Tried and tasted: Food walks bring history alive in Dehradun, Madurai, Kolkata
Across the country, culinary tours are linking culture, cuisine and heritage, bringing down barriers and breaking stereotypes. Often, the takers are locals wanting to know more.Updated: Feb 17, 2019 12:18 IST
“We have three kinds of food walkers in our country: Foreign, local and hyper-local. Among these, the hyper-locals are the most difficult to please,” says Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist and culinary anthropologist.
Here, where every city and town has a different food culture, food walks have become an important and increasingly popular part of the tourism culture. In Kolkata, you can trace, in what you eat, the influences of British, Portuguese and Chinese cultures on the city’s khau gallis. In Delhi, you can go off the beaten track with a walk that takes you through an Afghan refugee colony that’s only about 30 years old. In Madurai, it leads you to idlis ‘as soft as a jasmine blossom’.
A good food walk links history, culture and cuisine, tracing the roots of the local community, as well as the influences that have shaped it in recent times. It’s about breaking stereotypes — one reason there are vegetarian highlights in Old Delhi, and in Kolkata.
“Once in Puducherry I saw a Tamilian man in a veshti and tilak, buying a wedge of strong cheese and a baguette. That really broke a stereotype for me,” says Pritha Sen, a food researcher and historian.
Sen adds that a major shift has come in recent years, driven by social media. “There, people are always posting about food and travel, so there is a need to post something different. Even before they ask people what to see, they ask about what and where to eat,” she says. “This is helping them discover more cuisines, and through food, experience more of the culture. I think an important next step would be food walks for children, so this exposure can start early.”
It’s a way to meet real people, adds Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a food writer and consultant, and recognise what you have in common as well as the interesting ways in which your cultures are different.
BHOPAL: IS THERE A BIT OF OPIUM IN THAT TEA?
The food walk organised by IG Bhopal Photography, a group that began on Instagram and then moved offline too, combines food, culture, history — and photography.
“The city has a wonderful mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, because of the heavy influence of Marwaris and Jains,” says Mudra Keswani, a food blogger under the name of The Super Chatori, who usually conducts this walk.
In old Bhopal, the walk starts at the Taj-ul-Masjid, the country’s largest mosque. At Mamaji Jalebi Wala, walkers try the uniquely Bhopali breakfast of jalebi-poha, eaten together for a delicious mix of sweet and salty.
They then head to Chowk Bazar for street-side chaat. “One dish we tell our non-vegetarian guests to not miss is the Bhopali chicken rezala, made with coriander and a lot of fried onion and garlic. The recipe came from the Begums’ kitchens and is a dish unique to this city.”
The walk would be incomplete without Sulemani tea from Raju Tea Stall. “The tea is thick, a little bit salty and there’s a rumour that it is so addictive because it has a little bit of opium in it. The stall stays open till 3 am and is always busy.”
“Sprinkled in between are hidden gems like Sonu Monu Ke Namkeen, which serves authentic mawa baati,” says Sachin Joshi, the founder of the group.
DRINK LIKE A FREEDOM FIGHTER IN KOLKATA
It is said that once you visit Kolkata, you will go back just for the food. But beyond the kathi rolls and kosha mangsho, is a hidden world of culinary gems, each with a historical backstory. To Suddhabrata Deb of It’s in Asia, who conducts the Hungry Roads walk in Kolkata, the food walk is as much about snacking as it is about time travel. “Small portions of food with large portions of cultural history,” Deb says.
Much of this history, and food, dates back to Kolkata’s modern history as a colonial trading hub. The Portuguese, British, Armenians and Dutch have all had their influence. “We start at Shyambazaar, where a lot of the food is vegetarian, something that always surprises people.”
The walk then heads to the iconic College Street for cutlets at Dilkhusha Cabin — and a brief talk on why so many old eateries had the word ‘Cabin’ in their name. “People are often surprised to learn that, even about 70 years ago, eating chicken was considered a sin among Bengali Hindus. Mutton was part of ritual sacrifices, so it was even considered a form of prasad; it was cooked without onion and garlic. Eating chicken was a strange idea, brought over by the British and considered taboo among Bengalis. So the restaurants that served it covered the doorway in curtains.” The curtain, and the word cabin, soon became a signal to diners that chicken was available within.
“People are often surprised to learn that, till about 70 years ago, chicken was considered taboo. Mutton was part of ritual sacrifices, so it was even considered a form of prasad, but eating chicken was a strange idea, brought over by the British,” says Suddhabrata Deb of It’s in Asia.
At the 101-year-old Paramount Cold Drinks & Syrups, walkers are told the story of how — to combat the British tea culture (they wanted a new market, so they were pushing tea aggressively, against traditional drinks) — the legendary chemist and industrialist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray invented the popular ‘Daaber sharbat’, a juice made with tender coconut water whose formula is still a closely guarded secret. It remains one of the most popular items on the menu.
A few paces on is Favourite Cabin, believed to be Kolkata’s oldest existing tea shop. It was at this 101-year-old establishment that Masterda Surya Sen, the teacher turned rebel leader, planned for the freedom struggle with his compatriots, escaping by a back door when the British came looking for them.
The three-hour walk then goes through Chitpur, stopping at Royal for a plate of biryani, to Bhim Nag for sandesh, and to one of Kolkata’s old Chinese areas, Tiretta Bazaar.
FROM ROMANS TO ARABS, WORLDS COLLIDE IN MADURAI
Romans, Arabs, Saurashtrians and Indian deities — these four themes meet in the Storytrails culinary walk in Madurai. The city’s recorded history goes back to the 3rd century BC, so the stories are rich and the food, varied. “We walk through the bylanes of old Madurai, starting near the Meenakshi Amman temple,” says Swarnaprada Jayaraj, regional head of Storytrails.
Along the way, guests sample dishes from restaurants and street vendors as Swarnaprada Jayaraj, regional head of Storytrails, tells tales seeped in history. There’s the iconic Murugan Idli Shop famous for its mallipoo idli, known to be ‘as soft as a jasmine blossom.’
Next comes Jigarthanda (literally, ‘a drink that cools your heart’), at a shop called Famous Jigarthanda. “They say the Arab traders who came to Madurai for business wanted a drink that resembled their faluda and had a cooling effect in the tremendous heat of the city. Jigarthanda was made for them with sugar, almond gum, sarsaparilla root syrup and ice-cream. It’s unique to Madurai,” Jayaraj says.
Also on the menu, a dish that the Saurashtrian traders brought to Madurai in the 16th century. Made from deep-fried spinach, it became the keerai vadai and remains a specialty of Madurai.
“Ancient records say that Madurai even back then loved to eat and drink. Even today, Madurai has a huge appetite and thousands of eating places each with its own fan following,” says Jayaraj.
COLONIAL COOKIES, LAUKI LADDOOS IN DEHRADUN
Four years ago, a small group of heritage enthusiasts from Dehradun started an organization called Been There Doon That. “The city was being modernised and many heritage structures had already been lost,” says Lokesh Ohri, a co-founder. “So we started conducting heritage walks to help locals, and visitors, discover hidden treasures.” Food soon got woven in too.
The walk now starts at Dehradun’s oldest market, Paltan Bazaar. “When British platoons began arriving here in the 1850s, they camped at the parade ground. A market grew up nearby and the area began to be called Paltan Bazaar.,” says Ohri. The first dish to be sampled is the green and distinctly Dehraduni lauki ka laddoo at Kumar Sweets, whose family is originally from Rawalpindi in Pakistan.”
“Like them many people came to the Doon valley and settled here after Partition. Apart from food, some of them sells things like dry fruits,” says Ohri. They then proceed to Chaatwali Gully, familiar from the many times it has featured in stories by Doon’s much-loved resident author, Ruskin Bond.
Next is one of the oldest bakeries in the city, Sunrise Bakers, whose pista cookies are legendary. “We move on then to the Katlamba, originally from Pakistan and a special delicacy in Dehradun.” These are thick, large, deep-fried and multi-layered puris served with dry chhole and a fermented carrot pickle.
Chetan Puriwala is the next destination where people eat aatte ke laddu, a traditional sweet made with wheat, jaggery and dry fruit. The walk ends in the middle of the bazaar with Bolti Bandh paan, so big that you can’t talk while eating it!
ULTA TANDOOR: AN AFGHAN FOOD WALK IN DELHI
The words Delhi food call to mind images of juicy kebabs, parathas drenched in butter, and chaat, lots of chaat. But, in Bhogal, in the heart of South Delhi, lies a slice of Afghanistan, with a rich culture of food that has enough similarities to attract the Indian palate, and enough differences to make it unique.
These Afghans settled in Delhi in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While some returned after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, many chose to remain in their new home, leading to a permanent Afghan settlement, says Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks. “It’s a bazaar area, with a mixture of food joints and regular shops.” The difference is that most of the shop names are written in Afghani.
“The Afghan walk happens on request and most requests come from locals,” he adds. The walk starts with tandoor shops known as nanwais, which make delicious Afghan breads. “Their tandoors also look different, more like pizza ovens, and the breads are stuck on the outer walls.” Among the most popular varieties is a sweet, crusty, khajuri nan shaped like a date.
The next stop is at a shop selling Bolani, a rectangular variant of our own alu paratha. You can also try the Sambosa here, a variant of the samosa that is generally sold at streetside stalls in Afghanistan, but is square and filled with meat.” Sapra says the highlight of the tour is Afghanistan’s national dish, the Kabuli pilav (made with aromatic Basmati rice, carrots and dry fruit) and a dish called Mantu, which look like momos but come topped with chaana and served with a very sour yoghurt.
The tour ends with a plate of Sheer Yakh, a type of Afghani ice cream made with thickened buffalo milk or condensed milk and a saffron flavour, similar to kulfi but much richer. “No one can ever finish a plate by themselves.” To Sapra the best part of the walk is the ambience and the warmth of the Afghan people. “They suggest the types of food one should taste and are generally very friendly.”
IN MUMBAI, AMID HISTORIC TALES, A BIRYANI WITHOUT RICE
If you’re a meat lover, visiting Mumbai, then Khaki Tours’ Mohalla Munch is the food walk for you. It goes through Bhendi Bazaar, one of the oldest Muslim areas in the city.
“We set off first through the bylanes of Bohri Mohalla. The entire walk covers barely a kilometre in 90 minutes, because there are so many stops, and so many stories,” says Bharat Gothoskar, founder of Khaki Tours.
The food of this area comes from the Bohri, Khoja and Konkani Muslim traditions. In the Bohri meals, courses alternate between khara (spicy / salty) and meetha (sweet). “We have about 15 pitstops, which include special kebabs with coriander seeds and a chana curry laced with spleen!”
Most people are intrigued by the Baara Handi (12 Pots) restaurant, where different parts of the goat or buffalo are cooked in 12 different pots, and a serving is made up of a mix of the 12 in whatever combinations you choose — bheja, pichhota, paya. “Some people prefer bhel, a delightful combination of all 12.”
The walk also stops at the century-old Firoze Farsan, which serves a biryani without rice called Patrel Biryani — colocasia leaves or patrel, coated in a paste made of gram flour and assorted spices, rolled up and slow-cooked. The masala-flecked meat is cooked separately. Once it’s ready, the colocasia is added to the meat.
The stories that go with the food serve as the perfect tadka, says Gothoskar, laughing. “We show walkers Temkar Mohalla, where [underworld don] Dawood Ibrahim was born. And Raudat Tahera, the mausoleum of the Syednas, the spiritual head of the Bohri community.”
A favourite among almost all walkers, young and old, desi and foreigner, is the Sancha ice-cream. “The sancha is a type of cast — a wooden bucket on the outside and metal container inside. Salt and ice is put in the outer container to freeze a mixture of milk and fruits in the inner container to make a very unusual kind of ice-cream.”
Also very popular is the Chicken Kasturi Sandwich at Jilani’s, named for the kasuri methi that gives it a light-bitter aftertaste. The walk generally ends at India restaurant, which sells shallow-fried Karachi rolls. To Gothoskar, this typifies the cultural confluence that makes the area unique.
A D-I-Y APPROACH IN MYSURU
“Food is the greatest way to break the ice between strangers,” says Vinay Parameswarappa. The former techie says he founded Gully Tours and began conducting culinary walks in Mysuru to try and figure out “what we consume and why”, as well as to single out what makes Mysuru special, food-wise. “Our tour involves cooking the food too,” he says.
There are now about 25 homemakers across the city who open their homes and kitchens to strangers to teach them what locals in Mysuru eat. “We take guests to the market to help them learn to recognise ingredients, select and buy them. Then we go to one of the houses to make the meal. There is no showmanship here, the experience is very real,” Parameswarappa says.
A three-course meal includes kosambari salad, made with moong dal, cucumber, fresh coconut and coriander leaves; Mysore masala dosa, with a red chutney; and kesari bhaat, a saffron-flavoured dish made with sooji.
First Published: Feb 16, 2019 19:13 IST