Last week, I was passing by the new terminal 1C at Mumbai domestic airport when the swanky new food court caught my attention. It had afabulous spread on offer, including hand-tossed pizzas, a range of spicy curries, gourmet sandwiches and plump kathi rolls. It also boasted an Udupi-style food stall with a nice dot-com name (Idli.com) and a coffee shop which proudly displayed Mumbai’s signature dish, the mouth-watering vada paav
Gone are the days when executives with busy and unending travel schedules faced a hopeless choice between the solitary ITDC airport food stall, which offered unappetizing dry sandwiches or slices of cake, and the musty restaurant, where it took ages to obtain a greasy omelette doused in ketchup.
I believe Indian domestic airports are on their way to becoming gourmet hot spots, with exotic local and global cuisine on the menu. Modern food courts make a mouth-watering point for New Age business travellers who care to indulge in epicurean adventures even as they check their BlackBerrys and await boarding calls for their flights.
If you are a foodie and relish a tasty little fling in the middle of your hectic travel, the airport may well be the perfect place for you. Of course, this works best if you are truly adventurous in your pursuit of food. Among executives who are frequent flyers, I have noticed three primary categories of “airport eaters”. The first is the Junkie, whose departure hall forays do not extend beyond potato crisps, samosas, cola and chocolates. To him, the new airport food courts are of no relevance at all.
Second comes the Sandwich, who is aptly named after his favourite food. He prefers to play safe while travelling on work, and what’s safer than a sandwich? Airport outlets such as Barista and Café Coffee Day are his favourite haunts, and the Sandwich may even try the occasional variations—a croissant or a burger. But epicurean indulgence at airports is not his cup of tea.
And finally, the true Foodie. He is always on the hunt for the exotic and the new. He loves to experiment, and his passion for food is all-consuming. To him, good food is both adventure for the senses and nourishment for the soul. I count myself in this category, which is how I have discovered some of the wonderful culinary treasures that our airports hold.
At its departure terminal stands a small restaurant that serves the most delicious pongal. Spiced with fresh broken black pepper and served with thick coconut chutney, this steaming hot, rice-based dish makes for a wonderful breakfast or repast any time of the day. The pale yellow colour, the small pieces of smashed ginger, the warm flavours and the excellent consistency of the chutney are noteworthy. In my judgement, the pongal served at the Bangalore airport compares well with the best in the world, which is to be found in the narrow streets of Madurai. The restaurant also serves excellent idlis and vadas, but the pongal is the pièce de résistance.
I was delighted to see that the iconic vada paav has finally made its appearance in at least two food stalls at the domestic airport at Mumbai. This dish was shrink-wrapped and had to be heated in the microwave oven, but it came fairly close to the taste I have always relished whenever I have grabbed a bite while travelling on the suburban Western railway line of the Maximum City. At the airport stall, the potatoes in the vada were well tempered, and the green chutney was spicy enough. However, I missed the pungent red powdery garlic chutney, which is always a part of street-side vada paav variety in Mumbai. But I am hoping that this small deficiency will soon be rectified based on my feedback to the catering staff at the stall.
The Chennai airport hides a delicious secret. Wedged into one corner of the airport terminal, just opposite the check-in counters, is my all-time favourite airport food stall, Sri Krishna Sweets, which has been around for a while. A well-known Chennai food and sweetmeat chain, it offers an amazing variety of incredibly tasty savouries and sweets. Topping my list here are the cashew nut pakoda, onion pakoda and the interestingly named lace pakoda (it looks just like a lace)—fried crisp, fresh and golden brown, melting in your mouth like butter in a pan. I generally buy these savoury snacks in a small brown paper packet, and eat them as I walk through the airport. You can ask for a free taste of all the savouries at the stall. They are usually happy to oblige. If you have a sweet tooth and can afford the calories, the badam halwa at this stall is my top-most recommendation. Have just a couple of sinful spoonfuls...ummmm.
At Hyderabad’s plush new airport, which compares well with the best terminals in the world, there is only one dish I head for every single time—mutton biryani from the iconic Paradise Hotel. Yes, it is now served within the airport, steaming hot and accompanied by Mirchi ka Saalan. The mutton is incredibly soft and juicy, each morsel of rice is cooked just right and flavoured with lamb stock, the accompanying gravy is smooth and spicy. Variations of the famous biryani, with chicken or vegetable, are also available and are equally lip-smacking. On my most recent visit last month, this particular airport restaurant had also begun offering a combo of chilled beer with the biryani. A simply unbeatable combination.
Leh And Kochi
Many smaller airports in non-metro locations offer equally exquisite fare, if you search hard. At Kochi’s Nedumbassery airport, head to a small canteen within the airport parking lot which serves a wonderful choice of Kerala breakfast fare—steamed puttu and kadale, idiyappams and stew, followed by strong dust chaya (tea). At the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport in Leh—the highest civilian airport in the world—while you feast your eyes on the unbeatable views of the snow-capped Ladakh range of mountains, you can also enjoy a glass of the wonderful Leh-Ladakh berry juice at the solitary food stall in this airport. The berry juice is apparently the local favourite and I have never had this drink elsewhere. Its thick, delightful, distinctive taste still lingers on my palate.
The delicious moral of this epicurean story: If your job involves travel through the airports of our country, you now have every incentive to turn into a Foodie if you are not one already. Throw out the faceless junk food and the boring sandwiches, and indulge in some memorable dining experiences before your flight is announced. Happy airport eating!
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer, watches, Titan Industries Ltd. He has never missed a flight yet while indulging in an airport meal, but given his passion for finger-licking food there are chances this may happen soon.
If you have a suggestion about a must-try dish at any domestic airport, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org