I knew I would like Bhopal when the first thing I heard on its streets was the mobile ringtone: ‘Tum aa gaye ho, noor aa gaya hai.’ I was sold. My first impressions? This old Nawabi jewel, today capital of Madhya Pradesh, brought to mind the capital of Andhra Pradesh. Nizami Hyderabad was the only Muslim state that outsized Bhopal. Both offer a rich built and culinary Nawabi heritage, and both offer glimpses of the varieties of food eaten in all the corners of their respective states. The two cities equally share a passion for nargisi kebab and briyan (biryani) — with subtle distinctions, of course. The latter you will find in every gali of both cities.
Bhopal reminded me, too, of Pune. Its Budhwara and Itwara areas bring to mind the Shaniwar, Mangalwar and Somvarpets of that one-time capital of the Peshwas, who, together with their Maratha allies the Holkars of Indore, the Scindias of Gwalior and the Bhonsles of Nagpur, coveted Bhopal and attacked it several times. Bhopal’s perfectly light breakfast of poha, too, reminds me of Maharashtra. Only, here it comes topped with Madhya Pradesh’s beloved sev and served with hot and crispy jalebis. A superior combination.
One of Bhopal’s most delicious offerings is a meltingly soft delicacy tucked in a bun, which, for a bade ka kebab, is second only to the famous offering of Tunde Miyan in Lucknow’s Chowk Bazaar. And Bhopal too has its own Chowk Bazaar.
Its love of nalli nihari reminds me of my own city, Delhi. A narrow lane delightfully named Chatori Gali in Ibrahimpura, the first place Bhopalis will recommend for a bite, is lined with four restaurants that offer Bhopal’s best ‘Dilli ka nalli nihari’.
For all these reasons, Bhopal was comfortingly familiar. And on my first day I thought the city and its cuisine could be an amalgam of influences from India’s great Nawabi cities and the Mughal capital. There are few ideas with more chances of offending a native of this city. Bhopal is unique, because it is Bhopali. And Bhopalis consider themselves pioneers who are always ahead of the times.
They have a point. To me, the most impressive facet of Bhopal’s history is that, for just over a century, like no other preceding or contemporary Indian state whether Hindu or Muslim, Bhopal was ruled by four women, each the first-born daughter of the preceding begum. In modern times, Bhopal is also India’s first city to elect hijras to its municipality, staying true to its egalitarian, gender-blind history, at least when it comes to its rulers. I was in Bhopal this Holi to discover what the men were creating in the kitchens while the women were doing the real work of running the state.
To discover Bhopal’s heritage of Nawabi cuisine, you must head to Old Bhopal, and to eat, make your way to the Jama Masjid — built by Bhopal’s first begum — and its Chowk Bazaar, the heart of the Old City.
Old Bhopal, like Old Delhi, is a Muslim city and takes its time waking up. Sensibly, its streets are widest awake by 7pm, when the pots of nalli nihari that have been steaming all day in its restaurant kitchens are thrown open and their aroma wafts across neighbourhoods. Except for the hot afternoon, each time of day offers special culinary experiences, and for the hungry, an ideal Bhopali day would be something like this.
At about 7am, though even 8 or 9 will do, head to the Jama Masjid. On the east side of the masjid, just off Itwara Road, is Kalyan Singh’s Swad Bhandar (0755-2731495). You will find it easily because of the crowd of people eating his famous, fresh and hot Bhopali poha with sev and jalebis (Rs 7). The poha is perfectly light, dry, spicy and slightly sweet, the sev adds a lovely crunch and the jalebis give you plenty of power to take on the day’s labour. This is a breakfast you will find all over the city, in both old and new quarters. Bhopalis say the best poha is made by hawkers hailing from Indore or Sehore. Then walk down to Itwara Chowk and get yourself a cup of authentic Bhopali Sulemani chai (Rs 2) from Jamal Bhai’s chai ki dukaan. Served from a huge samovar, this tea is uniquely sweet and salty, with generous amounts of cream. I disliked it but assure you that I was the only one who did. As half the crowd around Jamal sipped their tea, the other half dunked toast into plates of pure thick cream. In the next shop, men sat in a row slowly savouring a regal breakfast of delicious mutton biryani from Famous Briyani Shop. I love a city which has biryani for breakfast. Get yourself a plate for Rs 7. And in a third shop, still others were beginning their day with bakre ka paya.
Build up your appetite for lunch walking through the galis of Old Bhopal. Quite apart from the magnificent ruins of the royal mosques and palaces such as the Sadar Manzil, Moti Masjid and Shaukat Mahal, every second home here is an ageing relic and many of these are being carefully preserved. My friends in Bhopal fear their city will change for the worse very soon. I am surprised, because the evidence seems to suggest a city proud and protective of its heritage. But their worry does not stem from a fear of losing their built heritage. They tell me with great pride of how Domino’s Pizza had to make a hasty exit and of how Baskin Robbins had to shut down within a week because they couldn’t compete with Bhopal’s ubiquitous Top-in-Town ice-cream. But now, Pizza Hut has opened and shows no signs of leaving and Café Coffee Day is well entrenched, my friends say wistfully. They want to move to a smaller city. Before that they tell me where to have a perfect Nawabi Bhopali lunch.
By lunchtime, leave the Old City to its afternoon wait for the nihari to cook and make your way to one of three restaurants in Bhopal that offer Bhopali food on their menus. Two of these are in Koh-e-Fiza, back towards the airport. The first is at the lovely hotel I stayed in, the Noor-us-Sabah Palace (4223333, 4239996), built in the 1920s by the last Nawab HH Hamidullah Khan for his elder daughter and heiress, Abida Sultan. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by the preserved sceptre and crown of Sultan Jahan (reign 1901-1926), the last begum to rule Bhopal. The open-air restaurant here offers beautiful views of Bada Talab and retains a few Nawabi specialities from the menus that once dominated its kitchens. I ordered the Bhopali chicken korma (Rs 255), a rich and spicy chicken gravy and khada masala ka gosht (Rs 255), a dish of mutton cooked with whole spices that included star anise.
The former royal khansama Ustad Saeed Khan, who used to cook for HH Hamidullah Khan and still cooks authentic Nawabi food to order (c/o Imran, 09893036807), proudly told me of how Bhopal uniquely prizes and uses star anise. He was affronted at the suggestion that Bhopali food is anything like Lucknowi or Hyderabadi food. Each grain of rice in our biryani is perfectly cooked, he exclaimed; Bhopali curries don’t taste of only haldi and dhania; and the Bhopali nargisi kofta, unlike in Hyderabad, is uniquely stuffed with kachumbar. And Bhopal’s pasinde kebabs! Totally dry, unlike the moist Hyderabadi variety. He was most proud of Bhopal’s rotis, which have to be so thin that “kauwa kaan par baandhen, uda le jaye aur pata na chale”. Saeed Khan regularly cooks murgh mussallum, biryani and murgh rezala among other Bhopali dishes at the Noor-us-Sabah and also cooks on occasion at the Jehanuma Palace (2661100). The latter belongs to the descendants of HH Hamidullah Khan’s brother Obaidullah Khan, and is also a heritage hotel, set in the Shyamala Hills on the southern shore of Bada Talab. Lunch at the Shahnama Restaurant here could include delicious Bhopali mutton korma (Rs 260) and murgh rezala (Rs 270) as per recipes (see box) handed down from the days of the nawabs. One of the most precious of these is the Bhopali filfora (Rs 275), a most unique dish made of turkey breast, marinated and slow cooked. They make a very good bater (quail) mussallum (Rs 225) at the Jehanuma too.
The other place in Koh-e-Fiza is one of just two standalone restaurants I heard of in Bhopal that serve authentic Bhopali food outside the Old City walls. Filfora is also the only place where you can find delicious shahi piece (Rs 15) readymade, without having to order in advance. The superb dessert of fried bread soaked in custard and flavoured with cardamom is among the best I’ve had. You could also try the excellent phirni here (Rs 15), but save that as a post-nihari treat in the Old City. Their boti (Rs 55) and shami kebabs (Rs 45) are succulent and soft, and their kormas spicy. They serve excellent biryani (Rs 55) complete with traditional burani (Rs 30). The menu is replete with Nawabi dishes like khada masala ka gosht, roghan josh (Rs 70 each), kaccha kebab (Rs 40) and, of course, murgh rezala (Rs 70).
After a breakfast and lunch of that size, you must sleep away the hot, hot afternoon hours and be at the MP Tourism Boat Club at 5pm for a leisurely boat ride on the Bada Talab. This is a must to get one of the best views of the minaret-studded skyline and undulating geography of the Nawabi capital.
Take your time before heading back from the pier to the Jama Masjid for a fortifying evening snack. In the tiny chowk adjacent to the masjid I first ate barfi rasmalai dona at Surendra Jain’s stall. He placed crushed ice in a pattal bowl, poured sweet and thick rabri over it, topped that with syrup and finished with a sprinkling of rose water. Cold and delicious. The next stall offered something called fariyali khichdi (Rs 7), a sabudana khichdi that again reminded me of Maharashtra but was unlike any I’ve ever had there. This khichdi of cooked sabudana came with a peanut or two, curry leaves, kothmir and chillies. What made it so tasty was the MP love for crisps. It was topped with thin wafers, a good sprinkling of sev and spicy batata chips.
Your evening snack done with, it is time for what you’ve been waiting for all day along with the rest of Bhopal. Make your way to Chatori Gali in Ibrahimpura, a short walk from the Jama Masjid, by 7pm so you can be there when the lid of the nahari pot is opened and swoon in ecstasy. The entrance to Chatori Gali is marked by crowds hanging around the bun kebab man. He takes the tenderest bade ka kebab, made from meat that has been pounded hour upon painstaking hour, stuffs it into a tiny bun and serves it with chutney and onions (Rs 3). Once you’ve had it you’ll agree that the world henceforth is divided into those who’ve eaten bun kebab and those who haven’t. Have just a couple and pack some more. Then get to Hotel Gazala, a few steps ahead in Chatori Gali, announced by thick stacks of kulcha tandoori. Mohammad Sarwar’s (09893191733) shopfront, like every other, claims to offer Bhopal’s best
‘Dilli ka nalli nihari’.Mohammed will give you a plateful with rotis and on your first bite itself you will agree that it is nothing at all like Delhi or Hyderabadi nihari. A thick and peppery stew full of soft meat that brings tears of gratitude. Look at the unspeaking crowds in the gali around you engrossed in enjoying this most perfect dinner and you will agree that, like this city, it’s in a class of its own.
How to make authentic Bhopali meat, just like Chef Dhan Kazi of the Jehanuma Palace Hotel:
Murgh rezala: An unusual dish with a striking green gravy.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil, and fry a kilo of chicken pieces till golden brown. Set the fried chicken aside. Heat 6 tablespoons oil in a kadhai. Fry 4 tablespoons of ground onions with half a teaspoon of haldi for a minute. Add two teaspoons each of garlic paste and ginger paste. Fry, stirring well, for 5 to 7 minutes till nicely browned. Add 6 tablespoons of beaten curd. Stir constantly to blend the curd in with the gravy. Add 13 heaped tablespoons of chopped coriander leaves, stir into the gravy and immediately add three big ladlefuls of poppy seed and birista paste (made of an equal amount of poppy seeds and crisp fried onions ground in water). Stir till the gravy tightens and a heavenly aroma arises. Add the fried chicken pieces to the gravy. Coat them well and pat them down in the pan. Pour in 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, add salt and cook till the chicken is done, about 15 minutes. Garnish with a halved boiled egg, a halved nimboo and whole green chillies. Serve hot with crisp rotis.
Bhopali gosht korma: A gingery, beautifully red gravy.
Boil a kilo of mutton till almost cooked. Reserve the water to use as stock. Make a masala powder of lightly roasted pepper, black and green cardamom seeds, cinnamon, cumin, bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg, mace and coriander seeds. Grind this masala with 4-5 onions in curd. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of Kashmiri chilli powder and a teaspoon of deghi chilli powder (for colour) on the masala paste. Heat 3 ladlefuls of oil in a heavy pan. Throw in 4 teaspoons of chopped ginger. Stir well and add the boiled mutton. Fry on a high flame for about 5 minutes. Add the masala paste, coating the meat well to form a tight gravy. Cook the mutton for 15 minutes. Pour in half a litre of the reserved stock and stir well. Add three teaspoons of finely chopped garlic and a tablespoon of kewra (screwpine) water. Cook till the mutton is done, by which point the aroma is dizzyingly good. This is one of the most handsome mutton dishes you will make. Garnish with ginger juliennes and serve hot.
Where else to eat
- The famous Hotel Gazala (09893191733) of Chatori Gali in Ibrahimpura is not to be visited in the day, when all you will get is paya with roti. Be there after 7pm for the fabulous nalli nihari (Rs 20), bhuna korma (Rs 10), special stew (Rs 20), nargisi kofta (Rs 15), bater (quail, Rs 50 apiece) and aloo-sabzi-dal-anda.
- Come to Hotel Jameel in Ibrahimpura, opposite the bakeries serving sheermal, for kebabs and fried chicken. Again, only in the evenings.
- Manohar Dairy and Restaurant (2740465) on Hamidia Road is hugely popular for its chaat.
- Make time for Mohammad Shoeb Siddiqui’s Choice Caterers (9826058852, 6532281). One of his wedding orders had 22 meat dishes!
- Taste of Hyderabad (2533431) in Jishan Complex at Emami Gate has a huge array of Hyderabadi dishes which change every day. Have the excellent khumani ka meetha, phirni, biryani and Bhopali mutton korma.
- Kinara Restaurant in the Lake View Ashok (2660090-95) at Shyamala Hills has barely any Bhopali food on its huge menu but it has the most breathtaking view of the Bada Talab.
- Grab a lassi and falooda at Haji Lassiwala at Itwara Chowk. The falooda is the world’s best.
- On your way out of Old Bhopal’s Ibrahimpura, don’t forget to taste the varki samosa, available at only a couple of stalls and after 4pm: it is a layered samosa stuffed with spicy mutton keema and is to die for.
- Don’t leave without a box of copra-topped Bhopali kalakand and a kilo of black gulab jamuns from Doctor Sahab’s (Ruknuddin’s) sweetshop.
- The mutton chaamp (Rs 80), keema kaleji (Rs 70) and bhuna gosht (Rs 80) at Hakeem Hotel (5252181) in TT Nagar are justly famous.
- The Punjabi thali menu at Naveen’s Bapu ki Kutia (4273779) in Jyoti Shopping Complex, MP Nagar Zone-1 is hugely popular.
- The famous Cycle Soupwalla of No. 10 market in Arera Colony now calls himself Sagar Ratna but serves the same delicious fare: veg cheese soup, triple decker cheese sandwich, veg biryani made with soya koftas.