They say food is the ingredient that binds us all together. And if that isn’t true for the Indian diaspora and consequently Chandigarh, what is? Indians love to show their love through food. No wonder at every event, big or small, it remains the centre of attraction. Our most childhood memories are also centred around trips to our grandparents’ house and returning with bulging bellies. Every festival, every season, weddings…you name the occasion and you will find its own intimate connection with gastronomy. It is almost impossible to imagine life without it. We turn to food on joyous occasions, sad endings and of course, right before exams! Dahi cheeni, anyone?
The History of Chandigarh
Well, you must know by now that Chandigarh is a city of immigrants. Built by the 1960’s, its culture or history is not as ancient as most Indian cities. It was the first planned city of India post independence. So it stands to reason that you can’t pin point to any dish that is truly an invention of Chandigarh. With no indigenous residents or a long history to speak of, it is a city of migrants- each bringing to the table its own culture and flavor. There are no controversies when it comes to a dish you try here.
But City Beautiful still has a flavor (both figuratively and literally!) of its own. And why wouldn’t it? This place is the melting point of all people from Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir, Gujrat and so many states down South, who decided to settle here and call it home. But that divide is sometimes apparent in the city as well. Visiting certain sectors might be akin to visiting a mini version of these states.
Much like its Open Hand symbol, this city opened its heart to people from different regions, races, economic stratas and of course, different taste palettes. The same reflects in the food that you taste here. For instance, a plate of Chole Kulche will be as scrumptious as the one you will find in the old streets of Amritsar or Delhi. Or most people will savour Makki ki Roti and Sarson ka Saag with Lassi in winters as much as the next true blue Punjabi. The same holds true for various other dishes from other states around the country. Think Masala Dosa or the new crowd favorite, Vada Pav. If you are from a different state visiting Chandigarh, you are not going to miss the food back home because your fellow brethren will take good care of you!
However, if you are looking for restaurants that typically serve Himachali or Bengali food (or something similar), you might be disappointed. I believe there are multiple reasons for that. Right from the influence of more dominant cultures (like Punjab) to the relatively simpler meals that are at the centre of these states. Most people assume that these dishes are not delicious enough or maybe even fancy enough to pay attention to. This has taken away the attention from the dishes of these states and you will probably find them in humble households.
The Food Culture of City Beautiful
But it’s simply not about the various kinds of food you can try in this city. As Chandigarh grows older, more mature, there’s history being passed down in front of our own eyes. It’s not something that is being actively documented but if you look closely there are so many instances of oral history in the food being served in our homes and outside. Take for instance, a humble South Indian roadside stall in Sector-47. Their family came from the South and their third generation currently serves authentic dosas, vadas, idlis and more to swarms of people in the evening. Sometimes you will also notice the grandmother, the first from the family, serving people vadas with extra coconut chutney with a huge grin on her face.
As the city flourishes, these recipes get passed down from one generation to the next and become part of a story that has ‘always been there’. If you ask me, that’s how history is made and cultures are built, without us noticing.
That is the beauty of Chandigarh. It has an explicable ability to absorb everything and everyone who comes here and can call it home. Now that I think of it, this place is like a sponge! No wonder why they say once you have lived in Chandigarh, you can’t live anywhere else.
Though surely all this would not have been possible without the participation of the citizens themselves. The people of Chandigarh have always been open to new cuisines and dishes. Of late, with the influx of the student population from various other states, places serving Kashmiri or North-Eastern food are also blooming. But they are frequented not just from the denizens of that state, but others as well. Here I say ‘others’ instead of Chandigarh residents because at this point who knows who is a Chandigarhian. Maybe all of us or could be none of us.
However, the fact remains we embrace every cuisine as our own, letting a piece of gluttonous history of every state mushroom here without fear. And that perhaps is the beauty of a place which has no history of its own. It is like a blank page waiting for people to fill it with their own personal histories and create an abstract masterpiece. I mean where else would you find someone sitting in a luxury car enjoying golgappe, puchkas, pani puri, whatever you call it depending where you are from, from a roadside vendor! Or a family consisting of grandparents, parents and children sharing a meal in a club? This city is a juxtaposition, a paradox that is impossible to explain yet extremely easy to experience first hand.
The Evolving Food Culture of Chandigarh
Dhabas, restaurants, roadside vendors…you name it and this city has got it. There is something for everyone. In fact, in Chandigarh you will see a lot of stereotypes around food being broken as well. The Sector-8 market is a classic example of that. The small lane of booths with no seating serves one of the most high-end foods in the city. It is thronged by both youngsters and their families alike. And let us not forget the love for home bakers and cooks! So many people are increasingly ordering from home run kitchens. And no, I am not talking about the tiffins or dabbas. But high-end dining that individuals are now delivering to the safety of your home. And the most surprising part is that most of these kitchens are being run by individuals in their early 20s using recipes passed down by their elders.
So if you ever wanted to get your hands on a grandmother’s authentic Kashmiri Laal Maas, you could easily gorge on one. Or if you wanted to experience what Panjeeri or home-made Achaar tastes like, someone would make it using their family recipe and serve it to you. If food is the way you share love, Chandigarh has a lot of that to go around on!
It is how people bond here. Ask any school going child and he will tell you the variety of food he gets to try from his friend’s tiffins during lunch. Every box carries a piece of nourishment from a different state or culture. And that in my opinion is a great thing. It not only expands their taste buds but also creates a stage to share stories.
For instance, while I was in school, just before winter, I would carry this dish made by my nani. It is called patrod, patted and other names (again, depending on where you are from). It is basically made from the leaves of arbi (taro root) and is a Himachali delicacy. The recipe has been passed down from generations and my classmates from Haryana, Bihar and Punjab love it. While I shared the recipe with them, I would also share various stories surrounding it. How my mother would come back from school and she and my nani would sit together, chat about all things life and prepare it simultaneously. Food does not exist in a vacuum. It is completely bland by itself. The taste comes with a seasoning of stories, conversations, incidents, life-changing or mundane.
But of course, not all schools are the same. The culture of sharing and caring is much more profound in schools whose demographics include more students from middle class families. Not taking anything away from the ‘elite’ schools, let’s just agree the former are more accepting of something ‘new’.
People in Chandigarh will tell you of instances when they proposed to their loved ones in the 80’s in a restaurant and the server still remembers them and gives them an extra dish when they visit the restaurant even today. Or how they remember them from college times and now they go there with their families and kids (this is an incident from Sindhi Sweets). Servers remember your favorite order like the back of their hands and all the extra or special requests one may have.
Food has become an intricate part of the personal histories of people in Chandigarh. While they may not be as flashy but they are as endearing and important as the next one for they shape the stories of the next generation that still treats the server as family long after their parents have passed away and the legacy and relationships still carry on just because of one thing- the common and shared community love for food.
You can find this everywhere. There are probably thousands of other engaging stories that people carry with them. All you have to do is ask. With the different types of people, these stories will also carry their own twist that you would probably not notice in someone else’s. That is what makes them unique. And why Chandigarh might just be one of the most ideal places to explore those.
Have you ever noticed when a dish is made at home and you are reminded of a grandparent who passed away? But their face would light up when the dish was cooked? Or a loved one who may not be a part of your life anymore? But you shared a lovely conversation with them over a meal at a particular restaurant? There are numerous instances and I am sure that you would relate to one or the other. Food is not just about eating but everything else that goes along with it. While they seem completely ordinary in the course of normal life. In hindsight, they are a floodgate of emotions and memories. And the ticket to this roller-coaster ride is completely free.
People call Chandigarh as City Beautiful to honour the way it is made, the greenery, the visual beauty of it. But in my opinion, that is just the tip of the iceberg. This city’s beauty lies in the way it embraces anyone and everyone and colors them in their own flavor. And of course, the other way round. How else do you explain the rich gastronomic culture of a place that has none but all to call its own? Food not only nourishes our life but our souls and love for each other. And what better place to do that than in Chandigarh? The home of the old, the new and everything in between!