At home in Bhopal

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 24, 2018
Dressed for the occasion: A bakery in Chatori Gali with its alluring display of sheermal, rusk and other savouries. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Dressed for the occasion: A bakery in Chatori Gali with its alluring display of sheermal, rusk and other savouries. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Seekh kebabs at Jameel Hotel. Photo: Zac O' Yeah

Seekh kebabs at Jameel Hotel. Photo: Zac O' Yeah

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’Yeah   -  Business Line

A walk through a tangle of lanes and by-lanes is sure to work up an appetite. The city of feisty begums rewards such perseverance with a divine spread

I happened to be in Bhopal during Ramzan and couldn’t help but notice how the fasting month affects the city’s daily rhythm. I went out shopping for new shoes one morning (mine had started to dissolve courtesy of the monsoon showers) only to find that few shops in the old town, where I was staying, open before noon.

Even in the middle of the day, the bazaars are relatively empty, making it easy to stroll at leisure. So instead of shopping I do a round of Bhopal’s mosques (also more or less empty at that hour). The Moti Masjid, or ‘Pearl Mosque’, which is a very agreeable structure with reddish sandstone minarets and white domes, is one of five famous Moti Masjids — the other four being in Agra, Delhi, Karachi and Lahore. In the courtyard I meet a bearded old-timer who speaks to me, in very refined and carefully worded English, about how a ‘lady begum’ erected the mosque. He’s referring to Sikandar Begum, who built it in 1860. According to Wikipedia (that wonderful source of information and disinformation), the begum dressed as a man, which ‘led Bhopal to be known for its relatively liberated, progressive women’.

Anyway, the handle of my shopping bag has just broken, making it tricky to carry back substantial souvenirs, so maybe I wasn’t meant to buy any new shoes. After drinking some nutty lassi in a stall, I spot a tailoring shop and ask the begum inside if she would mind stitching my bag. She fixes it until it is as good as new, but when I dig out my wallet she waves it away with a, ‘Welcome to Bhopal.’ I start to find the begums of Bhopal very likeable.

In the early evening I stand outside what is purportedly Asia’s biggest mosque, the Taj-ul-Masjid, and two cannon shots are heard echoing across town, which is the signal for breaking the fast. Iftar snacks — fruits, dates, cold drinks — are served from pushcarts at street corners, and all of a sudden the city comes to life. It’s a completely different picture at night; the narrow streets are chock-a-block and the meats are stewing in restaurant pots, signalling that it is time to eat some gourmet food.

As usual, I have a set of definite targets. Ambitious food-googling has resulted in the names of a few locations for the hottest tables in town — one is an alley in the old town, Chatori Gali, and another is a fancier suburban fine dining option, in Koh-i-Fiza, where tablecloth can be expected.

I try the latter. I find the restaurant Filfora off Sultania Road, in a backstreet of a Bhopal Development Authority suburb. Nice-looking and upper-crust, with kids at one table celebrating a birthday. Strangely though, a poster advertises South Indian food and then the waiter claims emphatically that they serve no Bhopali cuisine. When I draw his attention to the menu, which has ‘Filfora specials’ mentioned in it, he argues that the cook is on leave. Besides, their famous mutton biryani isn’t available, but I can try the chicken one if I want to. It’s a nice place, otherwise, but I head to Chatori Gali — home to cheap, spicy, calorie-laden and 99 per cent non-veg grub. Some food bloggers rave about one particular eatery, Jameel Hotel, which, supposedly, is the place for Bhopali cuisine and even Wikitravel crowned its biryani the best in town. Google Maps places Jameel somewhere around the bus stand off Hamidia Road, which seems handy as my hotel is just down the road, but it turns out to be wide off the mark.

The only way to find it is to ask in virtually every other shop and get pointed deeper and deeper into the glittering night bazaars, jam-packed with burqa-clad women, past a trumpet seller and a shop for prayer caps that even has one shiny red fez on sale, past Jalebi Wallas, Biscuit Corners, Silk Stores, Chikan Centres, shops that sell the glitzy bead-decked purses that Bhopali artisans are famous for, until I find myself on the very opposite side of the old town from where I started out.

But as the old saying goes: seekh and ye shall find kebabs. Not far from the Jama Masjid (a quaint old and comparatively smallish mosque in the centre of a sort of roundabout bazaar) I come to a street corner with lots of bakers who sell sheermal and buttery rusk, and it turns out to be the turning for the fabled Chatori Gali. The area itself is called Ibrahimganj and a stroll here past looming ancient buildings, on any day or night, will take you back to the days of the Mughals.

Jameel Hotel is on the right, with Jameel Chicken Corner on the left. The kebab grill is smoking up front. Inside, a waiter, fat as a laddoo, slaps down the menu, which is thoroughly smeared in animal fat.

Soon steel bowls of rich mutton korma (₹90) appear, as does mutton biryani (also ₹90), up there among the best in the world, accompanied by the garlicky yoghurt sauce, burani. The crispy-fried seekh kebabs on wooden sticks (₹7 each) arrive by the cartload, along with hot rotis. Including cold drinks, the feast comes to ₹243. Hungry families, who must have been fasting all day, keep walking in, quickly filling the place to capacity.

My tummy has found a second home.

Z ac O’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer and literary critic

Published on July 31, 2015

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