SIX MONTHS SOJOURN AT AMBALA (HARYANA)
October of 2011 - We landed up at Ambala (Haryana, India). Time that we would be spending here was not known at that time but as the things appear today, we may be packing off pretty soon. Ambala is a township that was once looked upon as a magnet city that would have been developed to pull the human mass away from New Delhi. The idea was great and workable but somewhere down the line, it lost its way. So, Ambala remains a city that is neither developed nor untouched by the development; it is hanging somewhere in the middle, a bit confused and certainly disconcerted. For a city that is just 35 Kms away from sprawling Tri-city (Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula) and is under four hours away from the national capital, things are not as bright as could have been.
This blog, however, is aimed at looking at the brighter side of the package. The city, per se, is divided by NH 1 into two parts - Ambala Cantonment to the east of the NH and Ambala City to the west. And the alignment of the NH as also the layout of the population centres, army establishments and railways properties are such that both the parts stand isolated and not really dependent upon each other. Having lived in Ambala Cantt (as Cantonment area is known) for past six months or so, we would write about this particular part. BTW, Cantt here includes civil as well as military areas.
The First Impression - When we landed up here, it was the month of festivities. Our first trip to the market saw us getting overwhelmed by the number of people in the market. Cantt markets are pretty wide and inner streets are reasonably broad though side lanes are pretty narrow, further worsened by two wheelers whizzing through such lanes. The main market is centered around Sadar Bazaar. The main street of this bazaar have a mix of old and new and a few side lanes actually have a historical angle even though the 'new' has infiltrated most of such old lanes too. Anyways, seeing the rush and having felt the parking woes on the very first trip, we had valid reasons to attribute such a maddening rush to ongoing festival season. Markets shut down on Mondays but open air shops on the roads create more ruckus on such close days. So, practically, everyday is a rush day and you would be lucky if you find a valid parking place to park your car (two wheelers have better prospects though).
As the days passed and we kept on going to that area, more so for Czia's dance classes and Ajay's new found love for guitars, we began to realise that though festivities might add on to it, the over all crowd in the market is never on the ebb. With this belief in our minds, we started observing the trends whenever we went to the market. The aim was to discern the common point of interest, if any, for so many people. And soon we had our answer. People here love to eat and whatever may be the prime cause of their visits to the markets, the fact remains that most of such shoppers or walkers do visit one of the many eateries that offer great street food here. In fact, soon after our arrival here, a dear friend had shown us some of such old and famous places. Now, all that began to make sense. This blog, therefore, goes as our salute to great street food of Ambala Cantt. We would try and take you on a journey across the town to share with you our experiences with such eateries as also some other places of interest. Some other landmarks, not necessarily associated with food, will also be touched upon.
Well, this is a'deserted' market.....one of those early hours on a holiday!
Well, this is a'deserted' market.....one of those early hours on a holiday!
STREET FOOD; PART1 - VEG/Near VEG FOOD
Seriously, there are many famous joints here and most of these places actually have old traditions and own histories. We will take you to some of such places, both old and new and share our experiences....
Parkash Coffee House : Cottage Cheese Toasted Sandwiches and Beaten Coffee. The shop has a name but no signboard and no flashy look. Tucked between a famous shoes shop, Matta Shoes (please read ahead) and a hotel (Hotel Destination), this small, little shop is located bang opposite Jain Soda Water restaurant (pl see ahead) near Sadar Bazaar crossing. A police barrier, a traffic police recovery vehicle and a bit of encroachment by the neighbours, all together, reduce the visibility of an already obscured shop. But then what makes people take note of this joint is the fact that at anytime in the evening, you will see a small crowd standing in front of the shop, awaiting turns. Mr Bal Krishan Anand , the owner is a humble old man and he has been in business since 1956. Even today, when he enters his shop, he removes his shoes and serves barefooted. That is some tradition, given the fact that Ambala tends to touch zero degrees during winters.
Ignore the surroundings!
The niche serves only two things. First and the most popular is the fresh cottage cheese (paneer) sandwiches that are toasted in a frying pan, before serving...wow!! taste is simply superb. The key is the quality of the cheese and the fact that depsite being toasted in oil, the sandwuiches do not look, feel or taste oily. They have a small contraption that is used to cover the slices when the stuff is being toasted in a pan over a household LPG stove. The next item is beaten coffee, served in small, old styled glasses. It appears to be trend that new comers like us do order one plate, to be shared by two, and then before finishing the sandwiches, you are already asking for another. But by then, some more people would have been in queue and you have no option but to wait and wait and salivate all this while. We would recommend a visit and a try at this place. As it happens, many other shops have started offering similar stuff but this is the oldest, the most popular and the pioneer!
Jain Soda Water. As mentioned before, this famous restaurant is located bang opposite the small shop of Mr Bal Krishan Anand. Once upon a time, this was the only place where people could sit, eat/drink and pass time in the past. Today, many other restaurants have come up in the town and even this one has been renovated to add a touch of modernity and yet it retains its centrality like before. Many love affairs and many matrimonial alliances have been nurtured/ materialised in its precinct. It does not mean that it is a shady place. It has been a dignified choice of a place for the families who decided to move on from gardens and parks while discussing marriages.
Similarly, this place is spacious enough to let you sit for a while without a waiter breathing down your neck. So, a couple can honourably sit, in the full glare of staff and other clients and discuss things without becoming too cosy or intimate. Anyways, let us talk about food. Spiced up soda water has been a legacy and remains great even today. Then there is a line up of eats, including mini meals (hot and spicy Rajmash-rice combination is good). Ice creams and shakes are good too. We only wish that they re-open their washroom that has been shut as of now!
Sharma Bhojanalaya. Well, it looks old, if not antique from outside. Interiors have been renovated, though. We had heard a lot about the place that is located less than 100m from the police barrier at Sadar crossing. It is a neat place, offering pure veg food but the food that is being offered is pretty routine and nothing great was sampled there. May be it was one of the first eateries of the town and that too in the main market but then it is one of many, as on today.
At least, we found nothing great there and, thus, have nothing much to write about! (unless the food we ordered was not good on that particular day). Hey guys, please wash your entrance door and keep it clean.
Jalebis Loaded with Calories. Tasty nevertheless! This small place (no seating inside) is located at the same crossing near Sadar Bazar where all the above joints are running. With a small metallic counter serving as cooking slab as well as serving table, this place churns out really crispy and tasty desi ghee (clarified butter) jalebis. The sweetness and calories combination may be heavy on an aging metabolic system but a try here is worth the sin.
The crunch and flavour of thin jalebis lingers on for a while and compels you to visit the place yet again!
Aloo Tikki- Samosa- Gulab Jamun. Well, there are many contenders for the title as these 'dangerous' items are the ones most sought after by the crowds. We were told great stuff about two main contenders, viz, Pahalwan in Halwai Street and Neki Ram in Bartan Bazaar (All these places/streets are with in 200m of each other and this is another charm of this place). So, we tried both. Pahalwan one is located at a more prominent place and in a street that has many other eateries offering
Name not seen...Pahalwan's it is!
chat and pooris. We, however, did appreciate the taste but found M/S Neki Ram Bhushan Chand's stuff as more tasty and of better quality. Both the shops are very small kiosks and have no glamour factor. But Pahalwan's place stinks a bit because of drains next to it. Neki Ram has a few benches to sit inside the shop and that is an added factor.
Gulab Jamuns and Aloo Tikkis, as being offered by Mr Neki Ram, as per our assessment, are the best in the town.
Chat and Works. Halwai Street is home to many stalls selling Chat, Dahi Bhalla, Paani Poori/ Gol Gappa and such like stuff. The main names here are Pachranga, Satranga and Sangam and Sharma. Then there is a trolley/ hand cart that is set up only in the evenings (Calls himself Sharma and is stationed roughly opposite Sangam) and it sells Chat and paani pooris only.
So difficult to decide...chat or paani poori! The arguement continues!!
So, it is a difficult task deciding upon the best. Pachranga has the max variety and is popular for good reasons. It also offers a place to sit. However, if paani poori is the deciding factor, we would grade hand cart Sharma ji as the best (not the shop with a similar name and in the same street...we are referring to the hand cart that comes up only in the evenings).
Kartar Sweets. An old land mark in itself, it is located very close to M/S Neki Ram (Aloo Tikki fame). As the signboard suggests, this place boasts of Rasmalai (now please do not expect me to explain....you would better try it yourself) and Ice Cream.
Well, it kind of lives up to its reputation as far as Ras Malai is concerned (storage and handling style duly ignored) but the ice cream was just about OK...nothing outstanding. Full marks for its antiquity and its courage to offer ice creams in the face of onslaught of branded ones in the market.
Sawhney Sweets. Do not go by the name. It is, of course, a sweets selling shop and it does offer some great tastes too. But the prize lies in its assortment of Mathis (and that is why
the other signboard on top). The lane where it is located, though very close to Sadar and Bartan Bazaar, is very congested and during festival times, there is a block of two wheeler traffic also, all because of the crowd that gathers there. They have five types of mathis to choose from (what the hell, all are worth the pick up!) and the bottom picture will give you an idea as to how they meet demands with supplies.
Garg Refreshment. This one is located on main Jagadhari Road near Janta Sweets Chowk. Their specialty ...poori-choole combo that tastes wonderfully sumptuous and at a price that
will make you pinch yourself to believe it. It is the cheapest food but with a great taste that is available to office goers and late risers alike.
]Ashoka Dairy Products. Again, just about 100m from Halwai Street and pretty close to Sadar Crossing, this joint sells some of the best cottage
cheese, curd, Desi Ghee, fresh cream and Khoya, that we, at least, have tasted in a long time. Ambala, as it is, depsite its proximity with big cities, has a degree of purity in dairy products that is not found easily anywhere else. Our favourite, out of all great products, is Masala Paneer (the spiced up version of raw cottage cheese) that has ginger, pepper, coriander and such like ingredients added during manufacturing process itself.
Kansal Sweets. Location wise, it is slightly offset from the main market but with in walking distance (like every other place in this town). More popular with upper middle class and army guys, this place offers some good quality sweets. Hot samosas that are brought literally off the burner, are good and so are other sweets and some Gujarati food items like Dhokla and so on.
Mohan Bakery. There are two branches, one in the city and one in the cantt. Located opposite SD College on Jagadhari Road, the outlet (one of many Mohan's...wonder if the owner is one same guy!) offers some great cakes and other bakery products. His daily sale of cakes runs into dozen of dozens and even more. A sitting area on top of the shop offers comfort and coziness.