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Stately delicacies

Want to taste the local cuisine from across India, right here in Delhi? Head for the state bhawans. Shalini Singh shares her experiences at five such canteens.

delhi Updated: Oct 30, 2009 23:56 IST
Shalini Singh

The roads in and around Chanakyapuri can offer a delicious journey if you are visiting the state bhawans (houses).

Tip: take one bhawan a day and eat no breakfast, if you are heading there for lunch.

Most of the state bhawans are located in central Delhi. They are government guesthouses, which host ministers and bureaucrats on their visits to the Capital.

Fittingly, they also offer local meals.

While Andhra Bhawan is the most well known one, there are other gems too.

I start with Kerala House, which is on Jantar Mantar Marg.

The Kerala House staff canteen is an insiders’ place. Not too many people know about it.

Climb the narrow staircase and you’re in a sea of Malayali journalists — one also happens to be my lunch companion for the day — relishing the local meal.

There is an unlimited thali (a platter of rice served with sambhar and vegetables) system here instead of a menu, much like the popular Andhra Bhawan, though at a smaller scale. The rice, sambhar, papad and two vegetables are the fixed items, while you can order a portion of beef masala (Rs 35 per plate), fish fry (Rs 30 per plate) and fish curry (Rs 30 per plate).

One of the vegetables is called thoran, which alternates between beans, banana or lady’s finger and the other is poriyal — a dry gravy preparation.

We settle ourselves on high rickety plastic stools, while the waiter makes no attempt to clear the table. Don’t come looking for ambience here, says my companion.

Food is functional for most Keralites, he adds, rapidly polishing off his second plate of rice, while I’m still finding my way through the first.

On rush days, there are long queues of people standing with tokens. Obviously, there’s no luxury of lingering over a meal.

The fish — both fry and curry — is perfect, as is the beef masala. I also learn how to alternate sambhar with buttermilk or rasam with rice.

A meal for three costs us less than Rs 300.

Local Kerala cuisine is light and despite the marathon session, I’m hungry again two hours later.

The next day, I head for Tamil Nadu House next to Yashwant Palace near the old Chanakya cinema.

Instead of a thali, we opt for a la carte: Chettinad chicken — heavy but delicious, Malabari paranthas — fluffy and perfect, mixed vegetables — avoidable, and rice accompanied by rasam and a beetroot vegetable dish.

The service is quick, and the waiters are polite enough to answer your queries even if you address all dishes as ‘south Indian’. We end the meal with a perfect glass of filter coffee.

A meal for two costs a little over Rs 300 here.

The third day is a break from coastal food and I head for Sikkim.

This one is fairly popular largely for their pork preparation. The tables are packed with college students ordering cheese (paneer) momos and thukpa. The place is air-conditioned.

I take out a book and order a pork chilly fry and Sikkim special noodles — these are made with black mushrooms and tofu — and wash it down with a crisp fresh lime soda.

All this costs Rs 250.

It’s back to the coastal states — Orissa and Goa — the next two days.

Orissa offers fixed vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis for under Rs 100 per head. Their non-vegetarian dishes include egg, besides mutton, chicken and fish. The vegetable dishes are primarily gravy-based like santula and besara and are tempered with mustard. Mahua is a flavoured mixed vegetable dish made with ghee.

Goa again has a limited thali with spicy fish curry being the dominant feature. This is a small sleepy canteen, so make sure you get here before 2 pm, else the cooks will tell you, rather roughly, that the food is over for the day.

Many states have two addresses, so check for the location of the public canteen before heading out.

Most bhawans offer lunch between 1 and 3 pm and dinner between 7 and 10 pm. Popular places like Tamil Nadu and Sikkim run throughout the day, offering snacks besides meals.

So the next time you feel tired of Dilli Haat, take a break and travel to the states (bhawans) for a real meal.