By Sopan Joshi
It was on the third day of my investigative journalism mission that I became proud of my bowels. Earlier, on the train to Bikaner, I had had a nightmare featuring crapulence in the midst of a bhujia cyclone. It might have had to do with the numerous digestives and antacids I had crammed into my bag; us investigative journalists must ready ourselves for occupational hazards of all kinds.
My research had indicated I was headed straight for a disturbed area. After visiting the city, the poet Ashok Vajpayee had remarked that half of Bikaner is occupied with making bhujia and the other half with eating it. So I told myself I must practise temperance.
The first trial came right after reaching Bikaner early morning, when I realised I had no change for the autorickshaw. The only shops open were nondescript kiosks selling samosa-kachauri. So I bought half a dozen of each, to get my change and for investigative sampling. I bit into my first kachauri. It was delicious, and harked back to the golden kachauri episodes of my life: Banaras, Mhow, Jodhpur… And this is what the small-time operators sell at odd hours.
Yogendra, a young painter in Bikaner, and I then went looking for the perfect kachauri. We reached BK School; Yogendra studied here, and had memories of the smell of kachauris distracting him in the classroom. He told me about his friend Manish, who wrote a short story titled ‘BK School ki Kachauri’, about always having missed eating the splendidly distracting kachauris. After scarfing down the most complex dahi vada, I had barely tucked into a kachauri when Yogendra told me the man behind the famous BK school kachauri had been muscled out of this spot by rivals.
So we headed to Jassusar Gate to meet Shivkumar Swami, a thin man sitting in a yogic posture, filling dough balls and shaping the kachauris with the attention of a sculptor. Swami moved here five years ago; for 50 years, his father and he had sold the kachauris at BK School. Now, the crowds flocked here. When I sank my teeth into a hot kachauri, the crisp of the jacket was uniform, a result of all that caressing and watchful minding of each kachauri to obtain the right colour in the hot oil.
I returned to Swami’s kachauri shop the next day with an appetite—and with Manish in tow. I wanted him to taste the kachauri that interfered with his education, to untie the knot of denial which drove him to writing. He brought along his story, and I read it over four rounds of kachauri, as Manish attained fulfilment.
It is not possible to sell food in Bikaner unless it is very, very tasty. Yet thousands of tourists visit the city and depart without realising how close they were to numerous gastrorgasms. For food is not a matter of sustenance here. It is a religious ritual, a performing art. Legend tells of people who could eat 100 laddus after dinner.
Such self-indulgence, though, is not unique to Bikaner. It’s par for the main course in the old localities of Banaras or Ujjain or Mathura. While the Banarasi Paan Bhandar is quite common, one doesn’t see too many Banarasi Mishthaan Bhandars. In most cities of North India, you are most likely within walking distance of a shop selling Bikaneri sweets and savouries, if not an actual Bikaneri Sweets or a Haldiram or a Bikanervala. The Agarwal sweet shop, common to most North Indian cities, often employs Bikaneri halwais.
In my Delhi neighbourhood, a McDonald’s restaurant relocated to a mall after a Bikanervala opened nearby. Even Pepsi’s foray in the ready-to-eat snack market took it to Bikaneri bhujia. After figuring out chhaina rasgullas from Bengal about a hundred years ago, Bikaner now exports rasgullas to Assam and West Bengal.
What is behind this Bikaneri skill with food, I asked cartoonist Sudhir Tailang, one of the few well-known non-food exports of Bikaner. He suggested visiting Gopal Joshi, MLA from Bikaner and one of its eminent citizens. The city, though, knows him more as the owner of perhaps the most celebrated of sweet shops, Chhotu Motu Joshi, more than a hundred years old and named after his father and his uncle.
Joshi treated me to his famous rasmalai and a course in history. Since few vegetables grow in the Thar desert, people mastered the art of drying and preserving vegetables and dals for use around the year. When not cooked well, dried foods can taste awful, so people developed cooking styles and seasonings to make it interesting. What nature had taken away in terms of rainfall and arable land, it provided in the form of nutritious grasses. So people figured ways of turning the grass into food by maintaining large milch cattle herds. Bikaner’s ghee is renowned, and its only rival in my book is ghee from Kachch in Gujarat, which also has rich grasslands.
To know what can be done with ghee, go to Chhotu Motu Joshi in the morning to have their special breakfast: puris fried in pure ghee, served with a side of methi dana (fenugreek seeds) prepared with pickling spice, cooked in ghee, of course, along with yoghurt. Methi dana is considered health food for the old, and usually tastes like that—mildly bitter, with the sliminess of texture to stick to the small of dental hardware. But here, the pickling spice transforms it, turning the bitter to sweet. Fried in pure ghee, the puris are soft and fluffy, with an aroma that summons gluttony. I’d already had breakfast, but I couldn’t resist two servings. I stopped before the third merely because I had to figure out rabdi.
Om Thanvi, journalist and editor in Delhi, is from Bikaner, and had mentioned the rabdi of Mohta Chowk in the old city. I met four families, all of them the third generation of the legendary Ojiya (Ojha) Maharaj, whose name holds the promise of quality rabdi. The portly figure of Manka Maharaj sat on a diwan, as his family ran the show around him. Nearby, his cousin Handa Maharaj does everything on his own, because of assorted deaths and disabilities in his family. At fifty-five, with his back strapped up, he lifts heavy vessels, cleans them and works the fires with a smile on his face, day in and day out. He produces only seven to eight kilos in a day. Why doesn’t he make more and make more money? “It compromises quality, the standard my grandfather set,” he said.
Rabdi is painfully slow to prepare. As the milk boils in the kadahi, it has to be fanned to ensure the setting of a film of malai (cream), which is then dragged to the edge with a thin stick. It takes two to three hours for one kadahi to produce about two kilograms of rabdi. Work must stop early in the afternoon, before it gets too hot. This is why Gopal Joshi’s shop does not make rabdi. When he wants it, he orders it from the Ojiya families. But if you ask the Ojiyas, they will tell you that it was Joshi’s father who introduced rabdi to Bikaner. Credit is always given generously, recipes shared, intellectual property be damned.
That’s what explains Bikaner’s food culture. The most famous shops have been producing their specialities over generations in about the same volumes, not tampering with recipes or processes much, allowing just a little window for innovation. “Contentment is key, people here can stay happy with very little, as long as there is good taste,” explained Thanvi.
If a word could sum up the spirit of a place, here’s an epithet for Bikaner: mauj. It’s the kind of city where puncture repair shops are called Yaaron ki Mauj. On signboards and shop displays, in greetings, the word crops up again and again. Most of all, it figures in the Paata Gazette, which is Bikanerese for platforms on street corners and city squares, where men congregate in the evenings to shoot the breeze, recording the city in real time, elevating gossip to a way of life.
Mauj has another meaning in Bikaner: unemployment, but in the sense of liberty, for mauj is Arabic for a wave, as also a wave of joy. To live in Bikaner is to not be careworn. Ask a person what he’s doing these days; if he says mauj, it means he’s unemployed. In particular, this is the trademark of a community, the Pushkarna, locally referred to as the P-Class. Your average Pushkarna is gregarious, the embodiment of contentment, untouched by ambition or enterprise, and dangerously gluttonous. Thanvi is a Pushkarna, as is the family of Ojiya Maharaj, as is Gopal Joshi.
The Pushkarnas had the skill and the big appetite, but never the money. Bikaner’s food culture could not have developed without rich patrons such as the Oswal Jain traders, pointed out writer Shrilal Mohta. The Oswals and Maheshwari traders were entrenched in business in Calcutta and Rangoon. While they were known to be miserly there, they were the most generous of patrons back home, building large havelis, opening their coffers for public works, holding elaborate feasts. They were patrons to the Rajpurohit community of Jangdu village of rural Bikaner, which has historically produced great chefs.
Gradually, other communities joined in, making Bikaner a melting pot of taste. Ramji’s rasgullas are highly rated; he was an Arora khatri from Punjab, setting up his shop near Dauji Road in a locality dominated by the Gosais. The Thakurs and Kumhars, too, saw pride in preparing irresistible food.
Chunnilal Tanwar Sherbetwale is a Thakur establishment, and Chunnilal’s son Vidhan serves sharbats much like his father did in a shop established in 1939. All the fragrances are natural: kewra from Orissa, khus from Rae Bareilly, rose from Hathras, bela from Kannauj. In 1981, Vidhan got a food licence to market the sharbat on a large scale. But that meant using preservatives, stabilisers and artificial flavours. That didn’t go down well with the clientèle, and he went right back to his father’s recipes. He gave me a rose sharbat and asked me to identify the reason his rose tasted different. I rolled it around my tongue and said it reminded me of rose petals. He smiled his approval and made me taste all his flavours free of cost.
Of Bikaner’s several excellent sweet shops, the one I must single out for mention is Jaisraj Shivraj in Chai Patti. His pandhari laddu is among the best sweets I’ve tasted in a long time, and yet the recipe is simple: wheat flour and besan is roasted, khoya (congealed milk) is added along with sugar and ghee. That’s it. “The trick lies in the quality of the ingredients and their timing,” explains Mukesh Tanwar, the third generation in charge.
In a city obsessed with food, digestion is a challenge. Just beyond Chai Patti were several shops selling khaata (literally, ‘piquant’), with scores of options for churans and supari. Khaata, too, is a Bikaneri speciality. I wondered why, because in my five days in Bikaner, I hadn’t heard one complaint of indigestion or acidity.
The remedy for overeating is to eat some more; some hot bhujia or 250 grams of rabdi followed by water, to clear up the system. You will also hear that the salty water of the area is an ideal digestion aid. If my guts are any evidence, don’t bother packing the antacids when you head to Bikaner. Just travel with an appetite.