At 6:30am the fire has been lit. A pot-bellied halwai swiftly beats yeasty batter, a young man fills pastry dough with spicy potato mix, a small crowd meanwhile has already gathered in anticipation of their breakfast—crispy jalebis and spicy samosas. Welcome to Allahabad—or Prayagraj?—the land of early morning breakfasts and Ganga-Jamuni flavours.
Food is everywhere here—from the bylanes of the Old City that come alive every evening with hawkers, shoppers and gourmands, to the small shacks sprinkled all over the town, and carts loaded with churmura and chaat. “I remember going to Allahabad every summer,” reminisces Anahita Dhondy, the chef manager of SodaBottleOpenerWala NCR and Bengaluru, who spent a part of her annual holidays in the city. “The first thing we always did when we got there was to go to Civil Lines for chaat. I especially liked the white matar with sonth ki chutney and of course the aloo ki tikki.”
Chaat in Allahabad, much like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, is the mainstay of the street food. It is also a great leveler—from the poorest man on the street to the richest person in town, everyone loves this spicy mish-mash prepared by skilled hands. Suhal ki chaat, made with a triangular patty, boiled white peas, sonth (tamarind) ki chutney, whipped yoghurt, and julienned ginger is an Allahabadi specialty, as is tamatar ki chaat made with tomatoes, boiled potatoes and seasoning. Pani ke batashey and aloo tikki meanwhile are universal favourites, even though here they are smaller, crispier and spicier than anywhere else. Nirala Mishthaan Bhandar in Loknath lane remains one of the most popular places in town for chaat. Tikonia’s Chaat at Bairahana and Guruji’s Chaat in Colonelganj are other well-known places to sample chaat in Allahabad.
“My favourite part of Allahabadi food are the dahi vadas,” says Ruchi Srivastava, producer, Greed Goddess Media, who loves Allahabadi vadas for their creaminess. Unlike other places, the dahi vadas in Allahabad are pre-soaked in smooth yogurt and dressed again in mildly-sweet curd before serving with red and yellow chilies and sonth ki chutney “I am also biased towards Netram ki kachori from Netram Mulchand & Sons. Those are outstanding, and they retain their flavour even after travelling all the way to Mumbai with me,” she adds cheerfully.
While the chaat and kachori stalls have their fans, they aren’t the only places that serve up noteworthy snacks. In the Old City, the shops may be old and crumbly but they arguably make some of the best food you would ever taste—within or outside of Allahabad. The small samosas from Hira Halwai in Civil Lines, for example, are crisp and spicy and hit you with the intense flavour of asafoetida and ghee; dalmoth—a namkeen made with lentils, fine sev and peanuts—is soft, crunchy, spicy, and tangy in equal measure. While every second shop in Allahabad makes scrumptious dalmoth, the best place remains Hariram in Chowk. Added bonus—the gulab jamuns here are considered among the best in the country.
Sangetha Khanna, noted food writer and culinary consultant, agrees.“There is no doubt that Allahabad has the best gulab jamuns,”she says, swearing by the ones from Dehati and VIP sweets in Sobatia Bagh. “The sweet makers here use age-old methods plus the quality of milk is unparalleled, which results in a dense, soft, and grainy texture,” she explains. The milk could also be the reason for the creamy khurchan and luscious rabri. A trademark preparation, khurchan is made by boiling milk on charcoal flame and carefully separating the malai layer after layer. This daylong process ultimately results in a thick creamy reduction served slightly sweet. The rabri, made similarly, is not as firm and is a tad sweeter. Together they demonstrate the mastery of the maker over his ingredients, something one would witnesses very often in Allahabadi food.
“Allahabadis are real connoisseurs of food, but they are also big critics. If they do not like something, they will say it to your face.” Naresh Rai, a noted restaurateur and the owner of the city’s oldest restaurant, El-Chico, tells us while discussing the culinary culture of the town. “Our food has had various influences—British, Parsi, Muslim, Khatri, even Bengali,” says Rai, “and so the flavours here are uniquely distinct and yet simple” he explains. Nothing showcases his point better than the humble churmura. An authentic Allahabadi snack found all over the town, churmura is made with puffed rice, diced boiled potatoes, peanuts, sev, and aam ki khatai ka pani that borrows from the Bengali jhaal muri, parsi sev and aam ki khatai of Uttar Pradesh. Just like the mixture leaves a lingering after taste on the palate, the flavours of Allahabad stay alive in your mind forever.
A version of this story first appeared in CondeNast Traveller.