Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sampling the street

Ahem. This is to appear in a certain Indian newspaper that leans towards free markets. Putting this up couldn't wait till Sunday.

"Can we stop now?" Abhishek asked as we held each other for support. "I've never eaten so much." I looked at my brother through the spots floating before me. To say yes would have been the right thing, the healthy thing to do. People would have praised our self-control, our ability to say no. But there was something heroic in eating until you burst.

Indore has good food and you can see its effect on people. Belts strain under the weight of meals prepared with no nod to health or moderation. The frantic Bombay walk would feel out of place here. Indore ambles with the satisfaction of a well-fed place preparing itself for an afternoon siesta. And with local cuisine like this, who wouldn't walk slowly?

So we were at Chappan, a street that was busy mostly when skies were dark enough. From everywhere they came to dig into the chaats and pav-bhajis and faloodas and ice creams. Students had come here for over 25 years to announce their results or to reveals their loves or drown their sorrows. New cars were shown off here. A newborn's initiation into the world included a visit to Chappan, which was named after the 56 shops on the street.

Abhishek and I set off to eat everything available on Indore's streets at night. And if we couldn't eat everything, we'd watch others eat while we staggered from one store to the next. Our night of sin began at Johnny Hot Dog, where a counter and two large frying pans separated us from the man behind the counter. "What's an 'egg-benjo'?" I asked as he sliced open a bun and slid it about in warm oil.

"I will put a benjo in it," he answered without looking up.

"So what's a benjo?" I asked again.

"This is a benjo," he said, pushing a plate at me. An omelette in a bun.

"Why is it a benjo?"

He thought about it while wiping his hands. "Because tourists used to ask for a benjo and we didn't know what it was." So how was it a benjo? "The owner called it a benjo because he wanted a simple name for this," he said irritably and walked away.

After getting through the omelette-bun, we strode past stalls of glistening snacks. Empty puris were stacked in pyramids beside large pans of ragda-pattice. Boys with persuasive voices enticed us into restaurants with, "Come inside, sit inside, air-conditioned," and on seeing us moving on, "Okay, no sitting, but standing, serving?" and finally, "Why you are going away? Are you angry?"

There's no escaping food here. You can avert your eyes, but what about the smells wafting almost cartoon-like around every bend and through the car's air conditioner to you? I found myself magnetically drawn from one stall to the next through these smells and sights, presented with new flavours on every plate. Young Tarang's renowned dahi puris were duly demolished. The Bombay Sandwich, the KitKat Sandwich and other offerings were on display. Everywhere people jostled, talking, ordering, appearing confused, looking this way and that - with a plate in their hands.

Dressed up ponies idled by. Balloons strained at their strings beside them. Both were waiting for children. But the children were at the ice-cream shops, standing on tip-toe, smudging the glass display with their nose, picking malai-kulfi and rosogolla flavours. A short walk away was Trupti Juice, where the crowd favourite that day was the sabudana khichdi. This was among the most accomplished khao-gallis anywhere; it had that pleasant chaos which accompanies street food and a polite crowd.

We had reached the end of the street and staggered punch-drunk, considering if our best interests lay in going home, when Abhi suggested, "Falooda?" It turned out Indore had not one street of food but two. If the main course was at Chappan, it had to be followed by dessert at Sarafa.

Sarafa is an alley in a district of alleys populated by low-lying buildings, with electrical and television cables criss-crossing from buildings to poles to other buildings. Most streets have enough space for only a car and a half to pass through, and it was one such street we traversed, honking furiously at - predictably - the only cow I had seen that day. Beyond the cow lay a street of downed shutters. During the day cloth, utensils, and knick-knacks were sold. At night, for nearly 40 years, in front of these shuttered stores, entrepreneurs set up stalls selling jalebi, rabdi, falooda, gola, paneer chilra, gulab jamuns and malpoa. Above these were homes, and faces peered down from balconies to follow the action.

Thick sugar syrups bubbled over open flames, men stared dourly into their frying pans, turning over sweets with one hand and handing customers platefuls with the other. I wandered past most, too full to eat, and also eager to move away from the stifling heat of this outdoor kitchen. But others preferred to stay here, sampling this and that, impervious to the blast of hot air. I found the falooda-walla with the help of a local. Indore's most famous falooda-waala was beside Indore's best malpoa-waala, who was a short distance away from Indore's most renowned gola-waala. This street was a who's who of snack-makers. It was tempting to grab and run.

The falooda was everything I had imagined it would be. It wiped out every other taste, negated heat and discomfort, and instead melted the eater. It was food that made everything okay with the world. For less then 20 bucks, all this. This is a town of cheap eats. As we packed up to leave at midnight, having eaten out for five hours continuously, Abhi stopped at the car door, stared intently at the grimy road below him and said, "That bloody gola-waala. We didn't have his gola," and bounded off after buckling his belt to complete what we had begun. I don't know if it was a foodie thing or an Indori thing.


Shruthi said...

Yum! You made me hungry :)

Dinesh said...

Man, excellent! Did u have to remind me of my Indore by being on desipundit. Terriffic post, missing chappan.
Did u fail to mention or were speechless after eating aloo patees from Vijay Chat house (in chappan and sarafa)? Do have the pista/badam waala doodh from Lakshminarayan Doodhwaala in Chhavni. The parathas in Rambabu's will make your belt give away for sure.
Indore surely is the reason for my stomach encompassing a few cubic metres. :)

Anonymous said...

Hmm... this is no good! And I blame you! I'm sitting here far far away from home, and you write ALL about GOOD stuff... now I'm missing it all badly & feeling home-sick! :-(
A well-written piece - keep them coming!


Rahul said...

Haha. Shruthi, you could try Dinesh's suggestions.

Dinesh, I've pointed Shruthi over. I wrote this piece nearly six months ago and can't quite remember where I ate what. But the smells, ooh, the smells...!

Thanks Vasu. But when you're back, you miss the food from far far away, wherever far far away is!

Akshay said...

I'm taking notes next time I'am in Indore all these places will be on list on places to visit.

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