Thomas Zacharias is a lucky man. He cooks for a living, so holidays centered around food easily pass off as research trips. “I set off with a list of must-try dishes and restaurants recommended by my friends and social media followers. I tally the suggestions to figure out the best ones, and I cover at least five per day. There’s a lot of eating involved, but hey, someone’s got to do it,” he grins.
While his most recent trip to Indore – sparked off by the discovery of bhutte ka kees, a dish that one of his restaurant’s regulars brought back from his trip and “blew me away” — to check out the street food and chaats was mildly disappointing, Zacharias has had some intensely satisfying experiences as well. He counts Kolkata, Jaipur, Goa, Lucknow and “someplace in Kerala” (his home state) as his favourite destinations. He’s also waiting to revisit the North East, explore Andhra cuisine in Hyderabad and eat in Kolhapur.
Most of the great food he’s eaten on his trips has been in people’s homes, but for those who want to sample his recommendations, Zacharias names the best eateries to find them at. Some have inspired him so much that he has added variations of them to his ever-evolving menu at The Bombay Canteen. Check out his top ten, and where to find them.
1) Bhutte Ka Kees
Best at: Joshi Dahi Bada, Indore
Given that Indore was once ruled by the Holkars, a lot of Maharashtrians settled there. Along with Marwaris, Jains, Sindhis, Punjabis and Bohris, they have contributed to the unique street food of Indore. One unique dish — that finds favour in Maharashtrian as well as Marwari kitchens — is the bhutte ka kees .‘Kees’ is the Marathi word for grated, which aptly describes how this dish is made. “Grated corn is cooked in milk, with the addition of a tadka of mustard seeds, cumin, hing and a little bit of lime juice. It is finished with a topping of grated coconut and a special spice mix,” says Zacharias. The dish is best served hot, and makes for a filling snack. Purists would insist that you stick to the desi crop for this dish, rather than American corn.
2) Pigeon in Black Sesame Curry
Best at: Delicacy, Guwahati
The Assamese are very clever cooks. They don’t discriminate between meats, and cook quickly with the use of very few spices and limited quantities of oil. All their preparations may sound exotic, but the dishes are actually deceptively simple. You’d be surprised to learn that meats like beef and pork are more popular with tribes, but in homes, people prefer fish and meats like squab, or baby pigeon. “This rustic curry is something you would commonly find in a typical Assamese home. There are no frills in the preparation. Pigeon is cooked with onions, green chillies and black pepper. The sesame curry is a very versatile one in this state. You are likely to find variations of this dish cooked with duck, pork or whatever the catch of the day is,” explains Zacharias.
3) Mangalorean Bun
Best at: Mitra Samaj, Udupi
Udupi and Mangalorean restaurants have popped up everywhere over the past few years, but it’s unlikely that one would find these sweet, soft and fluffy buns on their menus outside of their home region. “They may look like regular fried buns, but are not really easy to make. They are airy like regular fried buns, but at the same time, they look more like poi bread. The sweetness comes from mashed bananas (preferably overripe ones),” says Zacharias, who recommends eating these buns with payasam or a savoury dish, such as a mixed vegetable korma. For locals, though, the buns are a favourite as is, and they are commonly served at breakfast as well as tea time.
4) Virar Chicken Bhujing
Best at: Agashi Bhujing center, Mumbai
“This is a dish found only in Virar. Chicken and potatoes are roasted and cooked halfway, then finished in a handi with onions, spices and a little water. The poha is thrown in at the last minute. At The Bombay Canteen, we serve it as a poha biryani. It has the same flavours and ingredients, but in different proportions,” Zacharias tells us. On the website of Agashi Bhujing Center, a back story reveals that in 1940, founder Babu Hari Gawad came up with the dish as a kitchen experiment that his friends and family loved. He opened a small joint that was expanded by his son, and over time, the dish has constantly evolved. Its unusual name comes from the Marathi word ‘bhujne’ ie roasting. The family remains protective of the recipe for the “magic masala” that makes this dish a must-try.
5) Pomfret Caldeirada
Best at: Nostalgia, Goa
“You have to try this dish at Nostalgia. It is a light Goan fish stew, adapted from the Portuguese. Pomfret is cooked with tomato, bell peppers, potatoes and vinegar,” says Zacharias. Further probing tells us that this is a loose adaptation indeed, because the Caldeirada remains a popular dish — commonly referred to as a fisherman’s stew — in Portugal, but with some differences. The Portuguese, we’ve learnt, prefer to throw in a mix of fish — balancing shellfish (squid, octopus, mussels, clams) with equal proportions of lean whitefish (cod, monkfish, hake, flounder or haddock) and oily fish (mackerel, tuna or swordfish). The Goan adaptation often uses pomfret and these days, the dish is more popular as ‘Caldeen’. During Lent, Catholics who forsake meat are known to recreate it with eggs (calling the preparation Sovrak), or just with vegetables.
6) Chicken Kothu Roti
Best at: Andavar Night Club, Tuticorin
“This one’s a Tamilian street dish served out of roadside stalls (called night clubs), made with flaky, chopped up porotta cooked on a tava with onions, green chillies, eggs and leftover chicken curry,” says Zacharias. The Kothu Roti is a versatile comfort dish that can be made with your choice of meat and vegetables. Better still, it’s the perfect way to use up leftovers from the night before. Sri Lankans — with a sizeable Tamil population — can be credited with making the dish popular worldwide, since its ease of preparation allows for effortless recreation with indigenous ingredients as well. But eating at the night clubs is an experience in itself. Watching chefs expertly toss the ingredients together and painstakingly chop them up with a blunt knife in either hand creates a unique, almost harmonious tune that synchronizes with other stalls in the same line.
7) Boti Fry
Best at: Gowdru Military Hotel, Bengaluru
“You almost never hear of offal and tripe being served in Indian cuisine, so I was happy to see this dish on the regular menu at this restaurant, and not as something different or special,” says Zacharias. Indeed, Gowdru has a reputation for being able to get the best out of animal “spare parts”. Bestsellers on the menu include head meat curry, brain fry and mutton liver masala. Operated by two brothers, the restaurant serves home-style offerings with the owners’ mother having the last word on the ingredients that go into every dish.
8) Surti Lucho
Best at: Jani Farsan, Surat
“Steamed chana is mashed till it attains a super creamy texture. It is scooped into a plate, topped with chutney and served,” is the simple description Zacharias gives us for this dish. The street food of Gujarat isn’t the most revered in comparison with the chaats of Delhi, Lucknow, Indore or even Mumbai, but this dish might prompt a rethink. A specialty of Surat, it can be had as part of any meal, even going well with your evening tea or coffee. Gujarati cuisine is primarily vegetarian, and while it has its share of heavy and too-sweet dishes, this one is light and healthy. It has barely any oil and not too many condiments, apart from being easy to whip up quickly.
9) Matar Papdi Chaat
Best at: King of Chaat, Lucknow
In bustling Lucknow, the crowded gallis of Aminabad are best known for cheap eats, but the more posh Hazratganj is home to King of Chaat, where Zacharias swears by the matar papdi chaat. “They mash dry white peas and top them with chaat masala, saunth, fresh ginger slivers and tamarind chutney,” he says. The beauty of this chaat is that it brings out the crispiness that comes from the starch of the dry white peas, better known locally as matara. It’s far from the mushy texture one would expect. While green peas are sweeter and more tender, the white variants find favour because of their starch content and the fact that they are cheaper than the green ones. If served as is — discounting the recent trend of topping it with yogurt — the matar papdi chaat is quite a nutritious offering.
10) Kaad Mangae (Wild Mango Curry)
Best at: Elephant’s Corridor, Coorg
“I tried this dish at a home stay and I’m told it’s only available in these parts. It is made with wild mangoes that are small and semi-sweet when ripe. The curry is deep red and spicy, with a little sweetness added by the mangoes,” says Zacharias. The idea of using mangoes in a savoury dish apparently emanated due to the dearth of good produce during the rainy season in Coorg. While nothing tastes like the real deal, the dish can possibly be recreated to a certain extent by using sweet mangoes with the addition of a little tamarind extract to achieve the slight sourness. Serve your curry with steamed rice, neer dosa or even rice balls. Don’t forget a side of tapioca fryums.