My first visit to Bhopal was during my college days, on the way to Indore from Delhi, almost the entire half day spent haggling with taxi drivers. The second time around, I could only make a quick weekend trip for a friend’s wedding. Neither visit made me exactly fall in love with the place. The impression I carried away was of a crowded city, with a not-particularly-old history, reasonably nice people, beautiful at some locations, ill-managed at others – in essence, not much different from most urban centers all over India. On neither occasion did I get a chance to taste the authentic food from Bhopal.
So, I was in for a major surprise when I accepted another ‘Bhopali’ friend’s invitation and visited the city again with her acting as a guide some time back. I realized that the very relaxed Nawabi city is best seen with some time on your hands. That it’s never good to judge a city by its taxi drivers, or its wedding guests. And that if you call yourself a ‘foodie’, there is no way you can give this city a miss.
Photo by Nagarjun
All food has a historical context. Bhopal’s comes from it having been a princely state, the second-largest Muslim-ruled one at the time of independence, after Hyderabad. The rulers, Pashtun in origin, and the other members of nobility, inspired many influences from other Muslim states like Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad to be brought here and adapted to local tastes. But, it also comes from the city being close to important Maratha centers like Indore, Gwalior and Nagpur. This gives Bhopal a food tradition quite unlike any other Nawabi city, with culinary delights that would remind one not only of more famous cuisines like Mughlai and Hyderabadi, but also of Maharashtrian culture.
Key elements of Bhopali cuisine
If its influences would make you believe for a second that it is just a mixture of the best from other cities (which in itself would not be a bad thing), any true-blue Bhopali would dispel these thoughts. The food from the city has very much its own character.
Photo Courtesy Saeed Faruqui
For one, there is a lot for vegetarians here, including addition of vegetables to non-vegetarian dishes, like the shaljam gosht. The food also doesn’t have the sourness of Hyderabadi cuisine or the decadence of Awadh and Mughlai items. The spices are used sparingly and mostly used whole, and sometimes very differently from what one is used to. For instance, chicken rezala, which is a popular dish across India, is not fiery red as in Hyderabad, or white because of a curd-based sauce as in many other cities. It is green in color, with the predominant taste of coriander and mint. The tandoori chicken, another perennial favorite, is not marinated in curd, but with dry spices and lime juice. There are several other such nuances that collectively end up giving the food here a very distinct flavor.
A typical foodie’s day in Bhopal
Photo Courtesy TalkingStreet.in
Breakfast of Champions
8:30 am: Kalyan Singh’s Swad Bhandar, near Jama Masjid in the Old Bhopal Area – Spicy, crunchy poha (which reminded me of my Maharashtra days), served with sev and crisp jalebi.
9:15 am: Jamal Bhai’s Chai ki Dukaan, Itwara Chowk – Bhopali Sulaimani chai, a sweet and salty tea, kept in samovars and served in glass tumblers.
1:00 pm: Filfora restaurant in the Kohefiza area, which is right on the edge of the Bada Talab
Khada Masala Gosht (mutton cooked in whole spices, with the distinct flavor of star anise)
Murgh Rizala (the rezala dish that had an oddly cooling sensation because of the coriander and mint)
Murgh Qorma (a rich, spicy gravy dish, unlike its namesake I’ve had countless times in other cities)
Shami Kebab (a delicate, well-spiced mutton dish that retains the meat’s fibrous texture)
Murgh Biryani (a perfectly competent preparation, but I remain a fan of Hyderabadi biryani)
Shahi Piece (commonly known as shahi tukda or double ka meetha). All followed by Bhopali paan.
My favorites were the Rizala and the Kebab, with the latter good enough to give the best of Lucknow a run for its money.
Stall jumping in Chatori Gali
6:30 pm: Somewhere in Old Bhopal – Fariyali khichdi (a sabudana dish that is reminiscent of Maharashtra again, topped with crispy wafers and sev).
Interlude: If there is any doubt left that the people of this city adore food, the fact that they have a whole area known as Chatori Gali should put it to rest.
Photo Courtesy Yummraj
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm: Chatori Gali
- Bun kebab (a uniquely Bhopali dish, with the bade ka kebab made of tender meat, stuffed inside a bun, served with chutney)
- Varki samosa (similar to a normal samosa, but with spicy mutton keema filling).
- Paaya soup (with lots of cornflour and soya sauce, had a very Chinese taste, and would be avoidable if not for the generous helping of paaya slivers and a good amount of bone marrow).
- Nalli Nihari at Mohammad Sarwar’s shop (a strong peppery gravy and really soft meat that forms a heavenly combination with the bunch of rotis)
9:30 pm: Surendra Jain’s stall, back at the Jama Masjid – Barfi rasmalai dona. Thick rabri poured over crushed ice, topped with colorful syrup and rose water.
Photo Courtesy Outlook Traveller
Mixed feelings of elation and disappointment
After a day of such epic proportions, I was feeling quite proud of myself. But, on our way back home, I was scandalized when my friend started listing the many other stalls and restaurants, with their own specialties, that we hadn’t even seen. Having just scratched the surface on my first eating sojourn to Bhopal, the only option left is to plan a longer trip to the city so that my body has enough time to recuperate after every meal. Looking for co-travelers for my next visit!
Featured Photo (Barfi Rasmalai Dona) Courtesy Outlook Traveller