Tractors piled high with maize fresh from the fields, line the highway. Vendors roast corn on hot coals, smear on salt, chilli, and lime and serve it to tourists and locals. Across Malwa, a region of western Madhya Pradesh, corn is a popular staple for at least half the year. And the most popular way in which bhutta or corn is prepared here is bhutte ka kees, a dish made with grated corn cooked with ghee, and then boiled with milk and spices. Chakki ri shaak is another local Malwa delicacy, of steamed wheat dough in a curd gravy. Sweet cakes, made from tapu, a local variety of wheat, are a Malwa speciality featured during religious festivities.
Malwa is a volcanic plateau with a unique culture and language, though its cuisine borrows elements from the neighbouring states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. Gujarati kadhi-fafde and khaman (dhokla), Rajasthani dal-baati-churma laddu and the ubiquitous poha, (an influence from Maharashtra, though it is not as spicy or oily), can all be found here.
A culinary journey through Malwa usually begins in Indore, royal city of the Holkars, where a hearty breakfast includes samosa, kachori, poha, and jalebi. Starts the day at Indore’s answer to Mumbai’s Chowpatty, Chhappan Dukaan, a precinct of 56 stalls. Vijay Chaat House heralds the morning with poha, and khopra patties, a deep-fried potato bonda (vada) with grated coconut and dry fruits inside. Dayashankar Thakar of Surat opened this shop in 1969, while the flagship establishment has been running in Surat for 108 years! Their samosas are stuffed with potato and dry fruits, the kachoris filled with batla (green peas) instead of lentils, and the khaman is Surti, and includes a fried version.
By 9 p.m., the action shifts to Sarafa Bazaar, Indore’s most famous night street food market. Jewellery shops down their shutters after the day’s business, and the streets are then claimed by cheek-by-jowl food stalls bustling late into the night. Vendors call out, entreating the hungry to feast on everything from local snacks, chaats, and pani patase (golgappa), to desi pizzas and Maggi noodles. Try garadu (deep-fried sweet potato), Savariya Seth’s ‘sabudana khichdi’, Joshi’s dahi bada, BC Agarwal’s bhutte ka kees, besides the kachoris, samosas and jalebis! Traditional desserts like mawa-bati (similar to gulab jamun), khoprapak (coconut-based fudge), shrikhand, and malpua are equally popular.
Despite the popularity of namkeens (savoury snacks) like lasuniya sev, and the local fondness for charkha (spicy) flavours, Indore loves its sweets. Top of the sweet list is the city’s signature drink shikanji: a thick, sweet milkshake enriched with dry fruits. Not to be confused with the Delhi lemonade of the same name, shikanji was first popularized by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa, where a limited batch is still churned out every day. The drink is made with saffron, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, raisins, a spicy buttermilk called mattha, and milk, slow-cooked for 12 hours. After taking as much time to cool, it is served thick and cold. As a blend of so many things, it is clear why it’s called shikanji (literally, mixture). Owner Shyam Sharma “Madhuram” came to Indore from Beawar in Rajasthan, 52 years ago as a student. In 1982 he decided to continue in the footsteps in his ancestors and opened a small sweet shop. The cheery moustachioed Sharmaji, sporting a Krishna medallion, personally ladles out shikanji to customers. “Don’t gulp it”, he advises. “Savour it slowly to discover its different flavours– shrikhand, rabdi, dry fruit, and milk.” The affable man who is also called Sharma “uncle”, literally force-feeds guests petha paan, another one of his sweet inventions. Tourists can follow locals who make a beeline to various other legends like Johnny Hot Dog and Young Tarang.
As our driver Jitender rightly pointed out, “Indore chatoron ka shahar hai” (Indore is a city for snackers).
The traditional bread of Malwa is baati or bafla, a small ball of wheat flour. However, unlike Rajasthan’s fried baatis, the bafla is boiled in water, traditionally roasted over dung cake-fires and dunked in ghee. It is served as part of a set meal with dal, kadhi, aloo sabzi, chutneys of garlic and coriander, and laddoos. An unlimited thali of these local staples can be relished in the company of turbaned stewards at Sai Palace near Mangalnath temple in Ujjain for ₹160. Their original eatery Rajhans at Sarafa in Indore was started by Gyanchandji Raka 40 years ago.
Different regions of Malwa have different specialties. Moving on to Malwa’s medieval capital Mandu, don’t miss local delicacies like Malwa ka bhatta bharta (baingan bharta) and ghuian (arbi) ki sabzi at the MPSTDC-run Malwa Retreat. Mandu is home to giant baobab trees, whose seeds were gifted by the Caliphs of Egypt to the sultans of Mandu in the 14th century. Locally the baobab is called khorasani imli; its fruit makes a good souring agent for curries like imli ki kadhi. The indigenous Bhils also tend to use it in their dal for that extra tang.
While walking towards Rani Roopmati Pavilion in Mandu, look out for carts selling the gargantuan balam kakdi, a giant fleshy cucumber rubbed with salt, chilli, and lime.
While in Mandu we heard whispers about the black-blooded, purple-skinned Kadaknath a black-feathered, country chicken, endemic to the region. Extremely rare and expensive, it is considered a connoisseur’s delight.
In and around Mandu, corn is also used to make paniya, maize flour cakes, sandwiched between aakde ke patte, two leaves of the aak plant (calotropis gigantea) and roasted on an open fire of dried cowpat. This local speciality is best enjoyed at Hotel Gurukripa on the Main Road near the Jami Masjid.
Further south, Burhanpur in the Khandesh region is legendary for mande (handkerchief-thin roomali rotis) stretched and tossed with flourish at roadside stalls. Though Burhanpur jalebi, made of khoya, is very famous and can be sampled at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre, it’s the fluffy daraba that is the town’s signature sweet. Made of sugar, semolina, and ghee, it is sold at local sweet shops like Milan Mithai and relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela, held after Dusserah on the banks of the Tapti River.
Vijay Chaat House
6-9, Chhappan Dukan, Indore. Tel: 0731-6541710, 98934 66677
75/5, Bada Sarafa, Indore. Tel: 0731-65417, 99039 166677
9 Samrat, Ashok Nagar, Bhawanar Kuan Main Road, Indore. Tel: 0731-4030202, 90382 66677.
What to eat: khopra patties, matar kachori, samosa, fried khaman.
56, Chhappan Dukan, New Palasia, Indore. Tel: 0731-253 0555
What to eat: shikanji, paan mithai, sweets
Hotel Sai Palace
Sunder Van Dhani, Mangalnath Road, Ujjain. Tel:09009293944
Near Rajkumar Hotel, Freeganj, Ujjain. Tel: 0734-4061888, 09009004830
What to eat: dal-bafla thali
Main Road, Mandu. Tel: 098930 43496, 094250 34837
What to eat: dal-paniya thali
Main Branch, Gandhi Chowk, Burhanpur. Tel: 07325-252315, 09406677600
What to eat: daraba
Burhanpur Jalebi Centre
Subhash Chowk, Burhanpur.
Tel: 098262 72490,
What to eat: mawa jalebi
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