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Eating my way through Jaipur

The much hyped royal Rajasthani thaal was forgettable, but the street food made up for it with an incredible range of sweet, savoury and succulent treats

The old city of Jaipur. (Photo: Indumathy Sukanya)

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After a budget workation in a remote South Goan village, where most of my meals were either egg Maggi or cheese sandwiches with ketchup, I arrived in Jaipur, ravenous and ready to eat my weight in golgappas and malpuas. Armed with a long list of recommendations from my aunt and uncle who have called the Pink City home for over two decades, I set out to explore as many places and dishes as I could over two weeks. And the gorgeous albeit punishingly hot city did not disappoint. Well, for the most part anyway.

My first order of business was to visit the Purana Pandit Pav Bhaji stall that I had heard so much about. As an outsider, what impressed me the most was the sheer number of copycat businesses that had cropped up all over the place to capitalise on the buzz. Thela after thela stands along Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, bearing the name ‘Purana Pandit Pav Bhaji’; some of them even bear the photographs of the original owner and his son. But the real deal, I was told, stands at the junction opposite Birla Mandir.

I walked up there, expecting to meet some sort of a street food titan, but was taken aback by how utterly indistinguishable the stall and the proprietors were from the rest of them. The only difference I could see was that here, there was a bigger seating area with plastic chairs and stools, which probably meant people still knew where to find the real Pandit. The copycats may have expanded into cheese and paneer variants but here, there’s only one item on the menu—pav bhaji. Store-bought pav and bhaji—made with a signature homemade masala—with a dollop of saras (the local dairy) butter, garlic chutney and a lemon wedge. Simple, rich and quite delicious.

Purana Pandit Pav Bhaji stall.
Purana Pandit Pav Bhaji stall.

Kamlesh Sharma, the elderly man who has been running the business since 1988, walked over just as I was settling the bill and I asked him the question that had been on my mind all evening: doesn’t it bother him that all these people were stealing his business? “What’s there to be bothered about?” he says. “These are our kids; they grew up eating pav bhaji at my stall. If they’re making a living for themselves using my name, I’m happy for them.” I’ve always felt good food is more than just its ingredients. Perhaps it’s the Pandit’s good heartedness that is at the root of his popularity.

On another evening, after over an hour of roaming around Albert Hall Museum, I walked over to the nearby Masala Chowk with something of an appetite. An open-air food court, the venue had food and beverage stalls of many kinds. I went over to Mahaveer Rabdi Bhandar, as this too came highly recommended, and ordered the bejar ki roti thali. A single roti, made of a multigrain flour comprising wholewheat, jowar, besan and rava, is served with aloo pyaz ki sabzi (potato-onion curry), garlic chutney, boondi raita and mirchi ke tipore (green chilli pickle). The oily, spicy accompaniments nicely complemented the rich, grainy blandness of the roti, making for a filling meal. The kesar tandoori chai I had at Gulabji Chai Wale as I waited for my food was delicious and soothing. They make it right in front of you—the kulhad is heated in the tandoor until red hot and the chai is poured in and around the cup to give it a smoky flavour. It was fun to watch the process.

The old city of Jaipur, made entirely of pink stone buildings, is a treat to the eyes: it’s where all the mahals, forts and bazaars are. On our way back from Galtaji Temple one day, my hosts and I decided to stop there for lunch. The famous Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar, known locally as LMB, is in Johari Bazaar. The restaurant was packed as it was lunch time, but we managed to find a table and I ordered for myself the Rajasthali Royal Thaal. The menu advertises it as “a unique, unforgettable lifetime experience”, which is probably why it is priced at a whopping 665, and says “sharing not allowed”, which is ironic considering Rajasthani families have a tradition of eating their meals out of the same plate.

My meal started off with a papad mangori shorba, a clear, tangy soup made with urad dal papads and sundried moong dal lumps. The main course—dal bati churma, missi roti, rice, bela rajasthani, ker sangri, dana methi kishmish, bhindi fry, boondi raita, mishri mawa and papad—came in a giant steel plate. As a South Indian who’s used to having multiple servings of fresh vegetables in every meal, I was quite underwhelmed by the spread. My hosts explained that as most vegetables are seasonal here in Rajasthan, local curries are mostly made of flour dumplings (bela rajasthani, kadhi chhokanwali), root vegetables (aloo-pyaaz) or seeds and lentils (dal, dana methi kishmish). While the missi roti was soft and crisp, I ended up having it with raita, as the curries were quite unremarkable. Even a simple kadai paneer or a side salad would have added flavour to the meal, I thought.

 

Rajasthali Royal Thaal at Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar.
Rajasthali Royal Thaal at Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar.

The saving grace, however, came in the form of the masala baati and the besan churma. I’ve had dal baati churma in the Khandani Rajdhani in Bangalore, but was never a fan. Here, it was wonderfully rich and tasty. The secret, I'm told, is a whole lot more ghee. But was it worth the price? No. The thaal on the whole was quite forgettable.

But what I could not find in the overhyped thaal, I found over and over in the street food of Jaipur. There was the famous paneer tikka of Radhe Shyam Bhatia Paneer Wale and the dahi puris of Nand Chat in Raja Park and the pyaz kachori of Bombay Mishtan Bhandar in Durgapura. As I don’t eat meat, I could not try out the laal maas (Rajasthani mutton curry), but I quite enjoyed the tandoori egg pizza at Sanjay’s Egg Dee (meant to rhyme with McD?) in Bapu Nagar, where the menu consists entirely of egg-based preparations.

When it comes to sweets, the people of Jaipur do not hold back. I tried the malai ghewar (Bombay Misthan Bhandar), malpua (Mahaveer Rabdi Bhandar) and the mawa kachori (Rawat Mishthan Bhandar)—each more decadent than the last. The only issue was they were a bit too rich to have after an already heavy meal, so I ended up Swiggy-ing them on days when I had a lighter meal at home, which helped me enjoy them a whole lot more.

Eating my way through Jaipur has been an incredible experience, one I highly recommend. Although if you’re South Indian like me or someone with a less robust digestive system, I suggest keeping some antacids handy.

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