Often, when travelling to far off places, one forgets a very important place – one's own home town. It’s a classic case of taking something for granted. Kanpur is that place for me. I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life there. Once I went to college I figured there was no turning back, but I always kept finding my way back home.
Kanpur is neither very touristy nor beautifully restored or preserved as a historical landmark, even though it is quite ancient with archeological sites dating back to the early civilisation times. People visit Kanpur either to see their relatives or for business, since Kanpur is an industrial town and known as the Manchester of the East. One thing that does stand out about my home town in Uttar Pradesh, is its unparalleled cuisine.
The food of this city is a lifestyle on its own, it has its own place in society and every speciality has its own spot where it can be savoured. The one area where you can get the majority is the crowded historic street called Birhana Road. From dawn food starts getting prepared here and the first thing that one can enjoy after a few rounds of brisk walk in the nearby university lawns is a cold glass of freshly made spiced buttermilk with a slice of bread slathered with a thick layer of butter.
There is something utterly comforting about the cloudy white fluffiness of freshly churned butter that satisfies the cravings of an empty stomach in the morning. Other breakfast options available for Kanpuriyas and tourists alike are hot jalebis served with cold curd and spicy kachoris that are stuffed with crunchy dal with a side of potato curry.
Seeing halwais churning out these fried sinful delights is an early morning sight that is very typical of Kanpur. The whole city is fragrant with the aroma of sugar, spice and everything nice, and as the day progresses plump samosas make their appearance. The city, which has sweetshops in every street corner, must churn out more than a hundred thousand samosas daily. The locals eat their samosas by sandwiching a freshly fried one between two slices of bread and squishing it till the potatoes inside the crunchy brown dough start peeking out.
There is nothing better than a tall glass of sweet lassi to wash down the meal. Mango lassi as a drink has become popular all over the country, but in Kanpur, this sweet and sour yogurt drink is preferred plain or rose flavoured with a layer of fresh cream on top, and since no meal is complete without dessert, Kanpur boasts of many local sweets that have become popular worldwide. First there is the fluffy ‘Makhan Malai’, whose name literally translates to ‘butter cream’ but is essentially like an aerated soufflé flavoured with saffron and pistachio. It is sold in clay pots and is best eaten fresh and cold as soon as it is bought.
There is a store called ‘Thaggu ke Laddu’ which gained popularity outside the city because the movie Bunty aur Babli was shot there. The sweet shop's original dry fruit laddu is the crown jewel in its menu. Thaggu is given stiff competition by another store Benarsi, whose speciality is the quintessentially orange motichoor laddus.
Come evening, Arya Nagar becomes active with people gorging on chaat, bhelpuri, chowmein, kebabs and biryani. Locally also known as Khao Galli or Eat Street, Arya Nagar is nothing but a string of eateries that have been there for decades serving generation after generation of Kanpuriyas. Though it is debatable, I personally don’t like the chaat of any other town but Kanpur, and no other outlet but the one known as ‘The Chaat’.
Kanpur is like any other metro with malls and high-end restaurants, but it is the street food that defines the essence of this town. The mind of my home town might be industrial but its soul is its friendly people and delicious food.