Earlier this week, I made my debut visit to Indore, touted as the cleanest city in the country. Prior to my visit, when I tweeted about going to Indore, my timeline was flooded with ‘to-do’ options and, of course, boasts about the cleanliness factor. However, what seemed to emerge immediately was the mention of a place called Sarafa. One Twitter user even told me that, on a road trip from Bengaluru to Jaipur, they managed to map their journey in such a way that they drove past Indore just to visit Sarafa!
Sarafa is the all-night street food market that was established over 200 years ago and dates back to the lifetime of Indore’s famous Ahilyabai Holkar. Legend holds that, in an attempt to provide a natural security buffer to jewellery shops during the night, the clever and beloved queen felt a food market that operated right outside the shops would work wonders in fending off thieves. And it worked! The market has survived still, serving the same purpose despite all the additional measures today. Potential jewel thieves be advised: the shops are locked up for the night, and the food stalls set up right outside them. Being a city proud of its ‘cleanest city’ tag, the area is left spotless for shopkeepers. By most accounts, this arrangement works for all parties involved.
Sarafa is tucked away in the older part of Indore. Paved winding streets take you to this food oasis. However, it is deceptively quiet and it’s only when you are a few feet away do you notice the bright lights and the orchestra of kitchen utensils, almost as if aware of the time. The patrons and shopkeepers are muted. There are no calls for food or Bollywood songs blasting from speakers to add to the ambience. Another point to mention is that the entire food market is vegetarian and, looking at the diversity of the diners, it isn’t a deterrent at all.
Crowdsourcing throws up names of favourite stalls, like the Joshi Dahi Bada-walla, who puts up a grand show, flips et al. There are more modest renditions of these delicacies—the pav bhaji is a popular eat, with multiple stalls offering the delicacy. The local highlight is bhutte ka kees, a local delicacy, wherein the corn is boiled in milk, and ground and tempered with rai. It’s hugely popular and has a unique flavour that takes time getting accustomed to, but comes highly recommended by Indoris.
I had the opportunity to chat with young Shalu who makes pizzas at her stall. Twenty-something Shalu works till 2 am and feels perfectly safe. Her mother stands with an ice box perched on a high stool and sells cold drinks. Shalu has more space—a wooden table that holds a small speedy oven and a chopping board to slice her small pizzas into slices. She works quickly and deftly. She’s stepped up from what her mother does and earns more, but both ladies and the others who work in Sarafa claim that they feel safe and have never been harassed on the job. It’s a credit to the city that women can work freely till the early hours of the morning without fearing for their safety.
The jaleba in rabri is another crowd favourite—it’s called jaleba as opposed to the more feminine jalebi. One assumes that’s because of the familiar sweetmeats, girth and earthy colour. Doused in chaashni, it is a sugar rush, but the flavours are tempered by the rabri, making it a delectable dessert.
There are water dispensers at regular intervals for patrons to wash their hands. There’s even a ubiquitous paan shop and a man with a moveable trolley who sells hairbands and other tinsels for little girls. It feels like a street fair because it really is—young people saunter in after long days or on a study break to dig in. I went on a Sunday night and was surprised to find the crowd swelling as the night proceeded. Didn’t anyone have to work on Monday morning? It was a naive question. Indoris take the cleanliness of their city and their food very seriously. All in all, it was good to be an Indori for two days.
By- Advaita Kala, She is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad