The battle of pinds
Whether made in Amritsari, Rawalpindi or Bambaiya style, the chole that came to Mumbai with refugees of the Partition, remains a staple snack of choice. And for some, it makes for the perfect Sunday brunch
Every Sunday at 10 am, a shrill cycle bell rings. Amid the vegetable and fruit vendor carts outside my home stands Sharma uncle with a dabba full of chole and kulcha (masaledaar paratha), luring groggy residents to come down and take a portion of his freshly made snack. "Chaalis saal se bana raha hoon," he says, his smile hidden behind a bushy white beard. He fills the silver pudi (disposable dish) with dark brown, geele chole, tops it with a spoon of green chutney, tamarind chutney and pickled carrots, handing it to me with two kulcha breads. This is when the kitchen gets the day off because I am going to tuck into a delicious street-style Ravivaar brunch. Sharma uncle's homestyle Amritsari version is my favourite. The chickpeas are cooked in soda, giving them a mashed-up texture.
In Delhi, chole, a spicy mixture of chickpeas and potato, is served with either kulcha or bhatura (large, fried puris). It's the highest selling dish at Haldiram's outlets across the capital. And it has street spin-offs too. At almost every corner stands a chole vendor with a circular copper vessel inclined on a stand, doling out affordable breakfast and lunch to patrons.
Nand Di Hatti in Sadar Bazaar of old Delhi sells a chole that's cooked in desi ghee
Paresh Gupta, a food blogger whose Instagram handle @Khaata_Rahe_Mera_Dil is the home of mouth-watering delights, rattles off a list of the best places in Delhi to try chole, including the dry Pindi version at Kwality's to the much-hyped Sitaram Diwan Chand plate in Pahargunj. But he promises that the best one you'll taste is at Nand Di Hatti in Sadar Bazaar of old Delhi. We ask if he will take us there. "Humein toh bas bahana chahiye [we only need an excuse to head there]."
We meet outside Gate 5 of Chandni Chowk Metro station and amble towards Sadar Bazaar. Google maps cannot keep up with the snaking lanes packed with autos, cycle rickshaws and handcarts. It reroutes a couple of time before I realise it is better to ask for directions. Sadar Bazaar is Delhi's popular wholesale market, and Nand Di Hatti, they tell us, is located right after Khari Baoli, Asia's largest spice market. Between sneezes, we try following the aroma of roasting masalas and spot a small crowd concentrating on their plates.
Blogger Paresh Gupta swears by Nand di Hatti's chole puri. Pics/Nishad Alam
Nand Di Hatti is an 80-year-old shop started by Nandlalji. Today, two outlets stand in place of one run by two brothers who have split Nand Di Hatti and Nand Bhature Wale Di Hatti. We get a plate from the first. It comes with a bhatura stuffed with paneer, and since it is still chilly, the pickle is made of awla. Ankur Makkar, the fourth generation owner, says, "Sab desi ghee mein banta hai [It's all cooked in ghee]. Our specialty is the aloo in the chole." The potato and chole have absorbed the masalas to become a ghee-laden flavour bomb. He points to the pickled green chilli we are ignoring on the plate. "Teekha nahin hai. Try karo." It has a punch of mustard oil.
At Nagpal Chole Bhature in Lajpat Nagar, the chole is a cross between Amritsari and Pindi, with a thick gravy but a milder play on the masala
At Nagpal Chole Bhature in Lajpat Nagar, a vendor sits by the stove, frying crispy bedmi puri with an inner lining of paneer. The stall that has been around for 25 years opens every day by 7.30 am and runs out of supplies by 3 pm. Here, the chole is a cross between Amritsari and Pindi, with a thick gravy but a milder play on the masalas compared to NDH's saltier, rustic one. Our visit to Gianis which came highly recommended by residents of the capital, is a flop, but Kwality's chole at Connaught Place gets our vote.
In Mumbai, we've devoured the chole and larger-than-life bhatura at Marine Drive's Cream Centre, which over the years has lost its charm, say regulars, despite an interiors revamp. At Taftoon, we've tried it as chef Milan Gupte's appetiser, chotey choley kulche.
On my last visit to Mumbai, I had requested Gogi Singh of Dadar's iconic Pritam da Dhaba to accompany me on a trip to Sion Koliwada, the 73-year-old camp that housed refugees of the Partition. "Here, in the olden days, there used to be community tandoors for families, who lived in 80 to 100 square feet homes, to come outside and cook their rotis and kulchas together. They don't exist anymore," says Singh, sharing that Punjabi food was alien to Mumbai until the refugees made the city their home, cooking indigenous dishes, which everyone came to love.
Manjeet Chole Puri Wala at Sion Koliwada offers basic seating in an enclosure. A team of cooks are clapping dough between their palms, pasting the kulchas along the walls of the tandoor. Soon, these will emerge, roasted and steaming. Others are being slipped into hot oil in a kadhai to make bhaturas. Owner Surendra SinghNagpal mans the counter, filling plates with Amritsari chole, before passing them on to a helper who drops in a pile of onions and pickle.
Just like any Indian dish that changes from region to region, home to home, so does the chole. "A thick and drier version without onion and garlic is how it's made in Rawalpindi. The gravy version comes from Amritsar. At the end of the day, everyone finds and eats the version they like," Nagpal says before sharing an insider's nugget. While lazy cooks acquire the deep brown by adding tea wrapped in mulmul pouches into the gravy, the real deal is achieved with dried awla. "Many restaurants don't use it because it is costly," he adds, recommending we try a plate at Ghasita Ram at Lamington Road. "They serve it with a sweet chutney and peethiwali puri made of urad dal." Nagpal's father Manjeet Singh started the shop in 1964 after moving to Mumbai from Amritsar. He urges us to try a bowl of their chane ka soup, made from the same white chickpeas, but with an addition of 22 freshly ground masalas. The dark, murky broth is light, has the punch of spices and is a great nutritional drink.
Santacruz casual dining eatery Tamak is headed by Vikram Arora, a Dilliwala, who says that Mumbai prefers the chole runny. Often, the Amritsari version is made here without onion and tomato, in mustard oil, and with added soda to soften the chickpeas. The Pindi style is more layered. The chickpeas are not mushy, have a clean bite and are mixed with ground masala, onions and tomatoes. Oil in which garlic is burnt, is strained and poured over the mixture before it is cooked on dum. The water from the boiled peas is added gradually to the final mix to keep the chole wet. At Tamak, Arora says, "We add coarsely ground pepper to give our version a spice kick. Awla is used to give it a dark colour and ensure the skin of the chickpeas doesn't peel off. The khatta chutney is made with tamarind, and we serve the dish with crispy kulcha and a generous helping of ghee."
I get a taste of Mumbai's version in a plate of samosa chole at a chaat stall in Andheri's Lokhandwala market. The watery version comes with a tomato-onion gravy, and the loud presence of garam masala. Paired with the crispy samosa, it is delicious in a Bambaiya kind of way.
To each his own.
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