People usually complain about my short-term memory. Yet, I can clearly recall my first bite of the delightful delicacy called Andhra mutton fry from nine years ago. Juicy pieces that had been slow-cooked till eternity, served alongside vegetarian offerings. There was nothing wrong with the latter—generous portions of curry, a dry sabzi, sambar, rasam, and enough rice to feed an army. But it was the mutton that made my heart flutter. The heat from the spices had caught at the back of my throat, making me splutter, and my eyes water. Yet, my hand in a deft motion went back for a second bite.
My tolerance towards spice has increased over time, the learning curve teaching me to ask for puris instead of rice if there’s work to be done after, but Andhra Pradesh Bhavan’s (1 Ashoka Road; +91-11-23382031; open for all meals) popularity hasn’t diminished one bit. Lunchtime is always full, a sea of people eagerly waiting with paper tokens for a no-frills grub. A synchronised symphony begins the moment you take a seat—first comes the steel thali with the basics, followed by a server bearing dal, vegetables and curry. Then comes the rice, and finally, puris. While pickles (the gongura is a personal favourite) and gunpowder are on the table, the trick is to ask for ghee. Rice mixed with gunpowder and ghee knows no equal, and I will be forever grateful to the colleague who introduced me to its magic on one of our umpteen visits.
The vegetarian meal is unlimited, until you shake your head: helpings continue until common sense prevails over greed. The process—averaging about 20 minutes per person—reaches its crescendo after a content burp. Coordinating a crowd that size, and managing the service so it runs smoothly takes practice, but then, they’ve been practicing for over a quarter of a century.
Living in Delhi elicits mix feelings, but it’s a choice you make. Relatives and friends warn of the obvious dangers here, but there seems to be no dearth of migrants flocking to the capital for opportunities.
The promise of a better job made fame pack my bags and buy a ticket to this maddening city, to move in with friends until I could manage a place to live on my own. Having spent the better part of my 20s here, despite the ups and downs, it has never been boring. One such up, like Andhra Bhavan, is the endless list of state houses with public canteens or restaurants, their staggering menus delivering a taste of home for the millions who left theirs. If one suddenly craves smoked pork ribs, there’s Nagaland House (9, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road; +91-11-23015638). A Bengali would recommend either Chittaranjan Park, or Banga Bhawan (3, Hailey Road; +91-11-23321233; lunch and dinner) for fish fry and kosha mangsho; a Kannadiga will send you to Karnataka Sangha (Rao Tularam Marg, RK Puram; +91-11-26104818; open for all meals) for the fiery and crisp Mysore masala dosa; a Khasi will push you towards Meghalaya House (9, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road; +91-11-23014341) for the best pork and pulao. This boundless access to every corner of India is unique to Delhi, and doesn’t pinch the pocket.
A little walk away from Andhra Bhawan, via the India Gate circle, lies the gleaming facade of Maharashtra Sadan (Kasturba Gandhi Marg; +91-11-23380328; open for all meals).
This came up a few years ago, a stark difference from the old one at Copernicus Marg. I’m not sure whether the original canteen still exists, but its second iteration is high on the list for gourmands. The canteen is sparse, but its white walls serve vegetarian thalis, according to Maharashtrians, exactly like home; a friend went so far as to say the dal there is just the way her mother makes it.
A personal favourite at the Sadan is the varhadi chicken with hot rotis. Originating from the Vidarbha region, it’s a mix of succulent meat with a pungent green curry. Breakfast’s extremely popular—who doesn’t like deep fried vadas (potato or tapioca sago) or the tangy misal pav? Do try the poha (the most common flat rice breakfast in the subcontinent) to see how your home-made one matches up. I was jolted by my first bite—it was close to Proust’s ‘Madeleine moment’, that gleeful dig into a fragrant bowl. Memories came flooding back of youthful summers in Mumbai, of being surrounded by family members, many of whom are no more. Kerala House (3, Jantar Mantar Road; +91-11-23747079; lunch and dinner) is nearby. One has to get there before the lunch-hour rush. Buy a coupon for a vegetarian thali—thick red rice, curries and papad, an all-access bucket of sambar on the table. While the vegetarian fare is impressive, it’s the flaky malabar paratha and picante meat fry that people go for.
Connaught Place has some state bhawans, but most are housed in Chanakyapuri. It is one of the most affluent neighbourhoods with various embassies, high commissions, state houses and wide roads. The Chanakya theatre, revamped to its current avatar of a mall, is the newest addition and one of the landmarks. The lane opposite the mall curves and has a number of state houses—Rajasthan, Goa, and Tamil Nadu among others. Start with Tamil Nadu House (6 Chanakyapuri; +91-11-24193470; open for all meals).
Like most canteens, it’s dull décor, but the kitchen’s glass windows let you observe a dosa’s journey from tawa to table. The menu, for the benefit of non-Tamilians, is written in English and vernacular. Lunch hours are teeming, so go slightly late. The personal favourite here is the chicken curry and plain dosa. The filter kaapi is steaming and served in a dabarah. Cooling the concoction, and pouring it back and forth, is an art I’m yet to master. Goa Niwas (14, Bir Tikendrajit Marg; +91-11-26118372; open for all meals) is down the lane; its restaurant, Viva O’ Viva, is a breath of fresh air.
Cheery tablecloths, servers in loud shirts, bric-a-bracs including a Christmas tree, a red crab toy and even an exercise cycle, make up its eclectic environs. The menu is marked on a whiteboard: prawns, pomfret, xacuti...it’s a complete Goan holiday, with actual Boyzone songs for company. Mop up the chilli oil from pork sausages with pao, and end the meal with bebinca and strong black coffee.
Right next door is Bihar Niwas (15, Behind Yashwant Place; +91-11-26112764; lunch and dinner), not to be confused with Bihar Bhawan (27, Kautilya Marg; +91-11-23010147). The Niwas houses The Potbelly, where litti chokha (whole wheat balls stuffed with sattu, served with brinjal mash) is by far the most-ordered item.
Served on ceramic plates atop wooden tables, with glass-filtered natural light, it’s quite a photogenic scene. If brinjal isn’t your first choice, the menu offers a slew of alternatives: pakoras, tehri, ghoogni, chops, stew...one is absolutely spoilt for choice.
Leave the mall area and take an auto to Kautilya Marg, where there’s another bunch of bhawans on either side of the stretch of the road. Try the canteen at Arunachal Bhawan (27, Kautilya Marg; +91-9871700917; open for all meals). The entrance is nondescript but the staff, warm and inviting, offer food like home. I got the Arunachali fish thali: rice, yellow dal, boiled vegetables, bottle gourd and tangy fish with a simple curry. If you’re looking for a light lunch, this is a place you could visit.
Gujarat Bhawan (11, Kautilya Marg; +91-11-46273200; open for all meals) is on a massive plot on the opposite side. Its canteen, like Andhra Bhawan, has a token-induced wait. A board announces the dishes being served on a particular day, and I pigged out on the kundru (ivy gourd). The vegetables change daily, but some dishes remain constant—the khatta dhokla at dinner, the khamand dhokla at lunch. I found the dal too sweet, and am yet to figure out when khandvi will pop up on the menu.
Further down the road is J&K House (9, Kautilya Marg; +91-11-26112022; open for all meals). The canteen is located at the back, and there’s a simple dal-vegetable-rice meal available here like elsewhere. However, it’s the non-vegetarian dishes you must savour: rogan josh, kebabs and chicken curry. Surprisingly, the meal doesn’t weigh you down, but if you have no self control (like me) huffing and puffing isn’t an unrealistic aftermath.
To my delight, I discovered that a revamped Assam House (1, Lokhriya, Gopinath Bordoloi Marg; +91-11-2687 7111; open for all meals) had finally reopened—that meant the restaurant, Gam’s Delicacy, was back in business. Gam’s was an old haunt, where I devoured sorsor pabha, steamed rice, aloo pitika, and fried pork with onions. Volume two is swanky, with white marble and glass, but the taste remains the same: simple flavours served on traditional kansha plates. I’d suggest ordering the vegetable thali with two dals, vegetables, pitika, khar and kheer, and then build with meat or fish. There’s also several pork, mutton, chicken and duck preparations to be tried.
As a child, I was never a picky eater. That translated into an openness for new experiences as an adult, unaffected by the confusing ravages that puberty may inflict on the palate. Visiting farmers’ markets, etching a note or two into my dog-eared diary became a way of life. If this sounds even remotely familiar, then the bhawan canteens, aside from locals, travellers, migrants, and regulars, are for folks like you and I. For some it’s a place for discovery, for some a reminder of home. If the future takes me away from Delhi, there’s plenty I’d miss in the bustling Capital. Bhawan food, undoubtedly, would take centre stage.