drove off.

Deconstructed Tuesday

Some days should be spent in quiet contemplation of the sheer awesomeness of the previous weekend. Today I find myself silenced by a wonderfully deconstructed Black Forest cake. The pink ice is flash frozen cherry flavoured ice cream, topped with sponge soil with a Maraschino cherry buried in it. The bars of chocolate ganache stacked on the side melt in your mouth. Need one say more?