The satisfying stories I recall from when I was little have a lot to do with the discovery of treasure troves: the forty thieves who hung out with Ali Baba, the solitary Rumpelstiltskin, who struck deals because he could weave hay into gold, men searching for diamonds in King Solomon’s mines, pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and, of course, that magical cave entrance that opened to ‘khul- ja-simsim’ or open-sesame. These fabled narratives about wealth and all manner of precious stones underwent alterations in the material world where money enabled the exploration and discovery of a smorgasbord of colour, shape and flavour as the years rolled by. Despite not being an economic unit in society at that point, I think I made the connection about the significant exchange value of gold and gemstones.
As I grew older and engaged in transactions with the everyday world, my absorption shifted from mineral treasures to edible pleasures instead since I was drawn to the myriad world of colours that existed around me, and in the food produced and consumed daily at home and in the homes of relatives and neighbours.
Growing up as a locovore, the diurnal world of fruit, vegetable, lentil, cereal, milk and sweetmeats captured my imagination. I learnt how with a little money and gifted, instructing fingers, amazing food could be crafted and shaped. I learnt of new treasure chests that housed family recipes handed down secretly to later generations: there were sacks of hand-pounded rice flakes, hand-crafted semolina, tins of hand-twisted murukkus, roasted rice puffs, mungodis, wadis, pappads, rice crispies and boiled and dried potatoes chips, all of which were crafted mostly by the women in the household.
There always special vegetables from a neighbouring farm, home-grown gourds, fresh radishes, whole pumpkins more precious than gold, bananas dried to a golden brown and eaten as dessert, bottles of pickles and jams, special sweets and savouries, glistening rainbow-coloured halwas made of milk, sprouted, dried and ground wheat , tins stashed away with delicious dried fruits, sugar-soaked gooseberries and delectable sun-dried mango pulp and ashgourd pethas, to say nothing of the seasonal wooden cartons and baskets of fruit.
I began pretty much like everyone else by eating what was cooked at home on an everyday basis. Of course, there were special days such as birthdays and days of festivity when all of us savoured the most amazing variety of food. Then came visits to the homes of grandparents, uncles and aunts, both maternal and paternal.
Each of these households invariably had a culinary expert whose knowledge was transmitted and subsequently advertised in the form of heirloom recipes. These were guarded zealously and no owner would easily offer up the secret ingredient that made their food so special. Such intrigues provided grist and excitement to food forages of my time.
Ritual purity, squeamishness and lack of ready money accompanied my parents’ generation’s notions about street food in different parts of India. In their time, food was largely cooked at home, and there were special occasions for most food and plentiful taboos in days of scarcity. Most food available outside was viewed as either polluted or unhygienic, but it was in my generation, helped perhaps by parental displacement from their birth villages and towns, that newer food sources were discovered outside the home. Small canteens, in our locality, in schools and in colleges, for tea and assorted snacks ranging from bread pakoras and samosas to medu vadas, dal vadas and jelebis. There were small eateries and dhabas catering to different cross-sections. Then came the time of street foods, nan-khatais or Daulat-ki-chat, that one could consume hot from vendors who sold them off thelas, rediwallahs bearing fruits, basket and stand-wielding sellers of chat and kamrak, even holes in the wall, housing frying pans full of oil, sizzling tavas or outlets that opened for a limited amount of time and sold a specific food item – they all were a huge draw.
These culinary adventures continued, enveloping global flavours such as noodles and pizzas in the last two decades of the 20th century and continued unabated until the quarantine of 2020. A new kind of social distancing snuffed out our collective public eating life altogether, and in the post-covid era, popular eateries died out or suffered enormously.
Now, that the coronavirus is on the wane, slowly, slowly, as if waking up from an evil spell enveloping the whole world, everyone has begun to stir and inch their way out of homes to more public spaces where food is prepared and consumed. If food were to become unavailable in our public spaces, one can only imagine how dismal life would become without those optimal promises of taste and flavour that result in contented nurture. Thankfully, all manner of chefs, less known and modest, are returning to our favourite haunts, whetting our appetites and introducing us to new palates.
I began by mentioning secret treasure hoards, filled with all manner of gold and precious stones and valued objects, starting points of adventure in an ancient world. Last month, my visit to Chappan Dukaan and night-street-food at the Sarafa in Indore was a contemporary quest for precious nuggets and food delicacies. Chappan Dukan is a centrally-located, modern representation, of an older tradition of street food. The dukaans at Chappan are 56 specially installed shops in a row that provide an amazing array of food ranging from Turkish ice cream to custard-apple shakes and countless local sweet and savoury snacks. Chappan is a variation of the modern food court, that has been around for some time now and caters to a large clientele with a wide variety of local delicacies and flavours that register the arrival of the international palate.
Our driver, Darpan, opines that Indore is a city of ‘chatoris’ and ‘bhukkads’ and that people gorge themselves with food after stepping out of their homes to the point of puking. He goes on to inform us that all the food is vegetarian, although he himself is an all-rounder who enjoys his meat and chicken.
The entire complex had a cheerful ambience with adequate provisions for drinking water, washing of hands, dustbins to throw used food containers and clean toilets to boot. There was planned foliage of ornamental plants and shrubs and seating arrangements that enabled people to sit and linger over their meal, comprising of food choices ordered from one bustling stall or the next. Every shop seemed to have an amazing turnover and I discovered the coconut crush, wherein coconut cream, coconut water, vanilla and sugar are blended to create a satisfying and exotic shake, that in terms of flavour and texture pushed the custard apple shake to second position immediately.
There was long list of beverages to choose from and savoury snacks such as dosas, poha, sabudana khichdi, vadas, poha, momos, potato whorls, corn salads, khobra patties and pizzas, along with shops selling all manner of fried lentil, potato and millet bhakris. All very well presented and received.
Easily a delightful trouve of treasured food delights for all, since most snacks looked drool-worthy and moderately sized servings were inexpensively priced, unlike the food courts we have at malls in New Delhi that sell fancy food at fancier prices. At Chappan Dukan, you can sample delicious food from across the globe at affordable prices, and put some speed in your step as you move away from the venue, replete with food without exhausting all the wealth contained in sundry wallets.
Although, it is possible to find most of this food at select outlets in crowded marketplaces in many Indian cities, the accompanying garbage and squalor usually dampen enthusiasm. Chappan Dukan is a testimonial to the diversity and stretch of our cosmopolitan food culture. Significantly, this accessible place provides a cheerful, clean and delightful ambience and value for money to the iterant traveler. We need many more such dukaans all over India.
The Sarafa ((Hindi term, describing a market selling gold and silver) is ensconced in the streets adjoining the Rajwada, which is currently under renovation. The access road leading to the Sarafa from Ahilyabai Holkar’s palace is dug up and requires climbing and balancing with acrobatic dexterity as well as fumbling alongside the stretches of a dark street, until the welcome smell of food and their well-lit surroundings can be experienced first hand.
The Sarafa in Indore is where the goldsmiths and silversmiths have establishments. When the shops have wound up their daily business it is the turn of street vendorsto set up makeshift stalls and carts to sell all manner of delicious snacks and street food each night from nine pm to 1 am of the next day, often stretching to two and three am during weekends. Apparently, the Sarafa dates back to street food practices that are about a hundred years old. There is something very magical about this quaint food market that comes alive in the night, wherein sellers and purchasers of food offer community night-watch services, so that bullion merchandisers can sleep soundly at night.
We began our food odyssey with sabudana khichdi, washed it down with jamun shots and gole-gappas and then munched our way through a long variety of food, including Indore’s spiral potatoes, momos and sandwich in 30 flavours, alongside dosas, dabelis, chaaps and different kinds of chaat. There were desserts such as shrikhand, kaala and gulab jamun, moong halwa and a plethora of shakes, various fruit crushes and concentrated juices sold as shots. Freshly made, delectable jalebis, as broad as a dinner plate, are sold by weight and can be had with thick rabri, at the rate of one rupee per gram, as also malpuas, and all must be finally rounded off with a kulhad of hot milk.
Most of the food is served on leaf plates, clay bowls, kulhads or small paper cups, which can be thrown into plentifully arranged dustbins. The entire street is clean and tidy, reiterating, yet again, that Indore has been the cleanest city in India for the last five years running. The glitter of the lights, the buntings, and the fragrance, taste and colours of food savoured by a large number of people at the Sarafa will stay on in memory and continue to remind me of our diverse and multihued community life, deeply rooted in the flavours, textures and nuances of food.
Yes, we began as disparate and closed tribes whose continuing negotiation with convoluted and difficult pasts as separate communities has been through the different cuisines that we have engaged with over the decades. The street food market at night in the Sarafa helps us recall that food not only sustains but also allows us to connect and forge bonds between diverse communities, effectively reducing the chasms of class and caste practices in food culture.
Women also participate, as sellers and consumers. The street food at Indore’s Sarafa speaks of the mingling of communities as it dispenses warmth and radiates light while the powerful sleep; it remains a mitigating factor, a moment of hope and magic, in the dark night of democracy.