Agra is known for the Taj Mahal and little else. This isn’t uncharitable, but a mere fact. And the lack of planned development of this city, our visiting card to the world, is dispiriting. I have been visiting Agra, the city of love, for the past 15 years and there is little left to discover. In fact, some would argue that a day is long enough. But on this most recent trip, I was introduced to the local cuisine. Who knew?
As one irreverent resident told me, no one ever stayed here long enough for the city to have its own cuisine. He was wrong. The young chef, Glen Luis, at the ITC Mughal here puts up a strong argument for the local cuisine. A graduate of the culinary programme from the ITC management school, this is his first posting and it might explain his enthusiasm to excavate a cuisine or rather the culinary habits of residents of this centuries-old city. Founded in the 16th century by Sikandar Lodhi, the city very quickly fell into the hands of the Mughals, then the Jats, the Marathas and, finally, the British. The Taj stood by stoically, but the lifestyle and food habits of the local populace underwent a change. It absorbed different influences—from the excesses of the Mughal court to the influences of Kayasth and Bania cooking.
It’s said it was Noor Jehan who introduced rice to Agra from Persia. She even has the honour of having a dish named after her: Bibi ka murgh pulao.
Luis has curated the ‘Agra ka swad thaali’ to provide a sampler for the curious gourmand. For one, this thaali isn’t served on the traditional brass plate. Instead, it comes on white porcelain, with matching bowls and a banana leaf to set the food on. The portion sizes are simple: a light meat stew, gently simmered for up to four hours, with the meat falling off the bone and melting-in-the-mouth soft. The home-style gobi sabzi has a pronounced flavour of fenugreek. The special dish on the menu, however, is arvi makhane ka jhol—colocassia and lotus puffed seeds, cooked in pure ghee and a yoghurt gravy. Its delicate and sublime taste remains memorable.
The interesting part about this well-balanced thaali—which also has a rich dal shah pasand reminiscent of the famed dal bukhara—is that even if you opt for a parantha and take a spoonful of dum-cooked biryani (its rose-steeped fragrant morsels overwhelming the senses), you get up from the table feeling incredibly light.
Also worth mentioning is the ghosht ishtew, or stew, which possibly harks back to the city’s colonial influence—the stew being, of course, a traditional Irish/British dish. It’s this eclectic mix of cuisines and flavour influences that makes this thaali unique. Its lack of loyalty to any one cuisine means the experience is far more extensive than with a traditional thaali. And, it’s in this culinary dexterity and diversity that the swaad of Agra emerges.
The dessert is a mélange of flavours. The famed petha makes its scheduled appearance, but so does the phirni (in two variants, with and without sugar, both delicious). And finally, the shahi tukda—pieces of bread soaked in condensed milk and melting in the mouth.
Agra is, of course, famous for its chaat and the chaat waali gali in Sadar Bazaar is a must-visit for those who enjoy street food. There is the famous petha, the white pumpkin dessert that originated in the kitchens of Shah Jahan. It exists to this day and one can only imagine what a delight this translucent ‘candy’ must have been back in the day.
It lives on along with the Taj, its colour in the original, the colour of ivory like marble. However, today it has many variations, from chocolate petha to coconut petha. The most famous and authentic shop is Panchhi Petha, but there are so many copies that one is advised to seek the counsel of a local before buying from one. The Taj Mahal is, of course, the one and only, impossible to replicate and getting increasingly beautiful with age and in its many moods in sunlight and moonlight.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad