Sunday, June 14, 2015

My Guide to Eating Out in Gwalior - By Amit Patnaik

Gwalior - a city whose fate passed from one dynasty to another through the ages - from the Tomars through the Mughals to the present-day monarch-turned politicians, the Scindias. The influence of this historical game of thrones is as vividly visible on it’s food as it is on the walls of it’s imposing fortress.

While the typical artery-clogging staples of the Northern Plains - Bedai, Boondi Ladoo and Kachoris vindicate its geographic location, the ubiquitous carts peddling Poha, Dabeli and even Vada Pao attest to the Maratha heritage of its last monarchs. Dining out in Gwalior would be incomplete without hogging on rich Mughlai Qormas and Kebabs at some of its old school restaurants like Kwality and Volga. 

After arriving in the region for an official assignment last winter (here’s how), I soon took a liking to Gwalior. As the mustard fields turned from green to a sea of yellow, finally withering away into the dust, my days in the city led to an evolution of my own. Here I spent many a sunny noon roaming about medieval forts and regal palaces, sometimes on foot and at times on a Tonga. Much of my time was spent seeking out the best food in the city - in old bazaars, chowpattis and melas. It is here that I first started this blog, perhaps a decision that might have changed the course of my life forever.

Gwalior gave me much love and, moments that I will treasure for life. It is now my turn to give something back. I will attempt to create the most comprehensive guide to the gastronomic delights the city has to offer, chronicling my own pursuit in search of yummi(y)ness. For the sake of brevity, I have broken the guide up into three parts covering both street food and dining out in Gwalior. Also, to make things easier for the reader who follows this trail, there’s a custom Google Map at end covering all the eateries mentioned in the post.

Exploring Street Food

For me the best way to explore street food has always been on foot; loitering around town opens up your senses to delights and intricacies of everyday life, making eating truly a part of a much greater experience. I would often out set from my base at the Central Park Hotel in City Centre, walk through the Chhatris on Rani Laxmi Bai Marg and take in the sunrise over the magnificent Italian Gardens at Moti Mahal. I roamed through old havelis in Dal Bazaar amidst the smell of roasted tea leaves from the wholesale tea shops that line the roads. A long walk to Maharaja Baada in the evening was rewarded with the breathtaking sight of the majestic Town Hall and Post Office buildings lit up against the night sky.

Asking a Gwaliorite his or her favourite Poha place can be a bit deceiving. Pat comes the reply, Aggarwal Poha Bhandaar. Satisfied you set out in search, only to find an Aggarwal Poha Bhandaar at every nook and corner. A little probing complicates the plot. Unlike Kareems in Delhi, there isn't an original APB. Oh Aggarwal!, as if the Mithai wasn't enough!

Some guided me towards the APB on Rani Laxmi Bai Road, whilst others pointed me towards Phaalka Bazaar and Maharaja Baada. A few mentioned one in Dal Bazaar as well. Things were a little better on Youtube, where both Chef Harpal Sokhi and Vinod Dua hopped into the one at Phaalka Bazaar.

I had to take matters into my own hands mouth. After eating my way through plates of Poha, I found the Mashoor Aggarwal Poha Bhandaar that deserves your appetite:

The moment I walked into Naya Bazaar, I was immediately reminded of the gallis of Chawri Bazaar in Old Delhi. Old wholesale trading shops dotted the streets, which were thankfully wider and better maintained than the Purani Dilli market. I came across APB when I was nonchalantly walking around through Dal Bazaar one morning, on my way to the legendary SS Kachauriwala and Bahadura Ladoo (See below). I spotted a board on the pavement for Mashoor Aggarwal Poha Bhandaar in front of a tiny hole-in-the wall shop fronted by a gigantic tawa laden with Poha. The tawa sat on a huge cauldron of boiling water, a desi version of a chafing dish.

 Organic tattva Poha

I am fairly familiar with Poha, having spent 3 years in Bombay. Poha was standard grub at our college canteen in TISS. It would often be the only pre-dawn food available to hungry students up all night. The Pohawallas would set up their cycles near Chembur station around 6 AM. One of my favourites in Bombay is at Prakash, the Marathi snack stalwart in Dadar. The typical Bombay Poha was slightly dry, speckled with chopped Kanda (Onions), toasted Singhdana (Peanuts) and maybe a squeeze of lemon.

As any Poha lover will tell you, the key to a good plate is freshness. Leave it out too long and it gets dry and chewy. Re-steaming it can often end up in a soggy mess. Aggarwal's version of a  chafing dish ensured that the Poha was fresh and moist, with a beautiful bite that just crumbled in your mouth. 

He scooped a plateful from the mound of yellow, sprinkled some of his Poha masala and Sev. He then proceeded to mix in chopped onions, diced tomato, coriander leaves, toasted peanuts, some minced green chillies and chilli pickle. A final squeeze of lemon completed the plate. One spoonful and the light puffed rice was taken to an entirely different level. Every bite was medley of flavour and texture, much like a perfect Bhelpuri. It made the Poha I have had in Bombay appear like a staid cousin.

I also tried a warm and moist Dhokla which was pretty good. These guys are open by 8 AM and shut by about 11 AM. Yes, the stuff is so good that it’s sold out in 3 hours! 

Boondi Ladoo at Bahadura Sweets, Naya Bazaar

A short walk away from APB, in Naya Bazaar is Bahadura Sweets, the legendary ladoowala of Gwalior. With a patronage that includes former Prime Minister and Gwaliorite, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dharmendra - Bahadura ke Ladoo travel as far and wide as it's fame.

I walked towards it expecting a huge showroom like a Haldirams, with an array of delights behind shiny glass counters. Confused, I walked past it a couple of times, barely noticing the dingy signboard. It was housed in what seemed like an old Haveli.  A man was hunched over a huge degh of bubbling ghee in the verandah. He was ladling tiny yellow pearly Boondis from the cauldron, which sat on a flaming coal choolha. 

A doorway led to a grimy living room, where men stirred those crisp boondis into the Chashni and cupped the sweetened ones into ladoos in palms dripping with Desi Ghee, whose unmistakable aroma filled the air. This was no air conditioned store, with swan shaped pineapple barfis behind refrigerated glass counters - just a Halwai ki Dukaan making pain old Boondi Ladoos. A moustachioed man came forth and I asked him for a plate. He handed me three plump ones on a dona. I noticed these ladoos had a amber tinge unlike the famed Boondi Ladoos at Tewari Brothers in Delhi and Chhapan Bhog in Lucknow, which were orange hued with saffron. The Halwai informed me that’s because they only use pure Besan, Desi ghee and Cane sugar for these ladoos.

I picked one up and the warm ladoo dimpled from my touch. Lest it crumble, I gulped it down in one go. I tried to pause and take cognisance  of all the calories I had just dunked in when, my hand involuntarily reached out for a second one. Soon, the third ladoo too had met the same fate. I looked at the empty dona with a mix of guilt and disbelief. Not a huge fan of Boondi Ladoos, my gluttony surprised me. These ladoos weren’t cloying like the usual, their warm boondis melted in the mouth like Besan Halwa. 

I came back some days later to pack a box for my weekend trip home to Delhi. These ladoos stay good for upto a week. The Halwai advised that its best not to refrigerate them. Unsurprisingly, the box was emptied within a couple of days. Even Rex, the labrador couldn’t get enough of Bahadura ke Ladoo!

Karela and Lambi Paani Puri around town

 Click here to get attractive Paani Puri serving plates for your home

I spotted an unusual Chaat cart one evening in front of my hotel in City Centre. A couple of things immediately caught my attention. The first was a long Khaari-like wafer, called Karela. The other was bullet-shaped Paani puri shells which were called Lambi Paani Puri. I had to try out this new discovery, and promptly asked for a plate of each! 

The oblong Lambi Paani Puris were made of Sooji. The chaatwaala stocked spherical Gol Paani Puris made of Aata. I usually prefer the lighter Aata variety. I wondered if the difference in shape was to highlight the composition. Or perhaps, the unusual shape aids in stuffing them it into your mouth. Either way, I had no trouble in dispatching a plateful. The shells were crisp, and thinner than the more common, spherical Sooji shells which are often pretty thick. He filled it with a mix of mashed potatoes, masala, chopped onions and boiled matra. The masala Paani was a tad too sharp to begin with, but a dash of Meethi Chutney made it perfect for my palate. 

The craft and skill of the Paani Puri-wala is much under-appreciated. Serving upto 3 or 4 hungry patrons at once, he deftly punctures each crisp shell, stuffs it with mashed potatoes/warm Matra (North India/Bombay), adds Meethi Chutney according to each customer's personal taste, dunks it in his cauldron of Masala Paani and serves the Paani Puri on the customer’s lota with perfect timing.  All you have to do is to gulp it down in time for the next one.

Next up, Karela Chaat. Come to think of it, it did resemble the bitter-gourd, a rather flat one perhaps. Like a Khari, but much larger,  it was made by layering sheets of maida and deep frying. It was remarkably similar to the chashni-dipped quintessential Puri prasad served at the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri, called  Khaja.

This Karela cracked with a pleasing crunch and tasted like a cross between Mathri and Khaari. For my chaat, it was broken up, covered with a warm Matra Chhole which was akin to the Ragda you get in Bombay. Perhaps another Maratha touch. The plate was finished with a garnish of Khatti and Meethi Chutneys, chopped onions and final sprinkling of Sev. The churma-like Karela Chaat provided a nice textural contrast of crisp Karela bits and the mushy Matra Chhole, making for satisfyingly filing chaat.

I tried Chaat across Gwalior, my best pick is the cart just after Bahadura Sweets in Naya Bazaar. The Chaat at the local-favorite Chowpatty, modeled after it’s Bombay namesake was a bit of a let down. Another good option is the air-conditioned and oddly named Chaat and Sweet shop, Shaan-e-Shaukaat in Phaalka Bazaar, where the Lambi Pani Puri comes gentrified in a make-yourself plate with Mineral Water Paani and the works.

Courtesy : Amit Patnaik .

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