Laden with various influences, local food is a good mix of old and new. Go with a sweet tooth.
What is in a name? Appetite. Chatori Gali is a name of a lane tucked in the heart of Bhopal. Deserted during the day, the lane starts bustling with people as soon as the sun readies to dip into Bhoj Taal, the city’s largest lake. No one knows who gave the lane its name, but Chatori Gali is the hungry man’s pilgrimage. Mutton sheekh, paya soup, biryani and crisp fried fish. Name it and it will get cooked in a blink. There is nothing fancy about Chatori Gali. No well-dressed waiters. No teak chairs. No silverware. Just scrumptious food.
The breakfast spread
I had taken an early morning flight into Bhopal, the City of Lakes. Evening seemed countless hours away. All I needed was a hearty breakfast. “Breakfast? How about poha and jalebi with Suleimani chai? Or bhutte ki kees?” Ajay Chaudhary, Executive Chef, Courtyard by Marriott, Bhopal, spewed options. In Corner Bar lay the city’s largest breakfast spread. Poha is the early morning love of Bhopalis. But Bhutte ki kees? Suleimani chai? “That’s typical local breakfast. Grated corn cooked in milk and salted tea,” Chef Chaudhary explained. In the city that was founded by Raja Bhoj, I did what the Bhopalis do – have jalebi and slightly sweet poha with a generous sprinkle of sev.
A bowl of many influences
Bhopali food is laden with various influences. From Marwar and Hyderabad to Lucknow. The princely state was ruled by Nawabs, but unlike Hyderabadi and Awadhi cuisine, Bhopali food has no dominant flavour. It is neither sour like Hyderabadi food nor rich like Awadhi cuisine. With countless influences thrown into the cauldron, the cuisine acquired its own distinct nuances. For example, the influx of vegetables even in non-vegetarian dishes like keema maithi, filfora and saljam gosht. The tiny taste-twists lend fame to this cuisine. Bhopali rizala is not fiery red like Hyderabadi rizala. It acquires the green hue with spoonfuls of mint, chilli and coriander; the dal is more khada (less cooked), and a meal often concludes with atar paan (perfumed betel leaf). Bhopalis have been teetotallers with a massive sweet tooth. There is a mandatory inclusion of kalajamun and phirni in the traditional menu.
Perfume, paan and palaces
In Old Bhopal, I hear about the khansamas (cooks) who stuffed dry fruits into the sweet samosa. Of the man who first added salt into the tea water, served it with dollops of thickened milk and called it Suleimani chai. The nawabs who had atar (natural perfume) drizzled on the betel leaf that they served in honour of the guests. And a more modern sweetmaker of Puran Hotel in Obedullahganj who perhaps makes the world’s best melt-in-the-mouth kalajamun. The food from the royal households is served in Jehan Numa Palace Hotel and Noor-Us-Sabah Palace Hotel.
Names and scoops
Not merely food, restaurants here have a thing for names. There is Bapu ki Kutia, Rice & Bowl, Kebabsville, Za-aiqa, 10 Downing Street, Cafe Chokolade, Tattenham Corner, Winds and Waves, and a Bhopal Express. The last one is a restaurant housed in a renovated broad gauge railway coach. No story of Bhopal food is complete without a mention of Top n Town ice cream, a local brand scattered throughout the city. The Nawabs concluded their meals with atar paan; modern-day Bhopalis end their day with an ice cream scoop. Times have changed but Bhopal still lives with good food.
Best in Town
• Breakfast: Corner Bar in Courtyard by Marriott which serves the city’s largest breakfast spread.
• Fine Dining: Bay Leaf, the city’s first fine dining restaurant
• Tea: Raju Tea Stall near Old Hamidia Hospital
• Suleimani chai: Jamil Bhai’s in the Old City
• Paan: Nawab Khan’s paan in the Old City
• Sweets: Brijwasi Misthan Bhandar
• Non-vegetarian snacks: Chatori Gali in Old City
• Poha/jalebi breakfast: Kalyan Singh Swad Bhandar, Itwara Road
• Kebabs: Hotel Jameel in the Chowk
• Lassi: Haji Lassiwala, Itwara Chowk
• Ice Cream: Top n Town, available everywhere