ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a culinary tour of Madhya Pradesh and come up with this definitive food guide of local eats
Like the proverbial heart of India, Madhya Pradesh’s cuisine too is a reflection of its central location. Bound by Bundelkhand and Mewar to the north, Gujarat to the west and Maharashtra to the south, MP has its own distinct culture and language, though its cuisine borrows some elements from neighbouring regions – be it Gujarati kadhi-fafda and khaman (dhokla) to Rajasthani style dal-baati–churma with a twist and the love for poha stemming from its proximity to Maharashtra and strong Maratha presence. Yet, MP has its own set of dishes and treats unique to certain places.
If Gwalior has its bedai and Jabalpur its badkul, then Burhanpur is known for its mawa jalebis, maande and daraba. Yet, all culinary journeys begin in Indore, the imperial city of the Holkars. “Sir ji, main keh riya hoon, Indore toh chatoron ka shahar hai” (Sir, I tell you, Indore is a city for snackers), exclaimed our driver Jitender. Despite the local fondness for namkeen (savoury snacks) and charkha (spicy) flavours, they love their sweets. So much so, that poha-jalebi is considered as acceptable as macaroni n’ cheese.
Breakfast rests on the four pillars of samosa, kachori, poha and jalebi. Chhappan Dukaan, a precinct of ‘56 shops’, mostly food joints, is Indore’s answer to Mumbai’s Chowpatty. Visitors flock to local food legends like Vijay Chaat House and Johnny Hot Dog. By night, the party shifts to Sarafa, where jewellery shops down their shutters at dusk and food stalls reclaim the streets. Locals and tourists alike feast on garadu (deep fried sweet potato), sabudana khichdi, dahi bada, bhutte ka kees, kachori, desi pizzas, pasta and Maggi, besides desserts like mawa-bati, khoprapak (coconut-based sweet), shrikhand and malpua.
While Indore has its Sarafa, Bhopal too has a Chatori Gali, buzzing with food stalls selling kebabs, paaya (trotter soup) and an assortment of sweets that often end with a Bhopali paan. Most MPSTDC hotels also serve local specialties like Murgh Razala Bhopali (chicken in white gravy), Malwa ka bhatta bharta (baingan bharta), Dal-baati with churma laddoo and Ghuian (arbi) ki sabzi. Here’s a look at 25 typical treats from the region…
It’s neither a poori, nor a kachori, but something in between. At best, Gwalior’s local snack bedai is a poori stuffed with spiced lentils. Every morning, regulars queue up at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old shop in Naya Bazaar for bedai, samosa, kachori, scrumptious jalebis and gulab jamuns. And while you’re on the foodie trail, stop by at Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazaar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and Shankerlal Halwai’s legendary laddus (which had a big patron in former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee).
It looks like a jalebi but tastes like a gulab jamun. Yes, it may sound like a puzzle, but Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi is made of khova and arrowroot batter. It is believed that the dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it is named.
3. Khopra patties
A specialty from the western MP region of Malwa, khopra patties are golden-hued deep-fried aloo bondas with a stuffing of khopra (grated coconut) and dry fruits like cashews and raisins! Insanely delicious, it’s served with green mint-coriander chutney and red tamarind chutney. Try it at Vijay Chaat House in Indore or Amrit Sweets in Dewas.
Not to be confused with Delhi’s lemonade of the same name, Indore’s shikanji is a thick, milkshake enriched with dry fruits. It is regarded as a concoction created by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa, which still churns out a limited batch daily. Since it is a blend of various ingredients, it is called shikanji (literally ‘mixture’) made from kesar, elaichi, javitri, jaiphal, kishmish, mattha and milk reduced for 12 hours and cooled for another 12 hours before being served cold.
Shyam Sharma ji from Beawar in Rajasthan started a small sweet shop 35 years ago and called it Madhuram as he wanted a short and sweet name. Sporting a Krishna medallion, the cheery mustachioed owner, personally ladles out shikanji for visitors. “Aise gatak ke mat peena, ismein alag alag taste khojna!” (Don’t gulp it. Savour it slowly to discover its different hidden flavours). First shrikhand, then rabdi, dry fruit and milk. Affable Sharma ‘uncle’ literally force-feeds guests fluorescent green petha pan, another sweet invention.
A signature sweet from Bhind, Morena, gajak (sesame brittle) is mostly made of roasted sesame or peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Nutty, crunchy and a snack that keeps you warm, gajak is a winter specialty with shops lined with these goodies. Anyone travelling to the region is expected to return with a mandatory pack. In Gwalior, Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar are trusted for their quality products.
Poha or tempered beaten rice is the go-to brekker across MP. But unlike the Maharashtrian style poha, the Indori poha is much lighter with less use of oil and spices. It is topped with sev or mixture, chopped onion and coriander and served with a wedge of lime. Usually paired with hot scrumptious jalebis, you got to try it to believe it!
In the winter months, you’ll often see milk being reduced in large kadahis (vessels) outside sweet shops and hot jalebis dunked in it and served. A Khandwa specialty, the town’s famous son Kishore Kumar often longed to leave Bombay and go back to his roots. His common refrain was, “Doodh-jalebi khayenge, Khandwa mein bas jayenge.”
8. Bhutte ka kees
Maize, or bhutta as it’s locally called, is a common staple. Farmers harvest it and bring it by the tractor-loads to be sold on highways. Locals love it roasted on hot coals as a snack, with a smear of lime, salt and chili. Across Malwa, it is eaten as bhutte ka kees, made with grated corn (keesna means to ‘grate’), roasted in ghee and cooked in milk with spices. Sarafa Bazaar in Indore is the place to have it.
The traditional bread is bafla, a small ball of wheat dough. However, unlike Rajasthan’s fried baatis, the bafla is typically boiled in water, roasted over dung cakes on an iron griddle and dunked in ghee. It is served as a thali meal with dal, kadhi, aloo sabzi and chutneys of garlic and coriander, often rounded off with laddus. At Hotel Sai Palace near Mangalnath temple in Ujjain, turbaned stewards serve an unlimited meal for Rs.200. Their original eatery Hotel Rajhans at Sarafa in Indore was started 40 years ago by Shri Gyan Chand ji Raka.
Corn is also used to make paniya or maize flour cakes, sandwiched between aak ka patta (leaves of Calotropis gigantea) and cooked on an open fire of dried cowpat. Best enjoyed at Hotel Gurukripa in Mandu, paniya is slightly bigger and flatter than a bafla, but served with the same accompaniments – dal, sabzi. onion and chutneys.
11. Chakki ki shaak
Another popular local delicacy, Chakki ki shaak is made of steamed wheat dough cooked in a curd-based gravy. Tapu, a local variety of wheat, is also used to make sweet cakes that are used in religious occasions and festivities.
Sev is a savoury noodle-shaped snack made from chickpea flour paste seasoned with spices, sieved and deep-fried in oil. It is of varied thickness and is consumed as a stand-alone snack across MP or as a garnish on poha, mixtures or chaats like bhel puri and sev puri. Each region has its flavour variants – from Ratlami sev to finer Ujjaini sev. In Ratlam, you get long (clove) flavoured sev while in Indore, the lasuniya (garlic) flavoured sev is the rage. Shops sell a mind-boggling assortment of sev – palak (spinach), tamatar (tomato), dhaniya-pudina (coriander-mint) and hing (asafetida).
13. Sabudana khichdi
Sabudana or pearl sago is used to make khichdi (though its consistency is not like porridge but drier like poha or upma). At Indore’s Sarafa bazaar, Sanvariya Seth mixes the sago pearls by hand, tossing in some chopped onions, coriander, chili, lime juice and sev. He’ll even customize its spiciness for you.
In the region of Khandesh abutting Maharashtra in southwest MP, the erstwhile Mughal bastion of Burhanpur is legendary for its maande (roomali rotis), hand stretched and tossed with flourish at roadside stalls. The workers dexterously fling the rotis on to the upturned tava and then to the take-away counter, where it is neatly folded into rectangles and taken home.
Burhanpur’s signature sweet, though not so well known outside, is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped together into a fluffy consistency. The word daraba could be derived from the act of beating. Local INTACH convener and owner of Hotel Ambar Hoshang Havildar says the sweet used to be really soft and smooth earlier. “Isey ghoy ghot ke, ghot ghot ke banate they (They used to beat it for hours). It was so fine, if you touched it to your eye, you wouldn’t feel a thing.” Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela on the banks of the Tapti river.
16. Burhanpur Jalebi
Unlike regular jalebis, the Burhanpur jalebi is made of mawa (khoa) and is quite popular at food stalls stretching from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid in Mumbai or Mominpura in Nagpur during Ramzan. Thick and a little chewy, some add arrowroot to bulk it up, but it’s best enjoyed fresh in its city of origin at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Deep-fried to a chocolate hue, it is dunked in sugar syrup before being dished out to patrons.
17. Batla kachori
While kachoris are popular all over the country, in Indore it’s stuffed not with spiced lentils, but with batla (green pea). The best place to have it is Vijay Chaat House, started in 1969 by Dayashankar Thakar of Surat. Their flagship shop D Harishankar Dhanjibhai Bhajiyawala has been running in Surat since 108 years!
Another Gujarati touch, fafda (chickpea flour crackers) is typically served with kadhi or buttermilk based curry. Locals swarm shops like Shri Balaji Chaat Corner in Indore, dipping their fafdas in the tangy curry and biting into fried green chilis!
19. Fried khaman
While khaman (or dhokla as it’s better known) is universally loved, in western Madhya Pradesh it is also available in a fried version and sprinkled with chat masala. While regular khaman is made from besan, for the fried version only Surti khaman is used made from chana dal as it’s firmer and handles deep frying much better.
20. Baalam kakdi
In Mandu and its surrounding regions, there’s a giant cucumber called baalam kakdi, which is served with salt, chilli and lime. Unlike regular cucumbers, it is lemon green in colour with a soft and fleshy pulp and a texture that’s more like steamed squash.
21. Khorasani Imli
Malwa’s ancient capital Mandu is home to giant baobab trees, gifted by the Caliphs of Egypt to the sultans of Mandu sometime in the 14th century. Known as ‘dead-rat tree’ and ‘monkey-bread tree’ owing to the fruit’s strange shape and its popularity among simians, it is locally called Khorasani imli (tamarind from Khorasan, ancient Persia) and makes a good souring agent for curries like imli ki kadhi. It is deseeded and sold in packets by local vendors, along with other seeds, barks and agro produce.
22. Mawa Bati
Similar to a stuffed gulab jamun, the mava-based dough is filled with mava, dry fruits and nuts, deep-fried till brown and lightly soaked in sugar syrup. Sometimes, it is dusted with desiccated coconut powder.
If Delhi loves its aloo chaat in winters, Indore goes weak-kneed for garadu, a tuber from the yam or sweet potato family. Cut into cubes and deep fried, it is sprinkled with chaat masala and a dash of lime before being devoured by locals.
Another local specialty is a sooty country chicken called ‘Kadaknath’ endemic to the region. Charcoal black in colour, its blood is believed to be just as dark with even its skin tone being purple-grey. A connoisseur’s delight, this extremely rare fowl is sold at twice the price of a regular country chicken. However, it is not available on regular restaurant menus and patrons must procure it before it can be prepared!
25. Batteesee Chutney
Richard Holkar, royal scion of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, renovated the queen’s royal seat Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar and revived its weaving and cultural traditions. A gourmand, he also authored ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’ in 1975 and often joins his guests for conversations over a drink or meals. His creation, the legendary ‘Batteesee Chatni’ is a secret recipe involving as many as 32 ingredients. Ahilya Fort is also the perfect base for foodies to enjoy a Maheshwari maalish (massage) along with Maheshwar scrambled eggs (with onion, tomato, coriander), grilled baam (local river fish), chilled soups of carrot, ginger and sweet lime, homemade walnut and sunflower seed bread, banana upside down cake, besides Richard’s exclusive collection of cardamom and citrus preserves.
Vijay Chaat House
6-9, Chhappan Dukan, Indore Ph 0731-6541710
75/5, Bada Sarafa, Indore Ph 0731-6541709
What to eat: Khopra patties, matar kachori, samosa, fried khaman
27, Chhappan Dukan, New Palasia, Indore
Ph 0731-253 0555
What to eat: Shikanji, Pan Mithai, sweets
AB Road, Bawadiya, Dewas
What to eat: Poha, jalebi, samosa, kachori
Hotel Sai Palace
Sunder Van Dhani, Mangalnath Road, Ujjain Ph 9009293944
Near Rajkumar Hotel, Freeganj, Ujjain Ph 0734-4061888, 9009004830
What to eat: Dal-bafla thali
Main Road, Mandu
Ph 98930 43496, 94250 34837
What to eat: Dal-paniya thali
Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar, West Nimar 451224
Ph: 011-41551575 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What to eat: Batteesee Chutney, Maheshwari scrambled eggs & more
Main Branch, Gandhi Chowk, Burhanpur
Ph 07325-252315, 252295
What to eat: Daraba
Burhanpur Jalebi Centre
Subhash Chowk, Burhanpur
Ph 98262 72490
What to eat: Mawa jalebi
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 7 Feb 2018 on National Geographic Traveller India online. Here’s a link to the original piece: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/food-trail-in-madhya-pradesh-25-must-have-treats/