Madhya Pradesh has the ability to completely take you by surprise, from the mouth-watering street food in Bhopal to the incredible cenotaphs of Orchha, from the fantastic mustard-field-lined highways to the heart-warming hospitality of her people, from watching in awe as gifted locals deftly weave beautiful Chanderi silks to the sheer joy of being surrounded by animal calls at Panna National Park; leave your prejudices behind, it’s time to be wooed by the utterly unexpected
Words: NADEZNA SIGANPORIA
Photographs: VAIBHAV MEHTA
BHOPAL: Best for street food
It’s one of those life-altering moments, the unexpected pleasure of tasting your first bun kebab. To call it Bhopal’s version of a burger isn’t really doing it justice; this is poetry on a plate. Succulent, flavourful bade ka kebab stuffed in a crisp, hot oil-soaked bun and floating in a river of spicy green chutney. We’re at the entrance of Chatori Galli, a narrow alley in Old Bhopal where, after 7pm, half of Bhopal’s population descends in a stream of happy chaos and joyful chatter. This is the place to go to sample some of the city’s unique street food.
An hour earlier, Vaibhav, the photog, and I were trying to navigate through the other half of Bhopal’s population, on the beautifully lit-up shores of the Upper Lake. Given that it’s the last day of the Jheel Mahotsav and a Sunday evening, we’re not surprised by the sheer number of people here. On any other day, this narrow lane by the clear lake is quite perfect for a peaceful stroll at sunset.
Bhopal, being the ‘city of lakes’, is very proud to be able to offer these experiences. It’s also equally proud of its architectural wonders, like the majestic Taj-ul-Masjid, said to be the largest mosque in the country. The Islamic influence in Old Bhopal dates back to the early 18th century and to Sardar Dost Mohammed Khan, who is credited with having laid the foundations of the present-day city. For two centuries after, it was his descendants who ruled the Nawabi state.
Back in the present, dodging motorcyclists with their horns blaring and the crazed cacophony that seems to bother absolutely no one else, we head further down the lane to Hotel Gazala for nalli nihari served with deliciously fluffy and fresh tandoori rotis. The slow-cooked mutton and marrow bones in a thick peppery curry hits the spot, but top it off with a bater (quail) that floats in a spicy stew, and you’ve got yourself an incredible meal. Head there early if you want the sample the famous bakarkhani roti, a spiced, layered roti that flies off the shelves in minutes.
Not quite done with our culinary quest, we brave the streets again in search of the kind of biryani that only Bhopal can offer. Bhopali biryani isn’t like its Lucknowi or Hyderabadi counterparts – it’s lighter on the spices, utterly flavourful and done best at Hotel Jameel. One bite of the fragrant rice with melt-in-your-mouth bits of chicken, and I’m acutely aware that this has ruined every other biryani for me.
Chances are, you’re probably going to be stuffed by now, but the lure of Bhopal’s juicy kebabs will make you head out for yet another go. Stalls laden with marinated morsels of tender meat call out to you, the aromas beckoning you to have one last try. It’s only at Hotel Afghan in Peer Darwaza, where we find ourselves wolfing down plates piled high with juicy shami kebab and mutton tikka kebabs, that we finally decide to call it a day.
Bhopal is as exceptional today as she was in the past. For over a century, the Nawabi princely state was ruled by four Begums; strong and brave women who challenged the rules and changed the course of history, something virtually unheard of in the early 1800s. The city has always tried to defy the norm, pushing its boundaries and refusing to be anything other than extraordinary. Even breakfast here has its own flair; they took something great and made it even better. Fluffy poha sprinkled with spicy sev topped with crisp jalebis – an odd mix that actually works – and a glass of Sulaimani chai, a strong tea brewed with sugar syrup and a pinch of salt; this, fittingly, is how Bhopal starts her day…