In the bylanes of India’s sprawling cities, tantalizing aromas emanate from street kiosks, markets are a world unto themselves, and recipes are passed down through the generations. Discover the food history and culinary secrets of these metropolises through some toothsome tours.
Religion dominates the ghats of Varanasi, but in its streets, food reigns supreme. On a walk through the city’s ancient streets, feast on the famous tamatar chaat and sip cold thandai near the temples. Queue up to grab one of the hundreds of plates of crispy kachoris being doled out every minute. Chase it down with sweets like the delectable malai chhenna roll. Winter brings the exquisite seasonal delicacy of malaiyo, crafted from milk foam and dewdrops. (www. indiacitywalks.com; duration 3 hr; tours only on booking; ₹3,500 per person; book a spot two days in advance.)
Madurai’s food culture combines the richness of Chettinad cuisine with eclectic street food. The city of temples is famous for its range of sweets and meaty specialities like kothu parottas, a delicious dish of pieces of parotta with meat, egg, and a spicy sauce. Foodies Day Out’s walks also include the city’s unique drink, the jil jil jigarthanda, made with milk, ice cream, and sarsaparilla syrup. (www.foodiesdayout.com; duration 3-3.5 hr; tours at 5.30 p.m. daily; ₹2,500 per person; book one week in advance.)
The historic city of Amritsar is a great place to savour Punjab’s produce and magnificent flavours. Since the best food is found in little hole-in-the-wall eateries, it helps to have a guide. Food Trails India’s tour winds its way through the lanes of the Old City and offers samplings of the creamiest lassis, flakiest kulchas, and the most mouthwatering Fish Amritsari and kebabs. It also includes a langar at the Golden Temple. (www.foodtrailsindia.com; duration 3 hr; tours at 7 a.m., 11 a.m., and 5 p.m., ₹1,200-1,500 per person; reservations required at least one day in advance.)
Kolkata’s cuisine is a hybrid of foreign influences and local flavours. And nowhere is this more apparent than on its streets. Calcutta Walks leads the New Market and Around walk featuring an assortment of cuisines, and includes historic eateries of this central Kolkata neighbourhood. Participants get to sample a variety of foods from sweet treats at a Jewish bakery to kobiraji cutlets from the Raj era, kormas from the old-world Mughlai cabins, and kathi rolls. (www.calcuttawalks.com; duration 3 hr; schedule on website; from ₹3,000 per person.)
This early evening food trail is full of stories. Winding through the street food market in Sowcarpet, one of Chennai’s oldest neighbourhoods, it includes secret recipes and encounters with people in the business. Sample chaat from different parts of India and traditional foods with modern tweaks, like the flavourful muruku sandwich. (www.storytrails.in; duration 2.5 hr; tours at 4 p.m.; from ₹1,500 per person; schedule on website.)
Biryanis and Bakes
Hyderabad is synonymous with its Nizami cuisine. Visitors usually sample its fragrant biryanis, buttery fruit biscuits from Karachi bakery, rich nihari stews, and steaming Irani tea. The Old City Food Walk offered by Detours takes visitors on a ramble through old markets, traditional bakeries, and local food stalls, tasting some of the best bits along the way. (www.detoursindia.com; +91-9000850505; duration 3 hr; tours at 7.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. daily; from ₹2,500 per person; book one day in advance; transportation costs extra.)
Pak a Punch
Mysore has lent its name to various dishes and this food walk traces a path to eponymous favourites like the Mysore masala dosa at Hotel Mylari, tangy Mysore churumuri at Chaat Street along Krishna Vilas Road, and the inimitable Mysore pak in the sweet shops along Sayyaji Rao Road. Along the way, it takes in the markets, local milk bars, and legendary tiffin rooms of the city. (www.royalmysorewalks.com; duration 3-3.5 hr; tours at 5 p.m. daily; ₹1,100 per person; book one day in advance.)
The Rich and the Red
Jaipur’s culinary offerings are a reflection of the produce of this desert area. Some are easy chaats, others are elaborate preparations based on recipes from royal kitchens. On a tour through the Old City with Virasat Experiences, try dahi kachori, ker sangri, a local bean and tart berry preparation, and spicy laal maas, a mutton curry. Ease flaming taste buds with sweet, rich ghewar, a deep fried flour disc soaked in sugar syrup. (www.virasatexperiences.com; duration 2.5-3 hr; tour starts at 4 p.m. daily except for Sundays.; from ₹1,500 per person; minimum two people; book one day in advance.)
Market Day in Matunga
Take your shopping bag along on this walk to stock up on new ingredients and flavours. Many Tamilian Brahmin and Jain families have made Matunga their home, and this is reflected in the fresh produce and ingredients available here. Stop at popular food stores in the neighbourhood, redolent with the aromas of freshly ground spices and coffee beans. Finish off with tiffin and coffee at one of Matunga’s many famous South Indian restaurants. (www.mumbaimagic.com; duration 2 hr; tours at 10.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tues-Sun; from ₹1,000 per head, varies depending on group size.)
Kebabs and Kulfis
The tale of the one-armed kebabchi and his melt-in-the-mouth meaty creations is among the many stories that surround food in Lucknow. This lore is integral to experiencing the city’s Awadhi cuisine. Embark on a culinary walk through the bustling Chowk area with Tornos. Taste the famous Tundey Mian’s delectable kebabs, the divine pasanda and sheermal from Mubeen’s, creamy fruit kulfi, and Lucknowi paan. (www.tornosindia.com; duration 2 hr; tours at 7.00 p.m. Mon-Wed, Fri-Sat; ₹2,000 per person; book by 3 p.m. on day of the walk.)
There are food walks ranging from a “spare parts” or offal tour around Shivaji Nagar’s smoky eateries to one that scours the halwas and sweets of Pettah. The Basavanagudi Breakfast Walk is a great way to understand the state’s traditional breakfast foods. Starting at Vidyarthi Bhavan in Gandhi Bazaar, this purely vegetarian walk features local treats like spongy set dosas, Davangere benne or butter dosa, and filter coffee. (www.bengalurubyfoot.com; vegetarian; duration 3 hr; tour at 7.30 a.m; from ₹1,000 per person, varies depending on group size; book two days in advance.)
The walled city of Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi is a warren of lanes that reflect the multicultural nature of the city’s inhabitants. India City Walks’ daytime food tour features a breakfast of champions, with slow-cooked nihari or meat and bone marrow stew, or a rich and delicious bedmi puri with aloo sabzi. On the night tour, visitors partake of Jama Masjid’s many meaty delights while vegetarians can try parathas with different fillings at Paranthewali Galli. (www.indiacitywalks.com; duration 3 hr; ₹2,000 per person; schedule on website; book one day in advance.)
Note: Check websites for updated schedules of walks. Most companies organise private or customised walks for an additional charge.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Taste Trails”. Updated in October 2017.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.