AGRA STREET FOOD CHRONICLES: Gorging on the Road in the City of Love
IT IS one of history’s many ironies that Agra, which was the seat of Mughal India at the time of Akbar and Jehangir, and of Shahjahan for some years (from 1556 to 1658, to be precise), doesn’t have any visible legacy of the robust cuisine that we attribute to that era.
This accident of history may have occurred because Akbar and Jehangir, besides being frugal eaters (Jehangir made up with his prodigious thirst for alcohol!), spent little time in Agra, because they had battles to fight all over to expand their empire. Shahjahan was first busy building a new capital in Delhi, the part that we now call the Walled City, and he spent the last years of his life incarcerated in the Agra Fort, so he could hardly have left much of an imprint on Agra’s table.
As I have discovered over the last 15 years, Agra’s cuisine is dominated by what we call Bania cuisine in Delhi. Typically, the Agra platter consists of picture-perfect round bedai (bedmi in Chandni Chowk) served with a tangy potato curry that leaves you with a sweat that you wish to lick off the top of your head, stuffed paranthas soaked in ghee (the kind you see at Paranthewale Gali) and served with the most scrumptious mishmash of vegetables, and of course, the array of sweetmeats starting with petha, gillori, malpua and laung lata (what we call lavang latika).
Most recently, I was in Agra for the Taj Literature Festival (February 26-28). I chose to skip a dinner hosted by a local notable to begin my tryst with the city’s street delicacies. My food sherpa was a young woman named Megha Singh (www.agrafoodtrail.com), who launched Agra Walks / Agra Food Trail in October 2014 with her friend Suyash Gupta, whose father runs the city’s most successful travel agency, Travel Bureau. Megha insisted that I start not from the revered Ram Babu Parantha Bhandar, whose deep-fried paranthas acquired a global following after being discovered by Jiggs Kalra in the early 1990s, but from Mama Chicken a.k.a. Mama Frankie, the favourite hangout of the young in Agra.
Run by the father-son duo of Himanshu and Rahul Sachdeva, this khokha in one insignificant corner of the parking lot at Sadar Bazar in the Cantonment, has an electric atmosphere — pulsating music punctuated by instructions communicated over his collar mike by Rahul, four men constantly making kebabs and flapping around roomali rotis, and of course, the constant whiff of the appetite-churning aromas.
At the centre of this controlled confusion, Himanshu Sachdeva, dressed in black tee and jeans, keeps producing classical shaami kebabs — it seems to be a matter of personal pride for him — although he became famous nine years ago after he introduced Agra to frankies, the saucy chicken kebab wraps that have become a Mumbai delicacy. If the frankies of Mama Chicken stand up to their reputation, the mutton and chicken seekh kebabs melt in the mouth, and the chicken lollipops are inducements enough to keep going back and dining al fresco at this mouth-watering corner of Agra.
After Mama Chicken, Megha took me to another corner of Sadar Bazar, the lane informally known as chaat gali, because it is home to Shri Agrawal Chat House and the slightly older Agra Chat Bhandar, old competitors sitting cheek by jowl next to each other. I started with Shri Agrawal’s gol gappas and I at once knew why Agra’s chaat gali has a formidable reputation — there’s something about the creaminess of the yogurt, the consistency of the sonth (tamarind pulp and dried ginger powder) chutney, and the umami quotient of the spiced waters that makes Agra’s many chaat varieties so special.
Next, I had to just turn around to continue my feast with Kelaji’s famous bhel puri (the masala used in this one is the killer app), ‘Bombay’ kala khatta from the stall next to Kelaji and Panditji’s rabdiwali kulfi, which is like an advertisement for the area’s famed milk products.
Stuffed to the gills, but refusing to throw my hands up, I followed Megha to our next stop — the original Ram Babu at Belanganj, guarded by the ghost-like abandoned old tanneries of the city. The place — and its offshoot on National Highway No. 1, next to Sikandra — are today run by Ram Babu’s brother, Harishankar Khandelwal, who has travelled world feeding the rich and famous, and his three sons. I have never been a great fan of their over-fried paranthas (give me Murthal any day!), but I just can’t resist the accompanying vegetable mashes and pickles. I can happily forgo the paranthas to make a meal out of the accompaniments.
No one can leave Agra without a visit to Deviram at Pratap Pura in the old part of the city. It was a Sunday morning, yet there was a little snarl on the road facing the sweetmeat shop. It happened because of the early morning turnout for the shop’s legendary bedai and oh-so-memorable aloo subzi that has to be mandatorily balanced by jalebis fresh off the karahi. Agra is the City of Love, but it’s also the city where the way to the heart starts at the stomach.
To know more about Agra Walks/Agra Food trail, follow these links: