Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Trip Down Gastronomy Lane

It is an old-fashioned, nondescript narrow street in Indore, just like any other in several towns and cities across India. But what sets it apart from the rest is the extraordinary culinary experience that is on offer here. The less-than-one- kilometre stretch that starts from behind the Rajwada--a stunningly beautiful mansion belonging to the Holkar dynasty, survived only by its facade today--exists in the densely packed, old part of the city; characterized by little lanes criss-crossing each other. These lanes are home to a variety of bazaars, where both sides of the lane are lined with shops selling pots and pans, fabrics and sarees, stationery and jewellery. So there is a Bartan bazaar, a Cloth Market, a Khajuri bazaar and a Sarafa.

was originally meant to be a jewellery market. When the jewellers shut shop for the day, the savoury and sweet makers took over and set their wares up on the platforms outside the closed shops. Well, that must have been how the present Sarafa came into being. Now the jewellery shops and eateries sit side by side, all vying for the customers' attention through the day (and night in case of the eateries). The food outlets are open during the day, but they really come alive in the evening.

My earliest memories of visiting the Sarafa are with a dear uncle (Shantaram Kaka) on his bicycle. I remember going there as a little girl with him and being treated to my favourite samosa from the Samosa Corner, along with other things. We did this routine very often and it is still fresh in my memory four decades later. The shop exists at the same place and is in the same condition even today. I make it a point to go there at least once whenever I am in Indore. The crispy triangles stuffed with spicy potato filling are served piping hot, fresh from the pan, with two chutneys--a green one made with coriander leaves and chillies and a brown one made with tamarind. You stand on the street outside the tiny stall, place your order and the guy places a hot samosa on a piece of newspaper, makes a dent in it,  fills the depression caused by the dent with the hot and tangy chutneys and hands the concoction to you. When you bite into this offering, all your taste buds come alive and the samosa disappears leaving a zesty aftertaste in your mouth.

Just across the street is another establishment, Vijay Chaat House. Their USP is something called patties. The credit for introducing this delicacy goes to the owners of this eatery. Most people in Indore refer to it as 'paytis' and are most probably unaware that patties is the plural form of a patty. These are balls where the stuffing is made of coconut along with some spices, and the coating is made of potato. They are then deep fried and served hot with chutneys. The owners seem to be a big family of several brothers, all of them having a fair complexion and dressed in spotless white kurtas. When I went to this place last month, I saw a fair-skinned young lad in his early twenties, sporting the familiar white kurta, busy frying a big batch of matar patties, a variant where the coconut is replaced by peas. Ah, the next generation has joined the family business! As he takes the fresh batch out of the frying pan, it is lapped up by eager customers waiting on the street. No stale or refried food anywhere in the sarafa. The big kadahis are out there for everyone to see, along with platters full of freshly moulded balls, ready to be fried.
Further down the street is an outlet of repute specializing in dahivada and bhutte ka kees. It is simply known by the last name of the owner--Joshi. People flock here for the giant dahivada that is large enough for a mini-meal. Deep fried vadas have been softened by dipping them in water and then squeezing them. They are heaped in a big container. When you place an order, the person serving them tosses a vada high up in the air, catches it with great elan, puts it in a bowl, douses it with delectable dahi,  tops it with some spices and chutneys, and presents this absolutely irresistible, melt-in-the-mouth dish to you. The dahi in the vada soothes you while the spices tease you, making the vada-eating a roller-coaster-like experience.

My other favourite here is bhutte ka kees which can be loosely translated as corn-upma, though I must admit that it is a very tame term and does not convey the attributes of this preparation with the respect it deserves. It is served with a topping of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a very special Rajasthani spice called jeeravan and fresh green coriander leaves. The moment you take a spoonful of this delightful stuff into your mouth, a melange of slightly sweet, sour, hot and salty tastes hits you, turning it into an 'Aha' moment.

Then there is spicy sabudane kee khichadi, kachoris stuffed with daal or potato or peas or corn, each variety having its own fan club, aloo tikiyas fried in ghee, served with only chutneys or chhole, fried garadu ( a type of yam) in winters, daal-baafla (a Marwari speciality), and a whole lot more.

Foodies with a sweet tooth can indulge too. There are several delicacies to choose from. But sweets are not my priority when I go to the sarafa. Among the popular sweets are gulab jamuns, jalebis served with hot milk, rabdi (thick evaporated milk), gajar ka halwa (in winters), kulfi and shikanji ( a very rich preparation with evaporated milk and dry fruits) along with a host of barfis and laddoos. People are seen relishing these until late into the night. I have not been to these shops early in the morning, but I am told that jalebis with hot milk are favoured by many for breakfast too!

Most of the eating in the sarafa takes place while standing in the congested street, with vehicles and pedestrians passing by, and hot fumes from the frying making the air even hotter. For those who cannot stand the heat and the dust, an alternative exists in the newer part of the city. Called Chhappan Dukaan, it is a market with 56 shops, where many of the sarafa eateries have opened an outlet. One can enjoy the sarafa specialities in a cleaner environment there. It is a fine place and I have gone there several times, but once a sarafa loyalist, always a sarafa loyalist! For me, a trip to Indore is not complete without a visit to my dear old sarafa.