A Royal Palate: Bikaner Offered Me Deliciousness in Every Gully
Every meal was a pleasant surprise – like Bikaner itself, an underrated destination that never stops surprising.
It could be a scene out of 50 Shades. I’m blindfolded in a dimly lit room with my dinner jacket on.
Except, this one’s a different type of sensory experience. One where me and my fellow diners had to depend on our olfactory nerves and taste buds to decipher a chef’s tasting menu.
I was at Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner, and this blindfold dinner was one of the many culinary experiences that blew me away in a town that isn’t a tourist magnet like some of its other counterparts in Rajasthan.
Narendrasinghji was the last Maharaja; the eponymous Narendra Bhawan used to be his royal residence. This is no grand palace but an intimate hotel full of Art Deco design elements, that offers glimpses of this Maharaja through a set of curated experiences.
It’s the lack of tourist traps that I enjoyed the most during my 48-hour stopover in one of Rajasthan’s western-most outposts with a 500-year history. The old town area is busy, but it’s mostly locals and there are no souvenir shops trying hard to sell any handicrafts.
It’s the same with the Junagarh fort. It may not be as well-known as some of Rajasthan’s frequently visited forts like Mehrangarh in Jodhpur but is a treasure trove for artefacts and fine architecture. More people have probably heard of Bikaner’s popular food item than this spectacular fort that dates back to 1589. It’s why my first stop after the fort was Bhikaram Chandmal Bhujiawala.
I arrived at this iconic Bikaner establishment armed with a large Tupperware Jar and asked for pehle pave ka bhujia with fresh boondi. Freshly-made bhujia usually arrives at this store before noon and you need to carry your own jar to ensure the long strands of this flavourful bhujia don’t break up. If that’s too much hassle, opt for their bhujia sampler where you can try at least 10 different types of bhujia and mixtures before you pick the packaged version that works best for you.
My queries at Bhikaram Chandmal and conversations with seasoned locals on Bikaner bhujia led me to conclude that it’s the moisture in the air or “hawaa ka kamaal” that sets it apart. Locals tell me about unsuccessful attempts by leading brands from outside Bikaner to ape the Bikaneri bhujia with the same ingredients, recipes and cooks. But apparently, it just didn’t work outside Bikaner.
Fact or just local pride, I will never know.
Bikaneris are proud of their unique heritage – and erstwhile Maharajas like Ganga Singhji who commissioned the Laxmi Niwas Palace constructed between 1898 and 1902.
Designed by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, it’s one of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in Rajasthan. The Gold Room within this imposing palace took me back to the roaring 1920s. It takes its name from the 45 kg of gold used to embellish this regal venue.
Our museum lunch was a typical leisurely lunch that the Maharaja would have hosted for special visitors and dignitaries. The menu (with all descriptors printed in French) included classics like an Asparagus Mousse and a pomfret finished in Béarnaise sauce.
You don’t just hear stories of Bikaner’s royals here; Chunnilal Tanwar Sharbatwale is a local legend too. This modest establishment’s sherbets have been helping locals beat the heat since 1939. Chunnilal Tanwar’s son Vidhan loves to talk about the floral and spice extracts – including their signature bela (jasmine) sherbet that was a revelation.
The surprises didn’t end there. Bikaner probably serves the best Rasmalai outside Kolkata. Chottu Mottu Joshi is one of the many outlets that are a testament to Bikaner’s ‘chenna’-based dishes.
Locals throng their busy seating area for ‘Samose pe charche’, conversations over samosas or poori with their piquant aloo sabzi. But it’s their sponge rosogolla and rasmalai that keep the cash registers ringing.
Some of Bikaner’s tiny hole-in-the-wall establishments can test Google Maps. Golccha store – that stocks pickles, papads and churans – is one such example. Their ker sangri pickle (made with dried ker, a type of caper or berry) and haldi (turmeric) ka achar totally make the trek worthwhile.
Navigating some of these narrow streets can be a challenge for outsiders but you will be rewarded with images in spots like Rampuria Haveli that are good for the ‘Gram’.
After two days, it was time to check out of Bikaner.
The last meal ended up being the most special – a literary menu experience at Narendra Bhawan. Each of the courses on this menu draw inspiration from modern literary classics. For instance, the chowder references a passage in Moby-Dick (by Herman Melville). This shellfish extract enhanced with cognac is topped with a crushed Ship Biscuit, making for another meal that came as a pleasant surprise – like Bikaner itself, an underrated destination that never stops springing surprises.
Stay: Narendra Bhawan (www.narendrabhawan.com), the residence of Bikaner’s last Maharaja has been reimagined into an luxurious hotel with a host of intimate dining spaces including an atmospheric pool deck.
Getting there and around: Air India (Alliance Air) operates one direct flight a day from Jaipur and Delhi. Many visitors also choose to fly to Jodhpur (about four hours away) and drive to Bikaner.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, a consultant and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)
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