The cuisines of Madhya Pradesh are as varied as the cultural diversity of the state. People from far and wide celebrate the food of MP and do not tire of repeatedly coming back here just to taste its food. Several dishes and preparations are typically entrenched in the local folklore and many are not found anywhere else in the world.
Since Madhya Pradesh has long been a cultural melting pot, with the marriage of rich indigenous traditions and exotic cultural and culinary imports, its food also has grown into an eclectic mix of myriad flavors, borrowed dexterously from the best of different cultural tastes. Being a large state also has its benefits for the food lover because every region of the state has a special treat to offer that almost defines the cultural idiom of the region.
The tastes change every few hundred miles. If ‘Dal-Baati’ is the marquee item of the western region, as soon as we enter the eastern region, we are offered ‘mawaki jalebi’ to gorge upon. The list is endless. The street food culture of the cities of MP like Indore and Bhopal thrive on many of these specialties that people savor with dedication and pride. The food culture of MP is indelibly linked with its history, its royalty, its religious alignments, its unique traditions of the tribes and its geographical and climatic conditioning.
No other state has so many condiments to spice up its curry. Welcome to the Malwa-Nimar cultural zone that makes up for most of MP’s western, southwestern region, comprising the districts of Khandwa, Jhabua, Ratlam, Mandsaur, Dhar, Bhopal, Barwani, Harda, Ujjain, Shajapur and Indore. Here, the specialty of the Jhabua region is Dal-Pania or Paniye as it is locally called. It is a delicious concoction of pulses and lentils fried in ghee or oil with spices and served with golden brown fried corn cakes and chutney.
Apart from these, dishes widely available in the Malwa region include the Poha-Jalebi… a mix of flattened rice, spiced up with the required condiments like fried groundnuts, green chilies, sev, etc. with hot juicy Jelebis (the Indian funnel cake), MawaBati, Dal Bati (Hardened fried cakes of pulses called bati served with hot curry of pulses and lentils) and Dal ki Kachauri (fried cakes of ground pulses with spices served with chutney or chilies).
No one who visits the state can miss the Dal Bati and Poha -Jalebi for sure, just as one cannot miss Mumbai’s Bhel and Gujarat’s Dhokla. The quintessential Gulab Jamun is also a widely popular dish in the Malwa-Nimar region. The Gulab Jamun is also famous in the eastern part of the state known as the Mahakoshal region comprising the districts of Jabalpur, Balaghat, Sivni, Katni, Dindori, and Mandla.
Here apart from this sweet, the Mawaki Jalebi is a famous cuisine. As the name suggests, whole dried/reduced milk is used as the main ingredient in Mawa Jalebi. It is kneaded and the dough is prepared with the dried milk paste and maida along with milk before being fried in a tangled pattern – the Jalebi.
The taste is awesome, to say the least and something that cannot be described in words if we want to do justice to it. The Damoh, Chhatarpur, Panna, and Sagar regions comprise Bundelkhand region in the northeastern part of the state. Here too the delicacies have their flavour and character and deserve a separate mention.
Here the Chironjiki Barfi is a famous dish. Chironji or charoli, grown mostly in the forests of the tribal belts of the state, is an expensive dry fruit with limited supply, which adds to its preciousness. The fruit is used for preparing sweets in pure desi ghee (clarified butter) to add to the flavor.
It is said that one Jamuna Prasad Choudhary invented the sweet made of Chironji and his descendants still run the shop at Sagar, which is considered as a landmark sweetmeat shop for this specific variety. An expensive sweet sold in kilos, Chironji Barfi is so delicious that it is exported to many countries of Europe and the US. Gakkad Bharta, a kind of Bati, i.e. fried and hardened cake made of pulses in ghee, is also special in the Bundelkhand region and it is often savoured with Baigan Bharta or thick spicy daal.
Then comes Vindhya Pradesh, which is the far east of MP covering border areas of Chhattisgarh like Sidhi, Shahdol, Anuppur, Rewa, and Satna. Here the specialty is the sweet Kalakand, made of high-quality Mawa and milk. Dudh-Khurchan is another of the sweet dish usually taken as a dessert. Thick creamy layers open and dissolve in the mouth one after another. Milk is boiled for hours in slow fire and mixed with sugar and cardamom powder to whip up a menacingly rich flavour.
Khurchan means, scraping from the bottom of the pan and since the milk is almost burnt at the bottom, the dregs are scraped and mixed with the serving, which adds to the thickness and the flavour. The Gwalior-Chambal region needs a separate mention for its unique gourmet spread. The geographical area expands from Gwalior, the largest city of northern MP, to Bhind, Morena, Datia, Shivpuri, Sheopur, and Guna among major districts.
Here Teel ki Gajak is a household name and every sweetmeat/confectionary shop will essentially have this on offer. Gajak (also gachak) is said to have originated in Morena itself. It is a dry sweet made of sesame seeds (til) or peanuts and jaggery. The til is cooked in the raw sugar syrup and set in thin layers to give the form of a hard, sweet and flavoury cake usually in rectangle or square shapes.
Kunde Ke Pede is also synonymous with the region. It is a sweet made by boiling the right mix of milk and khowa with sugar before being given the Peda (soft, thick, circular cake) form. Often Kesar and/or cardamom in power/seed form and/or nuts are added to the mix for creating the special flavour.
Apart from these, the Dal Bati Churma is also has its special style in the Bhind-Morena region. Churma is a coarsely ground wheat cooked with ghee and sugar that accompanies the Dal Bati and lends it a different taste. Food is not just satiation of the taste buds but it is also an emotion, deeply attached to our memories and beliefs.
Food is not an external necessity but also an emotional fulfillment that strengthens culture and unites people with a common thread of happiness. The people of Madhya Pradesh fondly hold on to their typical gastronomic identities wherever they go and spread and celebrate them with elan and verve. Perhaps that’s what keeps these culinary traditions alive and kicking, spreading the name and excellence of Madhya Pradesh far and wide.
(The author is State Editor of Madhya Pradesh Editions of The Hitavada)