As a child, I loved vacations in Allahabad with my aunt, Dr Rehana Bashir. My fondest memories are of garden parties during winter afternoons or evening teas where the proud hosts would showcase their perfectly manicured gardens lush with vibrant seasonal blooms. But what I carried in my heart all these years were the varieties of home-cooked delicacies that followed later in the day. I guess it is these memories that I nurtured until they culminated in a food festival on Allahabad cuisine, Dil Ek Khane Anek, decades later. At the festival, we would invite local denizens to participate with home-cooked food representative of their commity.

The rare quality of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, imbibed through generations of living together, resides in the souls of the people of Allahabad. The simplicity of having chaat from a roadside vendor, churmura at Civil Lines, hanging out at Cozy Nook, eating tikka at Meals on Wheels – the city’s first takeaway food joint – are the shades of the quintessential Allahabad foodie’s life.

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My passion for gourmet food grew exponentially when I got married and settled in Allahabad. My husband would probably say that the first love of his life was food and, only after that, came all of us. His passion for food prompted me to brush up my skills, and, much to my own amazement, I could cook better than I had presumed. Food in my family meant planning, presentation and combination – even the colour of the vegetables was discussed at length before they were laid on the table. My husband’s verdict is still spelled out with grave finality after every meal. I attribute my daughter becoming a professional chef to the overwhelming importance given to food in our family.

The Allahabad Pace

Over the years I witnessed myriad changes in the social life of Allahabad. The pragmatic would say that the changes were inevitable, but it hurt me merely to be a mute spectator. I had been drawn into the city, meeting people and discovering dishes and haunts as an insider-outsider. In the heterogeneity of this historic metropolis, there was once an exquisite social fabric of intricately woven threads that created a colourful tapestry of people from different communities bonding over music, classical and modern, culinary delights and conversation about books and thoughts. Every house provided a journey into a startlingly beautiful culture of language, values and practice.

Sadly, the education system in which I worked – as a teacher in the Boys’ High School – only prompted schools to churn out robots programmed to achieve impressive mark sheets for their parents to flaunt. The young ones were completely detached from the inherent beauty and soul of their city. It is a great irony that many of my students returned to explore Allahabad only when they heard or read about their own city in some other part of the world.

Credit: Sanchaari Allahabad/Facebook

As I began to explore what had been lost, Allahabad unfolded itself to me with its refined social norms – a rich culture and heritage narrated by friends and acquaintances. People shared anecdotes of poetic evenings with Firaaq Gorakhpuri, Mahadevi Verma, Sumitra Nandan Pant and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. Women had magic in their fingers for creating culinary delights. Street food – dahi jalebi at Hira Halwai or chaat at Nirala or kachori dum aloo at Netram and fruit cream at Loknath – was liked by everyone.

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This enriching journey became the driving force behind our organisation Sanchaari. I shared my idea of starting a movement or organisation that would celebrate culture, literature, food and heritage with Dr Pallavi Chandel, a trained historian, who also felt deeply for the city and its rich heritage. We approached Professor Lalit Joshi, a historian by trade and a musician by passion, who became our guide, mentor and inspiration on our journey. Naresh Roy, whose family runs the well-known restaurant El Chico joined in to cater to our food segment. One of my especially creative former students, Shlok, became our graphic designer. Saba, an assistant professor at Jamia University, my friend Anu, Sehar, Tahira, Pooja, Vasundhara and Shasya – people kept joining our enterprise.

Times changed the politics of the state, and the rapid influx of people from various districts altered the demographic pattern of society. Sanchaari took it upon itself to rebuild, recreate and relive the glory of the city, not only by recalling the past, but also by involving people in participating, appreciating and contributing to the city in the present. We amplified our heritage and connected with old-timers who had gone into their cocoons.

Allahabad food is a confluence of many cuisines, each influencing the other, yet retaining its distinct flavours. Allahabad has its own pace and any outing was mainly visiting people and sharing food. My frequent visits to my friend Sheila Varma’s typically Allahabadi household was again an enriching experience of dwelling into fine tastes and exotic vegetarian food. Varma led me into a world of warm hospitality where kebabs, fried parwal (gourd), methi chaman (cottage cheese with fenugreek), tomato paneer and seasonal vegetables were cooked in a distinctive style.

Muzaffar Ali in conversation with Professor Fatmi.

Allahabad has been home to a large community of Anglo-Indians since the time of British colonial rule. Though many members migrated to Australia and the United Kingdom sometime in the 1970s, the community still has sizeable presence in the city. My teaching job at the Boys’ High School connected me to this community and their delectable cuisine: a mixture of Indian and British culinary heritage. I discovered the Goan dish vindaloo, Christmas cakes baked at Bushy’s, and homemade mustard dips. Bushy’s, a bakery run by a Muslim family since 1963, still bakes in traditional wood-fired ovens. It is the only traditional bakery in Allahabad and, come Christmas, all Christian families book a slot at Bushy’s, lining up with their cake batter loaded with dry fruits soaked in rum.

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I was delighted to discover dhansak, berry pulao and other food traditions of the tiny Parsi community of Allahabad. Mrs. Harkoli, in contrast, prepared methi goli, a Kashmiri dish, for one of our Sanchaari festivals. Mrs. Ghatak, a family friend, introduced me to fine Bengali cuisine – including the art of cutting vegetables, which contributed a great deal to the taste and flavour of the chingri maacher malaikari, aalo posto and macer paturi. Enjoying these other cuisines, I was reminded of when I visited Allahabad as a child to spend time with my grandparents, when the Goan cook of a Mrs. Banerjee tempted me with the most delicious fish mayonnaise.

The ann koot lunch, also known as the chhapan bhog, at a Khatri friend’s house after Diwali left me enamoured with sumptuous dishes cooked without onion and garlic. The all-vegetable medley, sabzi ka saag, rice with khoya (fresh cheese), homemade mithai (sweets) – the dishes are endless and I look forward every year to the perfectly crisp kachoris with my favourite parwal ki sabzi made from the pointed gourdThe highlight of the meal is kanji, a drink prepared with mustard and fenugreek seeds soaked in water sweetened with sugarcane juice, the imli chutney (tamarind chutney) lending tart tones, and dumplings floating with sublime elegance. Another winter specialty of Allahabad is nimona. Raw peas are peeled and crushed and cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, tomatoes and boiled potatoes. Nimona tastes best when the crushed peas are fried in methi (fenugreek) and onions with a bit of crushed ginger and dry masala.

Sanchari’s Initiatives

Sanchaari has now been in existence for just five years and, in that time, it has earned a reputation for revisiting heritage and bring forth hidden aspects of the city.

The guavas of Allahabad – the Allahabadi amrood – have always been legendary. Our poet, Akbar Allahabadi, referred to this fruit with a pinch of sarcasm:

kuchh Allahabad meñ sāmāñ nahīñ bahbūd ke
yaañ dharā kyā hai ba-juz akbar ke aur amrūd ke

There is nothing for salvation in the city of Allahabad,
What is here anyway but for Akbar and guavas.

We thus organised a Guava Festival, the first of its kind, amidst the guava orchards of Khusro Bagh – the gardens surrounding the beautiful mausoleum dedicated to the Mughal prince, Khusrau Mirza. To our amazement, most people who visited the festival had little knowledge of the variety of guavas, and few had ever visited Khusro Bagh. Sanchaari can easily take the credit for reviving neglected varieties of guavas and making Khusro Bagh a more popular tourist spot. Allahabad Tourism and the district administration joined us to make this an annual event, inviting local vendors to showcase their varieties and promoting the plantation of guava trees. Recently, there had been a decline in guava orchards with many farmers planting banana trees for quick returns. As part of our environmental initiative each year, we encouraged many to plant guava trees.

Students participating in the Guava Festival.

The guava festival has gained tremendous popularity and every year people come up with the most delectable delights to enter in competitions and exhibitions – from guava cakes, smoothies, shakes and kheer to salads. An elderly gentleman prepared guava cheese and jelly to sell, sharing some interesting anecdotes about having learned the craft from an Anglo-Indian lady. Guava cheese and jelly sell like hot cakes, and nostalgic Allahabadis from around of the globe book these products in advance.

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Our food festival, Dil Ek Khane Anek, truly resonates with the ethos of the city. Its focus is on inviting people to participate with their original home-cooked dishes, including those prepared for particular festivals and seasons. Food becomes a binding force between communities, with a medley created from baati chokha (stuffed whole wheat dough balls with brijal mash), varieties of Bengali sandeshtangy palar (fermented curd drink with moong daal dumplings), marwari thaali with daal ki puri and sangiri (green bean dish), and the green pea broth nemona. Another dish which deserves a special mention is the heritage recipe dum ka salan – the meat being marinated in spices and slow cooked in an earthen pot and served with khameeri roti.

During our yearly literature festival, we organised a heritage food walk to the narrow lane in Allahabad’s old city known as loknath ki gali. There, we devoured hot kachoris and dum aloo followed by lassi with malai, or clotted cream. Sweet delicacies like lauki ke launj and khus khus gajak, kali gajar ka halwa and mompatti were relished with great pleasure. Sweet anarsas, the traditional monsoon sweet became part of our kajri musical events featuring folk and classical songs sung during the rainy season. Anarsas are prepared with crushed rice that is fried and dipped in sugar syrup and then rolled in sesame seeds. Kharcha (fried maida snack) and aam (mango-shaped sweet made with chickpea flour) during Navratra fasts were showcased and shared with pride by Vineeta Singh in the food segments of the fest. Vinti Agarwal, a dear friend, would treat us to tasty mathris with a variety of sumptuous pickles. Dum aloo kachori, karonde ki sabzi, laddoo ki kheer, pati sapta – every household shared its homely specialty and tasted from other tables. In 2019, we invited the renowned food historian, Professor Pushpesh Pant, to our food festival. He especially loved the mutton kofta curry served at my place, generously showering compliments while doing full justice to the dish.

In the same year, Sanchaari was honoured to collaborate with Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and her team based at the University of Sheffield to host the opening event of the project – Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India – as part of our Sanchari Sanskritik Parv. The Forgotten Food project addresses challenges linked to local communities and food sustainability in India through oral history, creative writing and promoting local varieties of food grains – and thus chimes with Sanchaari’s own aims. Like our group, the project also brings together academics, practitioners and community activists in collaboration. Though the planned workshop went ahead with participants from India and abroad, the associated food festival had to be cancelled due to a political situation that seemed too serious for a large congregation of people. The unexpected turn of events disturbed the flow of our festival, but not our energy: a lively gathering was still held at an impromptu venue with many inspiring exchanges on India’s diverse food cultures underpinned by a rich culinary heritage.