Swati Daftuar checks out the calling card of a city where mixed threads of history linger in the air.
In 1877, during the reign of Maharaja Shri Dungar Singh, the first batch of bhujia was produced in the princely state of Bikaner. In September 2010, the by-now-famous Bikaneri Bhujia was given the Geographical Indication tag, ensuring that none other than those registered as authorised users (or at least those residing inside the geographic territory) would be allowed to use the popular product name, an assurance of distinctiveness in a land of a thousand cultures. A visit to the land of this venerable dish is a must for a foodie, a sort of pilgrimage that is easy on the stomach.
Bikaner brings to life everything you want from a desert town; the dust-swirled vibrancy, the grand forts, the narrow lanes of a walled city, the red stone houses and the strange, familiar feeling of an outpost town with mixed threads of history lingering in the air. The constantly shifting and undulating sand dunes make for a perfect backdrop to a laidback, easy-going place that is at once beautiful and unembellished. It’s a city that’s seen the lavish lifestyles of swashbuckling maharajas, the British Raj and the alternate realities of medicine men and dreadlocked devotees. As the poet Ashok Vajpeyi once remarked, this is also a city where one half of the population is occupied with making bhujia and the other half with eating it. Perhaps that is what makes this particular dish the calling card of a city that has a lot of other delights on offer.
The crunchy and addictive snack that has earned this city gastronomic fame is fried in every nook and corner of the narrow streets of Bhujia Bazar. As you walk through the narrow winding lanes of the bazaar, you notice the endless hole-in-the-wall shops with halwais frying mountains of bhujia. You can walk from shop to shop sampling the bhujias by the fistful and choosing one that checks all the boxes for you. Sai Ram is one such halwai whose shop I stop at, and he explains with enthusiasm the reasons that make the Bikaneri Bhujia so special.
Bhujia is made all over India and eaten as a snack in almost all parts of the country, but unlike the usual bhujia, its Bikaneri counterpart is not made from gram flour (besan) but from ground moth lentils, a crop which grows only in the deserts of Bikaner and Jodhpur. This factor, along with the desert air, gives the bhujia a unique crispness and extraordinarily long shelf life, making it easy to market. Apparently, there is also a secret ingredient; one that Sai Ram claims is a fistful of good, clean desert sand mixed into the dough. When I ask him if he is joking, he gives a smile that is impossible to decipher.
Early in the day
The daily routine at the Bhujia Bazar kicks off at 4.00 a.m. The dough is mixed and the fires are started.
Gigantic deep frying pans are filled with boiling oil and the dough is passed through a special perforated wheel-like ladle. “In the beginning, working with the hot oil and ladle is like torture, but now we are used to it. The whole thing works like clockwork,” says Sai Ram.
There are some tried and tested names that a bhujia tourist must visit, including Chhotu Motu Joshi, one of Bikaner’s most loved sweet shops that serves an assortment of sweet and savoury snacks and fries up a mean Bikaneri bhujia. Haldiram Bhujiawala’s original shop, situated in Bhujia bazaar, has been locked up for a while now, and a new, shiny factory specialising in Bikaneri Bhujia has come up in the outskirts of the town. The credit of packaging this savory delight in packets and taking it to the world goes to Haldiram, and over 20,000 kgs of Bhujia are produced in Haldiram’s Bikaner factory every day. The local halwais of the bazaar themselves produce over 30,000 kg of bhujia daily.
A revolution of sorts
It is someone in the Haldiram outlet who tells me that the Bikaneri people have a reputation for being “saral, sukh and sust” (simple, happy, lazy). Madan, a server behind the clean, colourful Haldiram counter says that the entire town of Bikaner spends the day buying, making or eating sweets and snacks. Of course, the founder of Haldiram was far from lazy, with the expansion of business that stemmed from the growing demand for Bikaneri Bhujia in places like Kolkata and other big cities. It was Haldiram’s that adapted the noodle-making machine into a gadget that could triple the bhujia output and reduce labour.
Today, the bhujia is synonymous with Bikaner, and this laidback happy town is quite satisfied letting the dish appropriate its name.
HOW IT’S MADE
1/2 cup gram flour
1/2 cup moth flour
1/4 tsp cardamom powder
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1-1/2 tsp pepper powder
1 tsp oil
Salt to taste
Oil for deep frying
Water as needed
Mix all the ingredients to form a soft dough. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan. Press the dough through a sev mould/press and then drop into the hot oil. Deep-fry the bhujia till it is light brown. Remove the batch and drain the excess oil.