“Yeh dekhiye,” said Mr. Joshi, holding a plate of dahi vada in his hand. The crowd surrounding his stall in the heart of Indore’s Sarafa Market shuffled to attention. When he was sure that all eyes were pinned on him, he tossed the flimsy plastic plate of dahi vada in the air, with the flourish of a showman and the practised ease of a professional. A small gasp went through the crowd as he nimbly caught the soaring plate, its contents intact, without so much as a drop of curd spilling. A sprinkle of coriander powder, a pinch of chilli powder, and a daub of amchur (raw mango powder) later, the snack was ready to be served.
If I were to be perfectly honest, the dahi vada—steeped in chilled, unsweetened yoghurt and topped with a colourful riot of spices—was crowd-pleasing, but not spectacular. But Joshi’s flair and the thrill of being one among many outstretched hands reaching out for a plate of his “magic” dahi vadas, lent it a particularly memorable flavour. Surrounded by families, courting couples and groups of friends, all gleefully inflicting calorific damage to their waistlines, it was easy to forget that this was my first time at Sarafa Bazaar, Indore’s legendary night market dedicated to street food. I didn’t need a map to get around. I simply followed the stream of people on the streets, stopping now and then to savour the secrets that were laid out in plain sight.
Although I have roots in Madhya Pradesh, it wasn’t until I started writing about food a few years ago, that I truly began to appreciate Indore’s storied culinary culture. On my most recent visit, during an uncharacteristically mild winter, I noticed that in a sleepy city where business often starts at 11a.m., street food vendors had already begun brisk sales in the early hours. As a light mist hung low on the streets, customers swathed in woollens queued up at the stalls selling Indori pohe, a sweetened version of the breakfast dish made of beaten rice, dressed with squirts of lime and crisp sev. Elsewhere, flaky kachoris with a filling of urad dal, and squiggly jalebis were being wrapped into newspaper parcels. All day and well into the night, these stalls across the city stayed open, both fuelling and satiating the city’s irrepressible appetite.
Yet, even in a city obsessed with eating, Sarafa Bazaar is unique. One of the city’s main gold and silver jewellery markets, it thrums with the spirit of commerce by day. But after 10p.m., when the last of the jewellery stores shut shop, the streets acquire an almost electric charge. As if following some invisible pattern, vendors selling rows of neatly arranged gulab jamuns arrive at their predetermined spots along the pavement, alongside pani puri carts, sandwich stalls, and juice shops. In narrow gullies with wiggle-room only for pedestrians, whole families carefully negotiate their way past large kadhais bubbling with hot oil. The sparkly displays of the daytime are replaced by equally eye-catching neon signboards advertising freshly fried sabudana vadas, chhole tikki, hot dogs, and pav bhaji.
I realised that the only way to take it all in was to dive headlong. My first pit stop was at a stall selling pani puri with a twist—in addition to the usual mint-and-chilli-spiked water, there were five other flavours to choose from. A flurry of puris followed, each slightly distinct: jeera, with a hit of earthy cumin; lehsun, spiked with garlic; hajma hajam, tangy like Hajmola; pudina, with the pronounced flavour of mint; and my favourite—hing, pungent, full-bodied, smacking of asafoetida. My appetite whetted, I wandered to a street corner where every stall seemed to be celebrating a much-loved winter speciality. “You have to come here in winter to try ratalu,” my cousin Rajesh had told me when I was planning my trip. Now, I saw large chunks of the starchy purple yam, also known locally as garaadu, stacked around frying pans. Sliced to order and then dunked in hot oil, ratalu is deep-fried to a uniform golden-brown and generously smothered in red chilli powder. Crisp on the surface with just the right amount of give, the ratalu singed my lips with its hing-heavy spice coating. Like the best winter snacks, it also filled me with a sense of warmth and wellbeing.
In Sarafa, it struck me that the business of eating was much more than a means of making money. Even at the smallest stalls, the owners urged me to eat first and pay later. No matter how busy vendors were, they were always happy to stop and chat for a few minutes. Often, I couldn’t tell if the free-flowing conversation was a friendly gesture or a clever marketing ploy—or both. From the moment I walked into Ganesh Namkeen, attracted by a signboard advertising dry fruit sev, pineapple sev, and pani puri sev, the proprietor, Ramesh Jain, drew me into his web of words. “This shop burnt down completely a few months ago,” he said, immediately holding my attention, while thrusting a handful of Maggi sev into my fist. Even as I marvelled at the flavour, uncannily reminiscent of the Maggi masala sachets, he told me how he had got the shop back up and running in no time. After learning that I had lived in Mumbai for many years, he unleashed a volley of feelings about the city, while cajoling me to try doodh chana, a standout snack of kabuli chana, soaked in milk for several hours before it is fried and spiced. Every time I have a carefully portioned helping of the astonishingly soft doodh chana at home, I am grateful for Jain’s personable sales pitch.
“You can understand something about the spirit of Indore at Sarafa,” Rajesh had told me before our first visit. True to his word, it was in Sarafa that I got my first real taste of the city. As one among the hundreds who hit the streets embracing food as a joyful, communal experience, I felt secure and sure-footed in a way that I hadn’t expected to. I already knew that I would be back, again and again, as much for this unique freedom as for the food.
Bhutte ka kees Indore is famous for this seasonal speciality made of white corn, grated and cooked with milk and spices until it acquires the texture of a moist upma.
Malpua Don’t count calories when you try this decadent dessert. The thin pancakes made of flour, khoya (milk solids) and semolina, are deep-fried and dunked in sugar syrup, and often served with rabdi.
Kaanji vada Plump vadas soaked in kaanji, a digestive drink made of fermented mustard with a big smack of hing. This is a sour-savoury take on dahi vada.
Jaleba The ruddy country cousin of the jalebi, the jaleba is large and crisp but soft within, and steeped in sugar syrup.
Ratalu A winter speciality of deep-fried purple yam sprinkled with spices is a must-try.
To experience Sarafa at its busiest, visit around 11p.m. and slowly make the rounds of the various stalls until they wind down, around 2a.m.
The snacks on offer vary according to the season. Some snacks such as ratalu are available only in the winter months.
Vidya Balachander is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.