Khaugarh

A vendor in Amritsar told me to forget about my diet, now that I was in Khaugarh, the city of food. This is good advise, and you probably know it already. Before my trip I did the usual bit of due diligence: did a search for what to eat in Amritsar. The result was a set of web pages which had clearly copied from each other. Take the suggestions as guides, they are quite good. But be prepared to improvise. If street food is your thing then you’ll find amrit, ambrosia, in the maze of lanes around the Golden Temple. This was a walk I’d been looking forward to, and I can do worse than to present it by time of the day.

Breakfast

The featured photo shows a kulcha maker sizing me up as a potential customer. The kulcha is the default breakfast in town. There are whole lanes devoted entirely to kulcha and chhole, teeming with people in the mornings. But the shops run all day, turning out kulchas by the minute, as a big handi of chhole slow cooks constantly. I loved the variety, the doodhi kulchas and the stuffed ones. If you don’t fancy chhole, try it out with a bowl of the wonderful yoghurt that these places have.

A mid-morning snack

Why not a kulcha again? I loved the aggressive lean of the chhole-kulcha guy in the little stall he’d set up in an alley. There’s also lovely stuff like samosas and fried bread. We chickened, and had a chai. This wasn’t for the faint-hearted; it was thick with milk and cream, the tea leaves boiled to extract the last bit of tannin from it, and intensely sweet. A local told us disdainfully that this guy mixes water in the tea. A different stall nearby would have boiled the tea leaves in milk. If you want to eat healthy there are carts which will press juice out of the fruits of your choice. I always long to mix carrot with sugarcane and lime, but I passed it up.

We passed up kulfas (large servings of kulfi) and had the fantastic lassi only once. These would have been very filling, and we did want to try out lunch and dinner in some of the dhabas and restaurants around the city.

Early evenings

A while before sunset on a winter’s day you could begin to feel the need for a little sustenance. There are multiple options. A group of farmers who’d just returned from Delhi were having gol gappa. I have not doubt that the Amritsari version is special, but I gave it a pass. Pakoras were being fried, yams were being roasted, and two carts promised a special bhel puri from Bombay. But we headed to the jalebiwala. I chickened when I saw people buying them by quarter kilos for a roadside snack. But The Family went ahead and asked for one to taste. Noticing the bliss on her face another customer told her “I’m forbidden from having them, but I come here once a week.” Every vendor has their adherent. These fans are not wrong. The cooks who last are very good.

Pre-dinner snack

When you walk through the lanes here, looking for good angles for shots of the famous and less well-known Gurudwaras, it will be time for dinner before you know it. But to keep you going from the time you realize it is time, to when you actually get to your dinner, there are options. One guy was making what he called veg burgers. In Mumbai we would call it vada pav. But the star of the evening was clearly milk with saffron: kesari dodh. People had it in large glasses by itself, and with kulfi, jalebi, gulab jamun, or pinni.

For us it was time to look for an interesting dinner. There are so many options!

Baked Samosa

The Family has been concerned about overdoing the fried food for a while now. When the lockdown started and our physical activity fell another notch, we became non-frying fetishists. As part of that year-long effort, last week we decided to bake samosas. We’d been freezing samosas to be fried later for some time now, and we took out six of the flat-folded ones which had a nice kheema filling and brushed on a touch of oil. A touch, after all, is the absolute maximum that you want if you are trying to cut down the extra calories that the oil would provide.

I was all for setting the thermostat at 200 Celsius and baking for about 7 to 8 minutes a side. I was trumped by a recipe that The Family found on the net which claimed 180 Celsius and baking for 5 minutes a side. I was skeptical. Baking times depend on many factors. The starting temperature of the thing being baked changes times quite a bit. Since the room temperature was lower than usual, and we’d not let the filled samosas sit out for too long, I thought it was going to take longer than what the recipe states. The time also depends on the size of the oven you use, since it seems to determine how close to or far from the source of heat you can place your tray (ideally it should not). It turned out that these took inordinately long, almost 10 minutes a side.

The next time we will turn up the thermostat a little further, perhaps place the tray closer to the bottom of the oven, and remember to take the samosas out of the freezer as early in the morning as possible. I’m looking for that sweet spot when the whole process takes about 15 minutes. And perhaps we will try a whiff of oil instead of the touch.

Foraging

The Family is a great forager. My shopping trips start with a list, and, sometimes, when some of the things on the list are not available, I replace them with the nearest equivalent. The contents of the bag do not surprise anyone. When The Family leaves home, I have no idea what she will get back. The trip that she took to work also yielded some surprises. A few landed up on our table instantly. The samosas and the hot vadas (without pav, unfortunately) were what I liked best. She put it on the last remaining piece of the first table setting we’d bought together. The usual rule of ceramics seems to be holding up: a chipped plate never breaks.

The fluffy hot dhoklas were another surprise. She’d also managed a peek into the kitchen where they had been prepared. As we demolished a large part of her findings, I listened to her stories of foot operated hand sanitizer dispensers, thin crowds in favourite shops, and clean kitchens. The first wave of infections is not over in Mumbai yet. As long as people remain masked, and spend most of their time distancing from each other, there should be no disastrous second wave.

Little Swahili eats

Kaimati was not a food term I’d come across before I came across the deep-fried delights. These little balls of sweetened flour were crisp outside and fluffy and airy inside. What a pleasant surprise. Where did it come from? A little asking told me that this was coastal food. The East African coast has seen Indian Ocean trade for over a millennium, so it could have come from anywhere. In the far west of Kenya, where I ate this, I was also told it was Swahili food. That fits, because the Swahili are Arab speakers who diffused inland from the coast. Later, searching the web I found that it is a local version of the middle eastern Lugmat or Luqaimat. On the coast of Kenya it is known as Iftari food, something to have when you have your big meal at night after breaking your fast during the month of Ramazan. It is also said to be Iftair food in Muscat and Oman. That gives credence to the theory that it was carried along the western coast of the Indian Ocean by traders.

The basketful of samosas with minced meat got over awfully fast, and had to be refilled very often. I think of samosas as Indian food, but it seems that it comes out of Turkey. Trade brought it to India, where it changed. (Why not? Even the Big Mac changed, but it is a long and complicated tale which is best left to another post.) The Turkish version is filled with meat, but today the commonest variety in India has a spicy potato filling. You have to hunt for other fillings (two of my favourites are the spicy minced meat filling, and one which is filled with a mixture of lentils). In Kenya it is known as coastal food, so clearly brought here by trade. Did this come straight from Turkey, or from India? The spicy meat filling was redolent of an Indian influence. A toast to trade: raise your favourite tipple, whether it is made of wheat, sugar, potato, corn, or anything else which trade carried across the world.

A small snack before dinner

Traveling is not easy. There are these large markets in every town that you visit. It takes time to walk through them, and you might be far from the nearest restaurant when you realize that it has been a long time since lunch. That is when a Guptaji’s becomes handy. Walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar with the clan, those of us who were less inclined to shop gravitated easily towards an attractive hole in the wall which promised chats.

This is exactly the kind of fried indulgence that we wouldn’t allow ourselves every day. But this was the first day of Christmas, and I was sure that my true love would not grudge me a plate of samosas (maybe samosha, to keep with the local style), accompanied by some chai, and a follow-up plate of tikki with chole, some more chai, and then some sweets. By the time the shoppers were back we were ready for a second round. How lucky to find a Guptaji’s here. We might have starved otherwise. Dinner’s still a few hours off.

Ship in a storm

We had no plans to go to Mandu. Eight years ago we had spent three days walking around that wonderful medieval citadel. But we ran out of ancient remains in Dhar very early in the afternoon, and decided to push on to Mandu. It is about an hour’s drive, and the landscape is spectacular in this season. Mandu stands barely 75 meters above Dhar, but all the clouds in this land seem to descend and envelope these romantic ruins. The Family remarked “We’ve never seen bright sunlight here.” Maybe we should come back one winter to see how the place looks when there are no clouds, but we find Mandu so very charming in this season.

Our first stop was the spectacular Jahaz Mahal (literally, the Ship Palace), so named because the long building between two water bodies is supposed to look like a ship. The building is really long, close to 110 meters, and only about 15 meters in width. A gusty rainstorm enveloped us as we walked in. I hadn’t zipped up my raincoat, and I was wet immediately. The Family fared better in her poncho. We hesitated at the entrance for a while, and after the storm peaked walked into the long building. It was built during the reign of Ghiyas ud-din Khilji of Malwa (1469-1500 CE). The state tourism department’s web site repeats the incredible story of the Sultan keeping his harem of 15,000 women in this palace. If these numbers were right, it would mean each member of the royal harem would have less than a one foot by one foot space to herself. Hardly a pleasure palace!

In the driving rain I could not take photos of the architecture I’d admired almost a decade back. I took one shot of the domed roof and the arches looking out at the countryside obscured by the storm. This is beautiful Indo-Afghan architecture, among the best examples of this style. When the rain let up a little, we climbed up to the terrace. Eight years ago we had met a crowd of girls from a local school who posed for photos with The Family. Now there was a wonderful mist which turned the terrace into an enchanted area (see the featured photo). Ghiyas ud-din’s reputation as a pleasure lover is based on the beautifully illustrated cookbook called Nimatnama (Book of Pleasure), now in the British Library. Fifty portraits of the sultan illuminate recipes for delicacies like khichdi, biriyani, samosa and halwa made of fresh ginger. These may be the first in the genre of Indian miniature portraits.

In the rain we could hardly recognize Jahangir’s description of this palace when he and his empress Noor Jahan celebrated the feast of Shab-e-barat in this palace in 1616 CE. In Jahangir’s words, from his memoirs Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, “They lighted lanterns and lamps all around the tanks and buildings. The lamps cast their reflections on the water and it appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire.” On our earier visit we had taken a leisurely stroll around Jahaz Mahal, and walked down to one of the step wells. The well was more full this time around, but the steps were slippery with rain water and moss. We did not dare to climb down. Some things may be easier if one comes here in winter.

Jodhpuri street food

A variety of chutneys for golgappas

The street food of Jodhpur is split between things on carts and things available from shops. Among carts crowds are densest around those which carry golgappas. These crisp spherical puris are vehicles for a variety of chutneys, hence the other name for it: panipuri. Pakoras of various kinds are almost as popular, including the special chili pakoras. We found that this is eaten cold. So is the other other Jodhpur special: the sweet mawa kachori. Shops mostly specialize in sweets. I was impressed by the crowd around a shop selling vegetable juices: carrot, spinach, mint and the mouth-puckeringly sour amla.

Click on any of the photos in the mosaic to transit to a slideshow.