Taste exotic local flavours, and savour history with food guides and walking hosts who take you on culinary expeditions through the lanes and bylanes of a city. Many secrets to brilliant taste hide there. Lavishly peppered with anecdotes, these journeys are not to be missed.
Food is an adventure. The cartography of cuisine stretches across continents and regions, crisscrossed with the trails of cultural migrations. India’s culinary topography is now open to meandering epicures in cities, which house secrets of flavour and spice. Each eat shop and food cart, dotting narrow and crowded lanes, are pit stops for ‘Chief Food Officers’, ‘Culinary Tour Guides’, ‘Foodies’, ‘Chief Walking Officers’ or—simply put—food walk hosts, who take enthusiasts along to taste unique recipes from local kitchens and neighbourhood delicacies that do not feature in any restaurant guide; while strolling through streets well-known and obscure. They take you through corners even a native would not have felt safe exploring on his or her own. Along the way chatting and walking are included short history lessons, so that you learn as you snack.
A good taste in friends
Food does not need to be expensive to taste good, explains Sridhar Venkataraman, co-founder of the Facebook group Chennai Food Walks, which facilitates discussions and suggestions on street food dining options. “The trick is to find the right place. For example, there is a little shop called Mehta’s vada pav in Sowcarpet which has been serving some delicious vada pav, samosa and bread bajji. The owner has only these three items on his menu, but has been doing brisk business for over 15 years,” says the BITS-Pilani graduate, who has been organising the food walks in Chennai since 2013. He says that in his permabulations, he gets to meet people from all walks of life. Currently working for Teach for India, an NGO that gets graduate volunteers to teach poor students for two years, Sridhar’s food walks come at no cost, and people pay only for what they eat. “If I can identify around eight interesting places within a 2-km radius, then I start drawing up my food trail. Food walks are also a great way to strike a conversation with like-minded people and make new friends.”
Anubhav Sapra, the founder of Delhi Food Walks, believes that there is a story behind every dish and a vibrant past behind every gali. “These places, along with their secret recipes, have come down through generations,” explains the Foodie-in-Chief who conducted his first walk in 2011. He began the journey by planning walking tours with his friends and later blogging about them. In no time, foodies started pouring in. The noisy labyrinthine lanes of Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk are imbued with the history of gastronomic glory—from biryanis and kebabs of the Mughal era, popular Indian desserts such as jalebi and phirni, meat preparations such as nahari and korma to ethnic breads such as rumali roti, paranthas, and kulchas.
Delhi Food Walks
Number of Walks So Far:
Old Delhi. They do a breakfast trail and an evening trail here. Both include a visit to the vegetable, meat and spice market, relishing dishes at 10 stops and savouring a bit of history of the local eatery.
Bite of History: In the breakfast trail through Old Delhi is a food stop at Lotan ji Chhole Kulche at Chawri Bazaar, established in 1920, run by the fifth generation. This everyday dish with a twist is always an bud-opener for guests.
Learn about food, textiles, crafts, religion, philosophy, sociology, dance and music when you take a walk with Deepa Krishnan, founder of Mumbai Magic, a tour operator. Since its inception in 2002, no two tours are alike at Mumbai Magic, explains Deepa. “People either want an interesting meal at a local speciality restaurant, or a bazaar or a cooking session at someone’s home,” she elaborates. Deepa points out that each food trail is designed after much research and travel. “I conduct many of the Mumbai walks myself, not as an organisation, but as Mumbaikar who has a love for the city. On Facebook, I share my recommendations and also maintain a ‘3 Gen’ blog with notes from my mother, daughter and myself.” It is through these stories, personal, mythological and political that you begin to see the neighbourhood in the context of historical times it has lived through, she says.
In 2011, Praveena Mukunthan, along with two Singaporean architects, stood beside a street cart located in the bylanes of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, imbibing paruthi pal (a warm drink made from milk extracted from cottonseed and mixed with herbs such as dried ginger and galangal).
The Singaporeans were the first customers of Foodies Day Out—a gastronomic organisation founded by four professionals to bring to the world the stories and flavours of Madurai. “Technically speaking, back then and even today, there are limited avenues for entertainment in Madurai, besides going out to eat. The town offers a wide variety of kari thosais, stuffed parottas, vellayappams and jigarthandas,” she says. The walking tours and car tours are a part of the services the team offers. Praveena points out that vegan tours have been added recently.
The past at present
This is the story of a group of food missionaries who quit their jobs to explore the tastes of Mysore, share its glory and show outsiders the flavours of the past. “We have the best Mysore Masala Dosa in the world,” claims Vinay Parameswarappa, the founder of Royal Mysore Walks. Doing five tours a day—on foot, by cycle, and by jeep—since 2009, the team says each trip is a culmination of history, culture, food, spiced with personal anecdotes.
“The bridge between the city and food is the market; so that’s a great place to explore.” The micro-cooking experience in Madikeri, Coorg—where guests get to shop, cook and dine with a local family in a colonial bungalow setting—is a favourite among guests. Cooking the popular local delicacy, ‘Pandi Curry’ in Coorg, or learning to fold a momo in Bylakuppe—which is India’s oldest Tibetean settlement —are kitchen fantasies for the curious.
Bite of History
The Mysore Pak was first made in the Mysore Palace by the royal chef Kakasura Madappa. Today, his great grandsons, Kumar, Nataraj and Sadananda, run the shop Guru Sweets in Mysore, where they make the signature milk cake according to the secret family recipe.
During the month of Ramzan, architect Mansoor Ali, founder of the food group ‘Bengaluru by Foot’ is an explorer on steroids. From Johnson Market, to Frazer Town and finally Russel Market, Mansoor and his team take groups of people to taste the unlimited traditional delicacies made during this month. “Specials such as harira, khichda, biryani, khubani ka meetha, shawarma are served during the season. We have vegetarian walks too,” explains Mansoor who started in 2010.
The first food walk he organised was a ‘Ramzan Walk’ in Frazer Town. More than 18 people turned up. “These walks are not just about food. They are an opportunity to explore the known and the not-so-well-known,” he says. As thumb rule he tells all his guests to come with an open mind, and a really big appetite.
Bite of History:
In the ‘Spare Parts Walk’ in Shivajinagar, people get to taste goats’ brain, kidney, liver, heart, bone marrow, etc. It’s only for hard-core non-vegetarians. On our ‘Biryani Walk’ at the Wrestling Akhada, guests are always surprised to have Dakhni style biryani at an 80-year-old wrestling ring.
Why is a place referred to as ‘legendary’, asks Poorna Banerjee, a food blogger and food walk host. “It’s because of the consistency in the quality of food that they serve,” she answers herself. “For example, there is a man who makes excellent jhal muri (spicy, tossed puffed rice) near Phoolbagan and has maintained the quality for over 15 years,” she points out. Her taste trails across Kolkata have been designed to take people to places, cuisines and communities they never knew existed. “Discussing the history of every stop that we make, forms a key part,” explains the culinary expert who conducted her first food walk in 2013 at New Market. She asserts that food is a personal choice and what one person classifies as ‘excellent’ may not be the same for another.
Food trails are not just about food, explains Jonty Rajagopalan, founder of Detours, a Hyderabad-based travel company launched in 2008. Returning from her annual 12-day food trail which covered Lucknow, Puri-Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, and Calicut, Jonty believes that the environment, the noise, the interaction with vendors and the story behind every dish are experiences that are not available in fine dining restaurants.
Her trips are focused. “Our food trails are categorised into ‘The Biryani Trail’, ‘The Andhra Spice Detour’, ‘The Hyderabadi Vegetarian Detour’, ‘The Indian Vegetarian Detour’ and ‘The Old City Tour’,” she points out. The hungry guests, mostly expatriates, are often surprised by the multiple aspects of Hyderabadi cuisine, like the extensive use of tamarind and other sour elements like gongura and dosakaya in the cooking.
The Gujarati Cuisine Tour begins at Bhaji Gali, the main vegetable market in Mumbai, which has over 300 vegetable and fruit vendors, each vying for attention. For Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, corporate food consultant, food writer, food stylist, author and founder of A Perfect Bite Consulting, which organises food trails in Mumbai, this is a special stroll. “On this trail, we walk into an atta chakki (flour mill), a bartanwallah’s (utensil seller) shop and examine the typical utensils in a Gujarati kitchen,” explains the author of A Pinch of This, A Handful of That, which won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2014. Rushina began with the Gujarati Food Trail in 2009, and since then has created the ‘Tadka Workshops’, ‘Masala Trails’ and ‘Indian Home Cooking’ trails. She has been inspiring food-lovers to explore and expand their worldview of food through various initiatives, one bite at a time.