Gourmet Junction: India’s iconic dishes

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Food lovers ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY scour the length and breadth of the country in search of signature dishes that have firmly put those places on the culinary and railway map of India

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Whenever a train stops at a particular station, passengers rush down to buy Nagpur’s oranges, Ratnagiri’s mangoes, Nashik’s grapes, Allahabad’s guavas or Hajipur’s chiniya kela (small bananas). Be it Agre ka Petha, Bikaneri Bhujiya, Jodhpuri mawa kachori or Kakori kebab, some regional specialties have transcended all barriers into the realm of immortality. Products specific to a region are even protected by a GI (Geographical Indication) tag, preventing others from using the name.

From mangoes, rice, curries to sweets, it’s a wide assortment. A dish like biryani, which originated in Persia, is interpreted differently across India as Hyderabadi biryani (cooked on dum), Lucknowi biryani (Awadhi style), Calcutta biryani (with potato), Dindigul biryani (served with dalcha) and the delicate Malabar or Thalassery biryani (where meat and rice are cooked separately). With a slight change in masalas or preparation, a simple chicken can become Chicken Kolhapuri in Maharashtra, Guntur Chicken in Andhra Pradesh or Chicken Chettinad in Tamil Nadu.

The humble dosa can present itself as a Davangere benne dosa (with white butter) or a Mysore Masala Dosa. Some cities are prolific in their culinary contribution – the City of Sandalwood and Silks also gives us the Mysore Bonda and the eponymous Mysore Pak while Mangalore’s buns, goli bajjis & kozhi roti are equally legendary. So sit back, enjoy a cup of Coorg coffee (or tea from Assam, Darjeeling or Nilgiris) as you make these stops on a gastronomic journey across India.

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Amritsari Kulcha/Chhole/Machhi
The sacred city is the birthplace of iconic dishes like Amritsari machhi, Amritsari chhole, Amritsari naan/kulcha and papad-warian. The first eateries sprouted around the Golden Temple and the city itself is named after the Pond of Nectar (amrit-sar) surrounding the shrine. Locals ascribe the taste to the blessings of Wah-e-Guru and the city’s ambrosial water, which is sweet and light. Even when they are called to other cities for catering orders, the city’s cooks make sure to pack the key ingredient – water! ‘It can digest the heaviest of meals’, explained Surjit Singh at Surjit Food Plaza ‘The Most Famous Eating Joint in Punjab, Recommended by Lonely Planet’. ‘If the water is heavy, the kulchas won’t stick to the tandoor and fall down’, said another.

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Suchha da kulcha on Maqbool Road is a human assembly line of sorts. Backroom operators peel boiled potatos, chop onions, scrape ginger and garlic while in the frontline a boy plucks round balls from rolls of dough stacked between layers of ghee. Another flattens them out and stuffs them with masala aloo. An apprentice expertly spreads them between his palms and tosses them to a chap manning the tandoor. He dabs the kulchas with Amritsari water and sticks them into the earthen oven. Baked brown to perfection, another man slathers butter and the kulcha is served with bowls of chana, longi (watery chutney made of potato, onion, tamarind and mint) and a bowl of butter, as if all the butter used already wasn’t enough! Ashok da Kulcha (Ranjit Avenue, A Block Market) and Darshan Kulcha wala (Near Jamadar ki Haveli, Guru Bazaar) are also popular with locals. For Amritsari chhole, try Kesar ka Dhaba (Chowk Pasiyan), Bhaiyon da Dhaba and Bharawan da Dhaba (Town Hall).

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Banaras ka Lal Peda
The city of gallis and ghats is not only famous for its banarasi sari and banarasi paan, but also the lal peda. Like most pedas, it is made from reduced milk, except here it’s allowed to brown, giving the peda its reddish appearance. Loaded with ghee, the peda is shaped by hand and dusted with semolina and pistachios as a finishing touch. Head straight to Rajbandhu in Kachori gali or shops around Sankatmochan Temple for a cholesterol kick! Kashi halwa however, does not come from Kashi; the name is derived from kashiphal (pumpkin) instead.

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Belgaum Kunda
Anyone visiting Belgaum is usually asked to carry back at least one packet of the city’s signature sweet – the Belgaum kunda, a sinfully chewy delight made from milk, sugar and khowa. The sweet was introduced by purohits (Rajasthani cooks) who had migrated here from Marwar decades ago! The discovery was quite by accident. Once Gajanan Mithaiwala (locally called Jakku Marwadi) was boiling some milk in his kitchen but forgot to switch off the stove. By the time he returned, the milk had coagulated to form a sweet, to which he added khoa to create Belgaum Kunda. Besides his old shop in Vitthal Dev Galli, also check out Camp Purohit on High Street, Atul Purohit on College Road and Kalyani Sweets in Camp.

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Calicut/Kozhikode Halwa
You cannot leave Calicut without buying its famous banana chips (from Kumari’s) and the legendary Kozhikode halwa. Like Bombay Halwa or Karachi halwa this soft glutinous delicacy is made of flour, molasses and oil. SM Street is lined with shops selling large multi-hued stacks of halwa with the shopkeeper deftly cutting up slices for customers to sample. Flavours range from pista, badam, anjeer, date, watermelon and other fruits, with prices ranging from Rs.100-150 for a kilo. Sankaran Bakery, Oriental Bakery and Malabar Bakery are good places to buy. Make sure to try some dweep unde from Lakshadweep, made from coconut and jaggery and wrapped in leaf. 

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Dharwad Peda
Mathura’s pedas are legendary but not many know that they inspired their equally famous cousins south of the Vindhyas. When Uttar Pradesh was under the grips of a deadly plague in early 19th century a few Thakur family migrated from Unnao to Dharwad. Shri Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making pedhas to make ends meet while his grandson Babu Singh Thakur elevated the humble sweet to a sensation. The pedas sold at Babu Singh’s shop in Line Bazaar soon became famous as Dharwad Pedas. For a sweet made of milk and sugar, it seems absurdly simple to make but unlike its flat versions in the north, the Dharwad peda is an irregular round with a grainy texture and a veneer of semolina. Yet, its magical taste is so elusive that only a visit to the culture-rich city of Dharwad can offer the genuine flavour. Outside Dharwad, you can buy the sweets at Kamath Sweets or Mishras Dharwad Peda shop.

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Goan sausage
For their 450 year long presence in India, the Portuguese have a lot more to show than just churches and The Inquisition. They gave to the Indian palate batata (potato), ananas (pineapple) and hapoos (a Marathi corruption of Alphonso) and people still refer to them by their Portuguese appellations. They also introduced the sausage to Goa, where it was flavoured with local spices, salted and mixed with stone-ground Peri Peri masala, stuffed into sausage casing, cured and dried. The century old tradition of preserving meats without refrigeration gives these sausages a long shelf life of nearly 8 months. When sudden guests arrive, Goan sausages can be made on short notice without much fuss or any extra ingredients. Besides dishes like rocheido, xacutti and sorpotel, the Goan sausage is a standard on all menus.

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Kanchipuram Idli
Be it Ambalapuzha’s famous palapayasam or the Krishna temple in Udupi where the masala dosa was allegedly created (and spawned the concept of the Udupi café), many shrines are known for their typical prasad or naivedyam (ritual offering). One such specimen is the Kanchipuram idli. This large coarse idli, spiced up with peppercorns, is steamed in the shape of a large cylinder wrapped in leaves. It is available in limited quantities on prior request at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple. If grappling with temple authorities seems tough, hop across to GRT Regency whose helpful chefs can help procure the elusive idli. And you thought the city was only famous for its Kanjivaram saris!

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Kundapur Chicken
Kundapur koli saaru or Kundapur chicken is a specialty of Dakshina Kannada. Its unique flavour is not easily attainable anywhere outside this coastal town as locals ascribe the taste to the air, the soil and the Byadgi chilli, essential to its preparation. The chilli is fried in homemade ghee and the fiery red colour of the Kundapur paste is toned down by shredded coconut or coconut milk, which mellows the smooth gravy into the distinctive rich orange. It goes well with neer dosa and goonda (a steamed ball like an idli).

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Lonavala chikki
Whether you’re driving down from Mumbai to Pune or taking a train, it won’t be long before someone pesters you to buy some Lonavala chikki. An irresistible hard candy prepared from groundnuts and jaggery syrup, the protein-rich slabs are deliciously crunchy. It is believed Shri Maganlal Agarwal introduced the sweet nearly 150 years ago for labourers laying the Khandala–Pune railway line for the Great Indian Peninsula Railway between 1849-62. In those days, the nutritious snack of jaggery and groundnuts was called gur-dana and sold out of sacks next to the railway line. The tradition caught on and became famous as Lonavala chikki. With ingredients like sesame, puffed rice, Bengal gram and assorted nuts over 30 types of chikkis are available today. Maganlal is still the best place to buy, though National and A-1 are also quite popular.

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Maddur vada
Legend has it that such is the popularity of the Maddur vada that by the time a train pulls out of Maddur railway station, the vendors run out of stock. So what propelled a nondescript town between Bangalore and Mysore to such heights of culinary excellence? Just some Bengal gram, shredded coconut, a dash of onion and curry leaves, fashioned into a crisp vada as big as a tea saucer. Over the years, the size of the vada has progressively diminished to cope with rising prices. But the taste is still the same. No road journey on this stretch is complete without the ritualistic stop at Maddur Tiffany’s for hot Maddur vadas and coconut chutney.

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Ramassery Idli
Unlike ordinary idlis, the Ramassery Idli is round, flat and about as big as a set dosa, named after a little town 10 km from Palakkad where they originated. The idlis are so soft that two have to be sandwiched together so that they can be lifted without breaking! The idli’s unique attribute is its staying power and can be stored for several days. Though made of rice and split pea lentils, the proportion of the ingredients and the consistency of the batter are a trade secret; the recipe passed down from generation to generation. It all started about 100 years ago when Unni’s great grandfather Mr. Ramaswamy came from Tamil Nadu. Traditional weavers who had fallen on bad times, the women of the house began making idlis while the men sold them in bamboo baskets lined with banana leaves. Since demand was little, to avoid spoilage of unsold idlis, they tweaked the ingredients to make them last longer. Back then, the idlis could last for over ten days! As popularity soared, a tea stall was set up and as the family grew larger, more eateries mushroomed. Of the 10 stalls earlier, only two remain. Unni at Saraswathy Tea Stall confided that they sell over a thousand idlis a day, though demand skyrockets during wedding season and other fuctions.

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Satara kandi peda
Satara’s main contribution to the world of sweets is the kandi peda, a round smooth-textured sweet that comes in plain and kesar flavours. Modi sweets and Ladkar’s, started by Mohan Babu Rao Ladkar in 1940, are the biggest names in the business. Both have been awarded the President’s Medal and proudly show the Silver Coin received from the government. Make sure to also try another local sweet – the delectable mango-flavoured amba barfi.

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Surti 12 handi
Surat is synonymous with sweets like ghari (allegedly invented by the cooks of Tatya Tope) and staple dishes like undhiyu, an olio of Gujarati papdi, raw banana, small aubergine and mixed vegetables cooked in dum in a pot, which is then upturned (undhiyu), hence the name. But Surat is also famous for Surti 12 handi. The concept started off in Surat’s Muslim localities like Jhampa bazaar as ‘12 bakre ka paya’. Each part of the goat – eyes, tongue, kidney, liver, tailpiece, trotters, etc – is stewed separately in various masalas. There are different ladles and spoons for different vessels, especially for bada (beef) and chhota (mutton). To serve, the payawala mixes the various curries in the correct proportions in a bowl, which is served with khameeri roti. One of the oldest shops is Ahmed Bhai’s Islam 12 Handi below Rafat Mansion.

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Tirunelveli Halwa
Sweating with ghee, as if it just came back from a workout, the Tirunelveli Halwa is a melt-in-your-mouth sweet from the temple town of Tirunelveli in Southern Tamil Nadu. Local folklore contends that the halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti, who had tasted something similar in Kashi. After stirring up the dish in the zamindar’s palace, Jegan Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened his own shop. He named it Lakshmi Vilas after a relative who sold the halwa on the streets of Tirunelveli for the first time. Made from wheat milk, sugar and ghee, the halwa has a translucent, light brown appearance and is sold at Rs.240/kg. Tirunelveli halwa is available at several shops around the railway station on Madurai Road, though Santhi Sweets in the Central Bus Stand building is the best place to buy. Don’t be confused by the sight of nearly a dozen shops with the same name, variously prefixed with New, Original or Genuine. The only way to recognize it is to spot the one thronged by crowds! Another local legend where locals queue up is iruttu kadai or black shop, named after its earlier lack of electricity.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

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6 responses »

  1. 1. Dharwad peda’s USP is its availability of good quality thick Buffalo’s milk in Dharwad, likewise neighbouring city — Belgaum too has its signature sweet dish — kunda.

    2. The veneer around Dharwad peda is castor sugar not semolina.

    3. Maddur vade, it is made of semolina, legend is, it too like rava idly, was created when there was a scarcity of rice/bengal gram etc. during WW II time.

  2. Mouthwatering delicacies. I wish you included Hajipur Kela ( Banana – Best variety is Maalbhog) , Lychees of Muzaffarpur ( Best varieties – Shahi and China ) and Silao ka Khaaja on way to Rajgir.

  3. Pingback: Back of the blog – A checklist for Gourmets on travel in India! | Travel Twosome

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