Where to stay
Newest of the city’s business hotels, this modern base is functional and well designed. It has a roof terrace, choice of restaurants and movie- themed bar. Doubles from £35. Plot No. 10-C/C.A., Scheme No. 94, Eastern Ring Rd, Sector C, 00 91 731 474 0000, effotelhotels.com
A mini-grand hotel with large rooms and good housekeeping. It hoovers up some of the best conference and event business in Indore. Doubles from £55. Adjoining Meghdoot Gardens, 00 91 731 398 8444, fortunehotels.in
Decent mid-range hotel in a quiet part of the business district. Comfortable rooms face inward onto an atrium hall. Doubles from £35. 3, R.N.T. Road, 00 91 731 442 3232, lemontreehotels.com
A reliable and luxurious hotel with helpful staff. Head up to the sky-high pool and spa where you can soak up views of the city. Doubles from £45. 12 Scheme No 94C, Ring Road, 00 91 731 473 8888, radissonblu.com/hotel-indore
Among the city’s crop of first-class hotels, the Sayaji caters well for the executive crowd. Doubles from £55. H/1, Scheme No. 54, Vijay Nagar, 00 91 731 400 6666, sayajihotels.com/indore
Indore is the largest city in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. Time is 4.5 hours ahead of the UK, and national currency is the rupee. November sees average highs of 30C, and average lows of 14C. Journey time from the UK is 16.5 hours.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Indore daily, with a stop in either Mumbai or New Delhi. ba.com
Air India also flies from London Heathrow to Indore each day, with stops in New Delhi or Mumbai. airindia.in
Madhya Pradesh Tourism The heart of Incredible India. mptourism.com
Incredible India The official tourist board has essential information for planning your trip in Indore and Madhya Pradesh. incredibleindia.org
The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors by Abraham Eraly (W&N, £16.99). Ideal for anyone who wants to delve deeper into India’s DNA, this book spans three centuries of rule by the Mughals. Long before the British Raj and the Holkar dynasty held sway, they helped shape the country you see today.
If you are conscious about your carbon footprint when flying to Indore, then visit climatecare.org where you can make a donation to support environmental projects all over the world, from rainforest restoration to bio-energy schemes. Return flights from London Heathrow produce 2 tonnes of CO2 meaning a cost to offset of £14.99.
Where to eat
Outside the Sarafa/Chappan Dukan areas and popular with upwardly mobile Indori, it does good poha at knockdown prices. But, as the name suggests, the biscuits and sweetmeats are the best buys. Snacking from about £1 for two, including a cold drink. AB Road, Sheetal Nagar, Scheme No.54, Vijay Nagar, 00 91 731 255 7310, apnasweets.com
Johny Hot Dog
Iconic mutton burger joint with seating, or standing outside, which also has a reputation for its egg banjos and sandwiches. Snacking from about £1. 51-52 Chappan Dukan Joshi Dahi Vada One dish prepared by one showman. Watch him in action in the Sarafa bazaar even if you don’t fancy eating his speciality. He doesn’t usually show up until 10pm and will go on cooking till 1am. Snacking from about £1.
Celebrated sweet shop a couple of doors down from Johny Hot Dog. It serves delicious saffron custard in ceramic pots and shikanji, a liquid version of the same. Its savouries, including poha, are equally good. 56 Chappan Dukan
Vijay Chaat House
Golf-ball-sized coconut patties and kachori are some of the best you’ll find anywhere. The chilli and sweet dips make perfect accompaniments. Snacking from about £1. 75/5 Sarafa, plus a second branch in Chappan Dukan
- Aloo tikki
- Potato rissole used as a filling for sandwiches
- Bhutte ka kees
- Grated sweetcorn snack flavoured with lime juice
- Savoury street food snacks
- Indian milk tea
- Coconut patties
- Fried potato balls with a coconut stuffing
- Dahi vada
- Soaked potato dumpling coated in yoghurt
- Egg banjo
- Omelette burger
- Purple yam pieces coated in a hot masala and fried
- Gulab jamun
- Sweet dumpling made from concentrated milk soaked in syrup
- Rich saffron custard
- Unrefined cane sugar
- Deep-fried batter fritters macerated in syrup
- Kala namak
- Black version of gulab jamun
- Vegetable-filled, fried pastry
- Pani puri
- Bite-size shells filled with spiced water and sometimes potato
- Pav bhaji
- Thick vegetable coulis served with a soft bun
- Flattened, flavoured rice eaten either as a breakfast dish or at night, often accompanied with jalebi
- A misleading name – bun seared on the griddle with a potato rissole filling
Food and Travel Review
We’re sharing a breakfast table with two doctors at the Fortune Landmark, Indore. It’s a business hotel and other tables are packed with suits. They’ve travelled from Delhi to the central state of Madhya Pradesh to oversee the building of a new private hospital. One of them recommends the emerald green juice he’s sipping. ‘It will energize you for the rest of the day. It’s good for diabetes, toxaemia and piles,’ he says. A waiter arrives with a glass to try. It tastes of aloes, the kind parents paint on children’s fingers to stop them nibbling their nails. What is it? ‘Underripe bitter gourd.’ A short lecture on ayurvedic medicine follows with references to calcium, potassium, magnesium and a string of vitamins.
This could be the kind of buffet that hotels all over the world serve, except there are also curries, sambars, rotis, parathas, idlis and appams in the rows of chafing dishes, and a chef is spreading dosa batter on the griddle. The help-yourself aesthetic appeals to the burgeoning middle classes. Indore, the fastest-growing city on the subcontinent and the largest in Madhya Pradesh, wants nothing more than to be thought of as modern and dynamic.
A few blocks away, the old India is also breaking its fast. A man sits on the steps of the Krishnapura Chhatris, a twin-domed royal cenotaph that faces the confluence of the Saraswati and Khan rivers. He picks up mouthfuls of poha off a square sheet of newspaper. The crushed rice fried with onions, curry leaves, turmeric and sev (crunchy chickpea noodles) was bought from a hawker. You can buy a decent portion for about 15p.
The 200-year-old monument commemorates maharajas of the Holkar Dynasty. The surroundings, which are dedicated to Shiva, smell like a latrine. Heritage has given way to functionality. Bamboo scaffolding against the outer walls suggests this may be changing – albeit slowly. In contrast, nearby Jail Road counts roughly 2,000 mobile phone and electronics shops.
Constable Kunwar Ranjeet Singh is a celebrity. Hindi TV has made a documentary about him. He was the subject of a full-page feature in the English-language newspaper The Times of India. Is this ‘honest cop who everybody loves’ a detective in the Sean Connery Untouchables vein? There is a slight physical resemblance. No, he directs traffic in Regal Square on the main Mahatma Gandhi drag running through the centre. Understanding how the inhabitants can promote this PC Plod to local hero (girls bring him roses) is a key to survival. To outsiders, street life seems like mayhem. It isn’t. There’s a pecking order that overrides any putative highway code. Top dogs are the buses. They trump cars, which outpoint the green and yellow tuk-tuks running on compressed natural gas. In turn, they outrank motorbikes, which shade bicycles. Next in line come the costermongers pushing carts, pedestrians, then finally dogs and feral pigs. And everyone, even Ranjeet Singh, makes way for cows.
Locals prefer to think of their city as a mini-Mumbai, contrasting its prosperity with neighbouring Bhopal, the state capital. They are proud to claim that it’s the only place in the country to boast both an Institute of Management and an Institute of Technology.
Lal Bagh Palace, the last official residence of Indore’s maharajas, seems dusty and forlorn. Few attractions are a priority. They make an exception for ‘philosopher queen’ Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar. Ruler of the Malwa Kingdom at the turn of the 19th century, she transformed what was a trading town into a city. She built roads, supported farmers and merchants, endowed temples, confronted bribery and fought to reduce female oppression.
Her statue stands in front of the Rajwada, a palace in the Khajuri bazaar. Its seven-storey facade is original. The rest was rebuilt after it burned down in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. To one side of it is the cloth market, a polychrome fantasy of silks, handloom fabrics, embroidered slippers for tiny Indian feet and Soho-style bras that might pass muster in Ann Summers. It leads into Sarafa, the jewellery quarter.
By day, it’s a gold and silver exchange. At 8pm when the shutters start to go down it reinvents itself as a street food bazaar famed throughout India. Sampling the hundreds of sweet, milky, fruity and spicy snacks that continually draw your eye isn’t for those with weak stomachs. Every mouthful, however delicious, requires an act of faith. That said, the sugar cane juice cranked through a mangle, poured over ice and then stirred with mint leaves and a hint of salt does taste like a nectar of the gods.
Black rock salt, kala namak, gives a pervasive, sulphurous tang to everything savoury, from the roasted monkey nuts to gram chips and mung beans. They add a zing to pani puri, eggshell-thin pastry ‘cuplets’ (oversize gobstoppers) filled with spiced water and crushed potato. Even the local Indi-pizzas, pizza base topped with a tikka sauce and melted paneer cheese, taste of it.
The nearest equivalent to the Hindi word chaat is ‘fast food’. It’s a catch-all for any finger-licking dainty packing a punch. It doesn’t pretend to be healthy eating – but deep-fried, tossed in a wok or heated on a tawa (griddle), it shouldn’t be greasy. In Sarafa’s Hinglish lexicon, ‘sandwiches’ and ‘hotdogs’ neither look nor taste like anything Pret A Manger has ever sold. Vijay Chaat House’s coconut patties attract connoisseurs from all over the state (an area larger than the UK). They stand outside eating the fried potato balls stuffed with grated fresh coconut, chilli and coriander, dipping them into a chilli salsa or sweet jaggery sauce.
Joshi Ji is the show-stopping, gently camp, star of the street. When he performs, a small crowd gathers in front of his eating house. He has one dish, dahi vada. Step one: he puts softened potato and pulse fritters on a plate. Step two: he coats them with yoghurt. ‘I make it myself with milk from my own cow,’ he says. Step three: he tosses the plate into the air spinning it like a pizzaiolo. He does it to show how thick his curd is. Step four: he adds a sweet and sour chutney. Step five: hiding mixed spices between his fingers he sprinkles them on top. All the while, he has one-liners for his customers. Our photographer receives an extra dollop of yoghurt ‘because his skin is so white’. The crowd laughs and he gooses a young friend as he brings over our order. It’s real theatre.
Sarafa is vegetarian. Pav bhaji (a Mumbai import) is a mushy coulis that soaks into a bread roll. Deep-fried yam slivers come with an array of chutneys. Sandwiches are especially toothsome. Soft bread rolls brushed with oil are fried, and filled with aloo tikki, a potato cutlet with coriander and raw onion on top. So good are they, that McDonald’s introduced a McAloo Tikki in its Indian stores. It has been a best seller. Bhutte ka kees, made from grated corn and spiked with grated ginger looks and tastes similar to poha.
At night, snackers eat this with jalebi, batter spirals steeped in syrup flavoured with cardamom and rosewater. Indori like to combine sweet and salty in this way with every meal. Dhokla, a chickpea flour sponge cake, is tempered with curry leaves, chillies and sugar. They sweeten dips and sauces with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar). Gulab jamun are as popular as in the rest of the country. The sweet maker alternates rings of these melting golden balls with black kala jamun. The latter are fried for longer until the outer surface darkens, and both are made from khoya, a dried milk dough. Carrot halwa has the texture of semolina. Rabri is a sweetened buttermilk and pearl millet porridge.
Fruit sellers dotted among the food stalls earn every rupee they make to scratch a living. The wholesale market lies 7km from the centre and opens at 3am. They have to go there before dawn to load their barrows. To find suppliers they must weave through alleys choked with produce: tangerines in straw emptied off the back of a truck onto the tarmac, perfumed ripe guavas, apples, bananas or perhaps water chestnuts. Having found a seller, fixed a price and paid on the nail, they must push their day’s stock back to their pitch.
Local entertainment guide indorerocks.com says that ‘Chappan Dukan is a must-visit place for all foodies… evenings are happening and colourful as youngsters, singles, couples and families keep hopping from one food joint to another’.
Juli Gupta, a presenter for the cable channel Hathway BTV Yuva is here to hang out. ‘Would you like me to tell you the history of this place?’ she asks. ‘Literally, it means 56 shops street. There used to be exactly this number of shops here.’ She holds out a plate to offer me a chunk of garadu, fried purple yam that, she says, has just come into season. It tastes of mealy Maris Piper coated in garam masala spiked with chilli, garlic and ginger.
Counting retail outlets by night doesn’t seem like a good option. All seem to be doing brisk trade. Although it’s winter and the temperature has dipped to about 20C, the sweet shops are selling tubes of ice-cream style kulfi on sticks. At Madhuram, the speciality is indrani, ceramic pots filled with scented, saffron custard made of cream and condensed milk. To drink, there’s a liquid version with dried fruit in it. Glasses of hot chai (tea) are nearly as rich, so is a subcontinental cappuccino with a foam head as thick as a pint of Guinness.
Johny Hot Dog almost classes as a restaurant. It has real tables and chairs (a rarity), but most customers prefer snacking outside. Addicts go there early in the evening for the mutton burgers (mutton often means goat in India). JHD only makes a limited number fresh every day accompanied with a spoon of hot ketchup on the side. By the middle of service they are often sold out. As an alternative, the menu advertises ‘egg banjos’, a herb omelette in a bun.
Back at the Fortune Landmark, a wedding is in progress. It’s the marriage season, and 800 invited guests mill around an outdoor reception area the size of a hockey pitch. The hotel’s 72 chefs stand behind pots of biryani, korma, dansak, jalfrezi and buttered chicken. They entice few takers. The crush of ladies in their designer saris and suited gents has all gravitated to the snack area, where the chaat are the same as in Sarafa. It’s what Indori enjoy most, even those who now hold their weddings in conference hotels.
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe