When Riyaaz Amlani, the giant impresario who started Mocha, Salt Water and the Social chains, to name just a few of his brands, invited me over to his Flea Bazaar Café to taste some great food from the Malwa region of India, my first reaction was, “Oh no, not more Rajasthani food”. I had no idea that the Malwa region is not in Rajasthan, but in Madhya Pradesh.
So before I start giving you a lesson in cuisine, let me try a lesson in geography. Malwa is a region in western Madhya Pradesh. Culturally, Rajasthan has influenced Malwa, as have Gujarat and the Marathas, who ruled these parts for a while (especially Indore and Maheshwar).
I haven’t really travelled much in Madhya Pradesh, outside of Indore and Bhopal. Indore of course is renowned for its street food, but the cuisine of Bhopal stupefied me. Often called a meat-lover’s paradise, Bhopali cuisine draws brilliance and breath from Muslim Nawabi as well as Hindu eating and cooking traditions. You can find there an inexhaustible range of kababs and pulaos, varieties of kheema preparations, including a classic kheema pulao, Bhopali seekh kababs, pasinde kababs and what they call bun kababs.
Unlike most of the north, the cuisine uniquely prizes and employs the flavours of star anise, in addition to the usual turmeric, chillies and saffron.
So here I was at Flea Bazaar, ready to partake of Riyaaz’s Malwa feast, an unlikely place to sample such acknowledged, traditional and unexplored food. Please don’t get me wrong. Flea Bazaar Café excites me no end, especially at lunchtime. From the first time I found myself there, the sunlight streaming through the windows, the energy and youthfulness of the space, and the diverse variety of foods cooking away behind graphically designed food stalls have stimulated my mind where it matters.
The small, rounded goli kababs were gently spiced and packed with flavour. I must have demolished at least 30. You can pop two or three in your mouth at a time!
From Kerala kadala curry to quesadillas, from tunday kababs to tandoori chicken, dim sum to appams, the food has been carefully and tastefully curated and is, for the most part, excellent for an upscale food court.
This time around, a portion of the otherwise casual space had been blocked off and shimmering thalis had been formally laid out, each holding at least half a dozen katoris, in a sort of pangat or row like a guru ka langar, albeit on tables and not on the floor.
One centrally positioned food stall had been converted into The Cameo Kitchen, a pop-up devoted to showcasing hidden gems of cuisine and giving homegrown chefs a space from which to serve authentic meals from their hometowns.
This pop-up was called Charoli and was helmed by Anuradha Joshi Medhora, who was serving royal Malwa cuisine. There are 32 royal houses in the Malwa region and Anuradha has spent years exploring the foods of their kitchens. Brought up in small-town Madhya Pradesh, and born in a household with associations to illustrious families of this region, Anuradha’s influences are from the royal feasts of Indore and beyond.
This feast began with kababs, kababs of all kinds and sizes. Starting with small rounded goli kababs. I must have demolished at least 30 of those gently spiced balls. You can pop two or three in your mouth at a time!
Then came shikampuri kababs. Both the chukander ke shikampuri (made with beetroot) and the meaty shikampuri were soft like the tunday, but gentle and fragrant. More vegetarian kababs made of shalgam (turnip), paneer and corn arrived. The starter trail ended with succulent shammi kababs and murg ka soola or grilled chicken kababs.
While waiting for the main course, I was thinking to myself, we are so used to eating meat cooked either a Mughlai way or a south Indian way. This was a different flavour palette entirely. The curries were thinner, lighter, more home-style, and milder yet richer.
The main course then flowed over and filled our brass plates and katoris. Bhutta palak rogani, mawa matar, baingan ki launj, safed daal with boondi aur anar ka raita, lal mirch namak ki tukdi, and murge ki kadhi were served with rice and malai ka paratha.
But the chef-d’oeuvre was the dessert: maas ka halwa, which is halwa made with meat. For a gosht ka halwa, meat is boiled in milk three times so that the smell of it disappears. The meat is then minced with saffron. This is then slow-cooked in sugar, milk, ghee and mawa.
The Malwa-style maas ka kalwa was exquisite and, for me, was the crowning glory of the meal. What a sweet way to take a break on our discovery of India.