Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people get together to eat. ∼ Guy Fieri
Yes, there is Taj Mahal in Agra. Then there is the Chaat Gali. Unlike our Lucknow halt, we did full justice to Agra’s historical and heritage stalwarts (which deserve a separate post altogether) before we hit the city’s culinary map. One question that has been playing in my mind though – considering that Agra was the Mughal capital for a long period of time (1556 to 1648), why doesn’t it feature as an important centre for Mughlai cuisine as does Lucknow or Delhi? While Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, a Persian manuscript that records dishes believed to have been prepared at the court of Emperor Shahjahan (1627-1658), mentions ten separate chapters on various aspects of Mughal cuisine starting from naans, qaliyas, dopiazas, pulaos, kababs and many more, the city doesn’t feature anywhere although many of the famous Mughlai dishes have their origin here. For example, the vegetarian dish Navratan Korma, which was inspired by the Navratnas, the talented nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court. Falooda was introduced by Noor Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jehangir. Also, the famous dish Chicken Mumtazi, named after Mumtaz, the wife of Shahjahan – the muse for Taj Mahal, owes its origin to the city. In the recent years however, Agra has digressed from the Mughlai food scene in India’s culinary map and has evolved more as a city offering one of the best street food, snacks and sweets in India, particularly the petha.
Eating in Agra
Chaat Gali in Sadar Bazaar
Can you imagine an alley dedicated only to street food like chaats, gol gappas, aloo tikki etc? That’s exactly what Chaat Gali is. Also known as khao gali – khao meaning ‘to eat’ and gali meaning ‘alley’, the Chaat Gali is located off the famous Sadar Bazaar. The latter being a popular shopping destination for tourists to buy leather products, handicrafts, garments and other specialities of Agra. Although some of the food shops are open since the morning, come nigh time and the area transforms itself into a live wire. Chaat Gali is thronged by both locals and tourists who juggle for space as they eat off food shops, street vendors and kiosks lining along the narrow alley. From gol gappas, chaats, tandoori chicken, rabri, kulfi to Indianised Chinese and Italian, you will get almost everything in Chaat Gali. Our tuktuk driver Gaffar Ali (more on his Heritage tuktuks later) suggested that amongst others, we should try the Turban Master Chef for his … well, pasta! And so we did.
Our first halt was at Turban Master Chef Street Food. Mr Jassi, popularly known as the turban chef, had been a contestant on Masterchef India and currently owned a few eateries in Chaat Gali. He served a variety of pastas, pizzas, breads, tikkas, momos etc, however, his soybean offerings were really sought after. From soya chaap in gravy, soya keema chaap and soya kadai chaap, each dish has to be accompanied by rumali rotis. The Z-Sisters wanted pasta (but, of course!) and Mr Jassi suggested his bestseller – the mixed pasta. We watched him prepare the pasta as he mixed two types of the sauces – red and white, each already prepared beforehand and squeezed out of ketchup type of plastic bottles. He added chopped green chillies, fresh coriander and a handful of other indigenous ingredients before pouring in a generous amount of cream at the end. The taste was phenomenal, unlike any other pasta that we had tried before. Don’t try to challenge the authenticity of taste in this pasta. One thing I can assure is that the spunky flavour of this roadside Indian pasta will remain in your memories forever.
After a mini recce of the Chaat Gali, our next halt was at a panipuri or gol gappa kiosk with its parent shop, JMD Juice and Shake located just behind. It promised to serve an exciting array of 6 variety of flavoured panipuri waters. We noticed one or two other kiosks of panipuri nearby, which also served several flavoured waters. Interestingly, the flavours offered by each kiosk was different from the other. In fact, the most popular chaat centre in this area – Panditji Chat Bhandar had only panipuris with regular water. My family and friends know that I am obsessed with panipuris – or phuchka as we call them in Kolkata. For me, the best ones are available at Dilipda’s stall in Vivekananda Park, which promises to serve the ‘world famous in Kolkata’ phuchkas. Occasionally, we also try different variations at home. Needless to say, I tried all the flavours at JMD Juice and Shake – regular, pudina/mint, kala khatta, hing jeera/asafoetida-cumin, garlic and lemon. Although I can’t visualise any spicy and flavoured water mixed with panipuri masala going much wrong, if I had to choose one winner from all my tastings that evening, it will be the sweet and tangy kala khatta flavoured water, the flavour being the syrup that’s poured over golas or crushed ice sold at roadside vendors.
Turban Master Chef: +91 9557025325 (one plate of mixed pasta cost us Rs 150/-)
JMD Juice And Shake: +91 9319991010 (A plate containing 6 gol gappas cost us Rs 60/-)
Panditji Chaat Bhandar: +91 88811 21924
Shri Ram Faluda Centre: +91 9759914410
The Mughal Darbar
How can you come to an erstwhile Mughal capital of India and not taste its Mughlai food? There are a lot of Mughlai restaurants around Jama Masjid area and we were keen to try out an old restaurant, but Gaffar, our tuktuk man, suggested The Mughal Darbar in Tajganj. My initial reaction to this modern stand-alone restaurant was, ‘seriously… this one that’s a multi-cuisine restaurant?’ I have something against multi-cuisine restaurants, not the roadside small ones that profess to serve multi-cuisine food but the medium to big sized ones with all-day dining options using the same disclaimer. Please don’t ask me why! However, once seated inside, the warmth of the staff calmed me down. Specially Suraj, the waiter who took our orders and served us like only a mom will do. When he heard that we were headed to Lucknow and intended to taste the biryani and kababs there, he gently prodded, ‘Try the biryani in Agra too. It is different, very specific to Agra and I’m most certain that you will like it’. There wasn’t any scope for starters as we had quite a fill in Chaat Gali before arriving here. We ordered straight off the mains – few signature dishes like Gosht Biryani, Mutton Shahi Korma, Murgh Kadhai Wala and some naans. Two creamy lassis preceded the main course. The biryani was not the kind of biryani that we were used to, that is, the Awadhi style of biryani. Instead, it was more like a fragrant pilaf or pulao. The rice grains were super fine, extra long and appeared in two shades of colour – a subtle saffron infused yellow and bright orange, the result of edible food colour as I was told later. For some, this would probably be the Navratan biryani – sweeter and having a rich garnishing of cashews and raisins, and cooked in yakhni or creamy stock and meat. Just like the taste of the Lucknowi biryani from Idrees still lingers on, the Agra Biryani has a similar hangover effect. I remember having a conversation with the Bearded Biker later at the hotel that night and both of us exclaimed, ‘the rice grains of that biryani were something else’! We are back in Dubai almost three weeks now, and I had to get in touch with the restaurant. So, how is the Agra Biryani different from its Lucknowi counterpart? Mr Saifullah Khan, the owner of the restaurant, was extremely patient and happy to answer all my questions over my international call. ‘The Agra Biryani is more like a pulao and we cook the meat separately with spices,’ he said. It was a pakki biryani where both the meat and rice is cooked separately then arranged in successive layers and steamed, vis a vis a kaachhi biryani where both the raw meat and rice is cooked together. Mr Saifullah added further, that he was in this business for a long time and this is all they did. While The Mughal Durbar was just six months old, he owned another restaurant, The Silk Route, which was 27 years old. He handed me over to his chef, Mr Sunil Gurung who shared the elaborate method of preparation of the pulao, the kind of rice that is used and other finer details Hopefully I will be able to share the recipe with you all soon!
It cost us Rs 2500 for four persons (two gosht biryanis at Rs 450/plate, one mutton shahi korma at Rs 600/plate and one full portion murgh kadhai at Rs 500/plate, two naans, two sweet lassis at Rs 100/glass and a fresh lime soda at Rs 100/glass)
The Mughal Darbar
Phone: +91 9719002219
Address: 18/160A Purani Mandi, Opp. Kailash Movies, Tajganj
Open 8am – 11pm daily
18-A/7-B, Fatehabad Rd, Bagichi, Tajganj
Panchhi Petha has become a trademark in Agra and you will find there are petha stores with the name Panchhi everywhere. A closer look will reveal something like ‘new’ or ‘real’ Panchhi Petha etc before the wordings Panchhi Petha. What is a petha? Petha is a translucent soft candy made from ash gourd, also known as winter melon or white pumpkin, or simply petha in Hindi. Although petha is said to have originated in the kitchens of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it’s now reached the hearts and streets of Agra! In fact, pethas have a Geographical Indication (GI) label certifying their origin to Agra. Gaffar took us to the original store at Hariparwat crossing where we bought a few boxes of petha and dalmoths, the savoury snack, for gifting. Established in 1950 by the Late Shri Pancham Lal Goyal Ji, whose nickname was Panchhi, the pethas he made soon became a household name. Even today, the pethas at Panchhi Petha are made by highly skilled artisans or karigars under stringent quality control measures. According to Panchhi, “ash gourd is peeled and the seeds removed. It is then boiled in a sugar syrup, called chaashni, to create the translucent, almost clear sweet. Petha is usually flavoured with rose water. The water is then either drained, leaving a dry dish, or it is served or sold with some of the rose-flavored syrup that it has been prepared in. In the dry form, it can be packaged and has a fairly long shelf life, though it can also be canned with the syrup and sold around the world.” We tried the dry pethas, the original form of petha. They were sugar free that have been sweetened with honey. A variety of flavours were available at the store, for example, kesar petha, angoori petha, chocolate petha, pan petha, gulab petha, khus petha and more. Interestingly, pethas aren’t sold openly at the store but come packed in boxes due to governmental regulations on quality and hygiene and truly unlike other sweet shops, we actually didn’t find any flies hovering around the sweets inside the counters.
Mahatma Gandhi Rd, near Siddhivinayak Hospital, Hariparwat crossing
Open 10 am – 9:00 pm daily
Madhu Ice cream
You don’t want to miss out on this home grown icecream brand that has its origin in the city. You will find kiosks and colourful cycle-carts everywhere selling Agra’s famous Madhu Ice-Cream. Lil Z chose a regular chocolate flavour and when I tasted a spoonful, it was rich and creamy, much like the texture of rabdi. The magic of buffalo milk perhaps? We sat in a park bench by a busy road in Sadar Bazar, with no mood at all to capture any evidence! Set up in 1956 with only five available flavours, today it has more than 100 flavours, but no fresh fruit variety except the mango when in season. As this writeup in Upper Crust writes more … The Kapurs are originally a vegetarian Punjabi family of printers from Lahore. Arvind and his brother Madhukar are the fifth generation. Their father Harkishan Kapur introduced the family to the ice-cream business in 1956. Arvind tells the story: “We were vegetarians and all the ice-cream sold in Agra then contained eggs and gelatin. So Dad decided that we should make our own 100 per cent vegetarian ice-cream at home for the family and if there was any spillover, we would sell that. The initial investment was Rs. 30,000. Today, Madhu Ice-Cream is a Rs. 3 crore business. We supply ice-cream all over Agra and the periphery. Madhu Ice-Cream is available at all the big hotels in Agra, it is also sold in parlours here and in Jhansi, Aligarh, Gwalior, Ferozebad…”
Staying in Agra
Grand Imperial Heritage Hotel
My only reason for booking into this hotel is because I am very nostalgic and emotional about heritage buildings since my childhood was shaped by a heritage house in Kolkata. Grand Imperial Heritage Hotel is probably the only heritage hotel in Agra and had a colonial past that dated back to more than a century. The hotel boasted of a legacy of hosting luminaries such as Crown Prince of England, Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Vice Regal of India), Shah of Iran, Prince Aga Khan, Dr. Rajendra Prasad (President of India), Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister of India), Jai Prakash Narayan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (founder and President of Pakistan) and many others. The arched corridors echoed the grandeur of a bygone era which was reinforced by high ceilings, thick walls made with Lahori biscuit bricks, intricate floral work on handmade floor tiles, beautifully adorned suites with four poster beds, antique furniture and prints of the late Raja Ravi Verma‘s paintings hung as tapestry or used in the upholstery. We booked into the Chamber of Princes, two spacious suites on the ground floor. While on one side they opened up onto a veranda overlooking a well manicured lawn of the hotel, its powder room cum anteroom opened onto the swimming pool and a backyard. Our stay here was very serene – we would relax on the rattan easy chairs in the veranda or snuggle into the traditional wood-crafted jhoola or swing in the evenings. Each of the Chamber of Princes suite was named after great kings and queens of India and one could almost feel the old world charm. We were living in suites named after the great kings Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya! With only 15 suites on the ground floor and 15 garden facing deluxe rooms on the first floor, the property had an intimate feel. Again, chandeliers, period furniture and chequered tiles, Raja Ravi Varma prints lent an atmosphere in the all day dining restaurant Shahenshah that was elegant, rather than overwhelming. During the evenings the entire mood changed with a live performance of Indian classical music. My suggestion here would be to dine a la carte rather than opt for the standard buffets which although offered a lot of variety of dishes – both continental and Indian, lacked the Mughlai specialities. The breakfast buffet was elaborate but the dish that will remain in my memory though, is the famous bedhai, also known as bedmi puri served with aloo sabzi, a gravy cooked with chunky potatoes. Bedhai is much like a kachori and made with a filling of urad dal. As the Dubai based recipe blogger Anjana explains in her blog, “In Banaras, Agra and Delhi you can find bedmi pooris which are made by mixing the lentil paste and spices with the flour and then it is rolled like pooris and deep fried.” While it’s a popular breakfast dish all over Agra and there are sweet shops like Deviram who are famous for its bedmi puris, the best ones are probably served by the kiosks by the roadside in each muhalla or locality. Traditionally accompanied by crispy jalebis, bedmi puris are a must have in Agra!
We booked through Booking.com and it cost us around Rs 15,600/night for each of the Chamber of Princes suite, inclusive of breakfast and misc taxes. We also spend an additional Rs 9,000/- towards F&B – buffet for three persons and an a la carte order on one instance and a bit of room service on another occasion. We reached Agra from Jaipur by road and the national highways were pretty impressive. Only registered tourist cars can take tourists and charges are roughly Rs 13/km, sometimes inclusive of toll charges.
Grand Imperial Heritage Hotel
Phone: +91 562 400 2781
2 / 107-A opposite DM Bungalow, Mahatma Gandhi Rd, Chhipitola, Rakabganj, Agra
Moving around in Agra
Heritage Tuk Tuk Agra
Agra is famous for its traffic, much like any other Indian city! The hotel staff suggested that we take tuktuks from a company called Heritage Tuk Tuk. From visiting the Taj Mahal at the crack of dawn until dropping us back to the hotel after our dinner at The Mughal Darar, with Agra fort and a shopping spree in Sadar Bazaar in between, these tuktuks became our very own national carriers. Gaffar Ali, the affable boss man, drove us around in his impeccably kept tuktuk. We flipped though newspapers or magazines stacked inside alongside some postcards of Agra. The postcards with various landmarks of the city acted as a reminder of the city’s grand legacy and also to pique a tourist’s curiosity in them. He arranged for an additional tuktuk as we were four of us, two tourists to one tuktuk. By his own admission, he seemed to be the Indian Johnny Vegas with a somewhat resemblance to the English actor and comedian. Like Vegas, Gaffar was full of humour and wit. He was our ‘googleman’ in Agra – he had answers (and opinions, mind you) for everything – what to eat, where to eat, what to shop, where to shop and so on. Two of Gaffar’s tuktuks were practically at our disposal the whole day and even the guide we hired for our sightseeing was on his referral. To cut short, do seek Gaffar’s tuktuks when in Agra and rest assured, you will be riding high through the city’s short cuts!
It cost us Rs 200/tuktuk for each of the roundtrips we made – one from the hotel to Taj Mahal, then an afternoon trip to Agra Fort and Sadar Bazar; and finally a trip to Chaat Gali and The Mughal Darbar and back. The distance of all these places from our hotel ranged within 3kms-5kms.
Heritage Tuk Tuk
Phone: +91 9720930252
I vividly remember my first visit to Agra more than twenty-five years back. The first sight of Taj Mahal was surreal even at that time as it was this time too. The tranquility and the subtle rose scented corridors of Grand Imperial Heritage hotel, the warmth of Gaffar, the excitement of Chaat Gali, the fragrance of the Gosht Biryani at The Mughal Darbar, the loud cacophony of the city suddenly vanishing just as we stepped into the Taj premise, as if by a stroke of serendipity … I will remember every little detail from this trip. I’ve also set my intention to come back again to catch up on what we missed out on this visit… bedmi puris at Deviram, parathas at RambabuParathe Wale, jalebis at Shree Ji Sweets, chaats at Chaat Gali and most importantly, seeing the Taj Mahal on a clear full moon night!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Note: We planned our Agra trip such that we could visit Taj Mahal on a full moon night. The tickets for this special viewing is limited to 400 people and are available 24 hours one day before the night viewing of the Taj Mahal. Tourists are advised to contact their travel agent/hotel/tourist offices/Archaeological Survey of India. Inspite of contacting the hotel team at Grand Imperial Heritage Hotel since a long time, they couldn’t organise our tickets. Although the weather stood by us and proved to be cloudy that night, and as a result we slept off early and were ready for a spectacular viewing of the Taj Mahal at sunrise the following morning, this was a bit of a dampener in our otherwise genuinely memorable stay at the hotel.
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Try these recipes from my blog: Ananta in Oberoi Dubai | For The Love Of Galouti Kababs, Here’s The Royal Recipe Kolkata Biryani | Cooking The Royal Dish In Lafayette Gourmet Other reads: Mughlai cuisine in India A Brief History of Mughlai Food in Agra, India Mughlai Cuisine | Wiki Food Safari: in search of Agra Petha Mr. Nice Is A Scream!