The Sweet Streets of Bikaner: The Halwai Culture of the Desert
What’s the secret behind Bikaner’s legendary sweetmeats?
There is something very alluring about life in a smaller town, to which I have always been attracted to. Being accustomed to life in India’s maximum city, it is borderline essential to step off the gas at times. Alighting the overnight train from Delhi at Bikaner, I couldn’t help but take a deep breath and smile at how very different the next few days were going to be for me. It is also here, that my journey into Bikaner’s glorious, delectable culture began.
Right outside the station is a narrow, rickety street that looks like it’s been exactly this way for at least half a century. Old walls are joined by newer, backlit sign boards and the occasional poster advertising superfast internet in a city that is in no rush to keep pace. Lining these walls are shops that hark back to Bikaner’s long-standing culinary culture, now iconised by the ‘Bikaner Bhujiawala’ that you possibly frequent in every major city. But, it is not just bhujiya that is part of Bikaner’s history of its halwais.
Every morning, Bikaner wakes up to the late, poised rumble of a hale and hearty breakfast. Food has been an integral, iconic part of Bikaner and its heritage. As the sandstone havelis of the royal families warmed up to the art of contemporary global cuisine in the pre-Independence era, the streets outside were livening up to the aroma of ghee and mithai. Today, as you walk out of the station, you come across a whole line of shops that sell aloo-poori, kachoris, jalebis, rasgullas and a variety of bhujiyas that are being made for the day, or even days to follow.
The halwais of Bikaner began their journey in the royal palace. Through the days of Maharaja Ganga Singh and his descendants, the royal family developed a proclivity of celebrating auspicious occasions with an overture of rich bhujiyas and mithai.
Such gestures were ingrained in cultures of opulent splurging on the atithi or guest, which was common across India. What made Bikaner different, in the initial days of the halwai, was the taste of Bikaner’s water. This is what lent a different dimension to the halwai’s kitchen, where the bhujiyas and mithais would taste nothing like anything around, and were crucial in the socio-cultural aspect, too.
The origin of the halwai was hence a royal affair, since ghee, kesar and dry fruits could never be afforded on a regular basis by the masses.
The halwai then stumbled upon Bikaner’s secret ingredient - the naturally-occurring sweetness of the water.
The results were sweets that were intentionally heavy and dripping with the reflection of the opulent royal life, until the same started trickling down to the masses. Chotu Motu Joshi, the iconic Bikaneri halwai, stands testament to this journey.
Now over a century old and being managed by the fourth generation of the family, Chotu Motu Joshi has only two shops in Bikaner, and is a must-visit for anyone who comes there.
Over time, the halwais here have adopted the rich bhujiyas into lighter snacks - fare that suits the masses. The textures of the snacks have been made to not be as heavy as before, which as Executive Chef Kishan Singh ji of Laxmi Niwas Palace put, is essential since our generation is different in terms of our bodily capabilities. Yet, the place attracts a steady footfall, and you will almost always find the shop filled with locals dropping by for a quick snack, or tourists checking in to get a taste of Bikaner’s most iconic identity.
Today, the halwais have adopted to making kachoris and mithais that are made with light, conscious amounts of ghee, and can be packed to carry along in journeys. The roots, though, are still ingrained in the original formula that put Bikaner back in the world map after the city excelled as a trading hub in the Silk Route. Even today, the natural sweetness of the water infuses Bikaneri bhujiya with a characteristic taste that you will not get anywhere else.
Like everything else, Bikaner too has adopted its rich culinary culture into one that suits every palate, all the while keeping its heritage intact.
(Vernika Awal is a food writer and independent journalist who blogs at Delectable Reveries. She is based out of Mumbai.)
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