“Chandigarh??” Travelers often squawk in confusion when we share our India itinerary with them. While places like Rajasthan, Kerala, and Varanasi register as usual suspects for visits to India, Chandigarh – a planned and rather atypical city in the northern Indian state of Punjab – rarely finds itself on travelers’ must-see checklists.
Our primary motivation to stop in Chandigarh was to visit a friend, one we’d never met in person. (Actually he’s the programmer we hired last year to help us tune some parts of our website photo gallery.)
As it turns out, our high expectations for the visit were far exceeded. We solidified a friendship, developed some new ones, gained insights into India’s culture, and even peeked into its future.
And we experienced all of this in the context of some thoroughly stunning and unexpected dining experiences. In the course of one day – from a modest-looking snack shop to a friendly home to a five-star restaurant – we came to know Chandigarh – and India, its people and its food – just a little bit better. We were the beneficiaries of kindness and serendipity.
You could say that we – and our stomachs – were completely charmed in Chandigarh.
Breakfast – Sai So Sweet
To start our day, we wandered downstairs from our guest house to Sai Sweets, a friendly local café that serves up quick savory vegetarian Indian snacks and a seemingly endless range of Indian sweets. The day before, we had noticed a varied array of relaxed locals coming, going, eating, and socializing. High turnover, diverse clientele and a friendly atmosphere were all good signs.
The following morning, the vast Indian sweets display and mounds of savory pockets and dumplings piled near the ovens in the back looked like a good opportunity for a photograph or two. In search of a first-hand encounter with our breakfast options, I wandered past the sweets case into the back where the savory snacks were being churned out and sided with various sauces and chutneys. After all, salty was Audrey’s order for today’s breakfast. I poked around with my head and camera and asked a few questions, usually along the lines of “What’s this?”
A man appeared from around the sweets case. “What are you looking for?” He asked.
“Oh, I just like food. I like to photograph it, write about it, talk to people about it.” I said, as I gazed about, taking in all the colors and textures around me.
“Oh really?” he added.
“I hope you like what I ordered for you,” he said as we sat down together.
A round of introductions yielded the name of our breakfast host: Vikram.
Samosas (fried potato and spice-stuffed pockets), batura (fried, puffed bread – like a puri, but made with white flour) and chole (also called chana, a savory chickpea masala) quickly graced our table.
Travel through India for any period of time and you realize that all samosas are not created equal. These were perfectly flaky and featured a few doughy inner layers. Just beyond their perfect shells, they were packed dark with spices, herbs, potatoes and even a little paneer (Indian cheese). These were at the very top of the samosa satisfaction hierarchy.
The batura was surprisingly light and fluffy considering that it was a fried bread. Vikram filled us in on its history, indicating that it had originated in Afghanistan as a relative to the local Afghani nan bread and made its way south to be perfected in India.
This wasn’t our first taste of batura and wouldn’t be our last, but it was some of the best. Audrey was now a bona fide batura addict.
The chole stole the show, however. By itself, this savory dish was appropriately thick and balanced. Then Vikram took over:
“I will teach you how to garnish it,” he added as he dolloped sweet mango and spicy mint chutneys over the chole in quick strokes of expert proportion.
The contrasting chutneys complimented one another and enhanced, much to our surprise, the myriad flavors at work in this already rich masala (curry).
To your average local, this was just another snack, albeit an exceptionally well-prepared one. To us, it was mind-bendingly good.
Our conversation continued over gleeful bites of samosa, batura and chole. As we ate, Vikram continued to educate us on everything in front of us. Then he ordered kachoris (dough pockets loaded with herbs) lassis (tangy fresh yogurt drink) and kesar pista kulfi (saffron pistachio ice cream) to finish us off.
Between bites, we shared our journey and its purpose. Though people often humor us with nods of approval when we explain our lives, Vikram actually understood our mission and he seemed to do so immediately. Through his own words, he was able to reflect some of our broader objectives. He talked about his own writing and projects. We enjoyed his ideas, energy and inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, he made us think.
With an exchange of business cards and a handshake, we sealed our friendship. He welcomed us as his guests. As we departed, we hoped to continue our conversation, wherever, whenever, however that might be.
This re-affirmed that some of the most delicious food, interesting connections, and satisfying experiences on the planet are waiting in some of its most unassuming venues.