Can't get better

Can't get better

Gosht ka halwa (minced meat halwa), ande ka halwa (egg halwa),  besani machli (fish cooked in gram flour), filfora (game-meat dish), grape leaf fritters...

Under an old jamun tree in Jehan Numa Retreat, Chef Vincent Marques was detailing Bhopali food and its unheard artistry. Never wash game meat under running water; it launders the natural salty flavour. Wipe the meat with a wet cloth. Think of an angle while marinating fish. A 45-degree angle. An obtuse angle, perhaps. Not because the fish cannot lie on its back, the fish-tilt drains away the trimethylamine (wait, I will simplify that: the putrid, fishy smell). And if you want to mimic the nawab's fishing skills, leave the bait and line at home. Carry a pistol. Make sure you have a human retriever in tow. Now, sit by the river. Stay patient. Eat the kebabs while waiting for the fish to rise out of the  water. See a fish. Aim. Shoot. Boom, the fish is dead. As if on cue, the human retriever (not the golden one) jumps into the  water to fish the fish out. Then, cook it with besan (gram flour), the way only Bhopalis cook samal and baam (local fish).  At this place, my mind ladled itself to a bygone era when four generations of begums ruled Bhopal for 157 years, the only princely state in India to have women at the helm. Not only were they brilliant at governance, they also gave Bhopal its cuisine.

Influences many

Sitting in the heart of India, Bhopal has had so many culinary influences - Afghan, Malwa, Hyderabad, Lucknow. However, it's cuisine is neither distinctly sour like Hyderabadi food nor rich like Lucknowi food. Bhopalis are meat-eaters, so they have very few vegetarian dishes including methi, chaulai, kulfa (leafy greens) and mulvati (young radish) cooked with its leaves in garlic, ginger, salt and broken whole chillies.  

Bhopalis like their dal khada (not cooked to gooey consistency) and even drop the 'i' from biryani and call it biryan. The Bhopali rizala is green, while the Hyderabadi one is fiery red. There's a story behind the green - Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum, the 12th ruler of Bhopal   (1901-1926), proclaimed colour-specific festivities. In Jashn-e-Hariyali, everything was green. Food. Dresses. The raqabdar (gourmet chef) added loads of green coriander to the hare meat.

And lo! Till today, the Bhopali rizala is conspicuously green. During Jashn-e-Gulabi, pink was everywhere, including the kheer (rice pudding) that borrowed its pink from rose petals.  

During the Rivayat (Revival) Food Festival at Jehan Numa Palace, the forgotten dishes are cooked according to the handwritten recipes of the begums. Built in 1890 and named for Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum, the palace still adheres to the ol' world recipes, the dishes getting a final nod from the family kitchen in The Kothi, the formal residence of the royal family that sits atop Shamla Hill.

"Chatori Gali in Old Bhopal is a heaven for foodies, especially if you love all-things meaty." Akramji, the chauffeur, had a suggestion. But the Greedy Lane had to wait because it is only after dusk that the nahari pot is opened in the Gali. Instead, I moseyed around Old Bhopal on a mission to taste Sulaimani chai and savour Bhopali paan. I manoeuvred fast cars and slothful cattle towards Shahab Tea Corner, where a bearded Muhammad Hanees was pouring salted black tea over a ladleful of thickened milk. Price: Rs 5 per glass.

In Bhopal, the salted tea was the  norm after the first namaz of the day. On large platters lay sweet samosas stuffed with coconut and dried fruits. Just an arm's length away, Nawab Khan, wearing a metal hairband, was making paan like a cat on helium - in a blink, he pinched out countless condiments from tiny containers and topped them on the betel leaf. Within seconds, the eight-rupee paan was ready. The nawabs often served atar paan (perfumed betel leaf) after meals to honour their guests.  

That afternoon, I walked up the white staircase of The Kothi for lunch with Niloufer Khan, the granddaughter of Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum. She was gracious and the lunch was lavish. In-between being an indulgent host, she narrated stories from her childhood when preparations for Id went on for days and The Kothi was redolent with the aroma of sewaiyan (sweet vermicelli), paan, kebabs, and sheermal (traditional bun). The Kothi is swathed in quiet now, the kitchen is no longer cluttered with five chefs and 15 sous-chefs who once wore the white toque and rustled dainty meals for dignitaries.

That afternoon, after bidding farewell to Niloufer, I walked on the periphery of Upper Lake where a moustachioed Raja Bhoj stands tall on the pier. That moment, I could turn into a raqabdar and hand-hammer meat into a scrumptious filfora. Under the stern gaze of an imagined begum.

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