Mumbai and Delhi are often pitted against each other when it comes to the title of “food capital of India”. Ardent Mumbaikars vouch for the fresh seafood, while Delhi loyalists gush about the street food. However, the one thing that tips the scale towards the latter is the presence of the state bhawans—or more specifically, their canteens.
Now, if you’re not a local, you may visit the city’s more popular restaurants, perhaps drop by Old Delhi’s famed eateries, and leave without even hearing about these bhawans. This, however, would be a shame. For it is within the walls of these often grungy spaces that you often find exceptional regional food, minus the fuss and with an extra sprinkling of nostalgia.
A state bhawan serves as a guesthouse for state officials, and the office of the residential commissioner of the state, and almost every bhawan's canteen is open to the public. You only need to find out their timings, holidays and the best ones that should be bumped up on your list. I say almost every, as I have been turned back from the gates of the Jammu and Kashmir Bhawan. On another occasion, I found out only upon arriving at Rajasthan Bhawan that their famed lal maas is not served every day and had to settle for an insipid vegetarian thali instead.
Some bhawans have given out their canteens to private restaurants or caterers to run. By doing so, the likes of Bihar Niwas have upped the game, and there is a marked difference in the experience.
The Andhra Bhawan canteen is perhaps the most famous, and for good reason (more on that later). But the one that consistently delivers unbelievably flavorful regional food is the one at Bihar Niwas in Chanakyapuri.
Run by The Potbelly Café, the food here breaks all myths about Bihari cuisine being limited to litti chokha. Dishes range from mutton litti to palak pooris, from sattu drinks to an exceptional pineapple upside down cake. And the chutneys are great too.
Right next door stands the guesthouse of a state from the other side of the country—Goa. The casual ambience of the canteen embodies the easy-going vibe of the state, with a foosball table and putting set available for your use.
The usual suspects are all served here—vindaloo, cafreal and others. But it is the prawn butter garlic and chilli crab (served with pav) that almost have you believing that you can hear the waves outside the window.
Banga Bhawan is located off Barakhamba Road, which invariably brings in the office crowds during lunch hour. Get here early to grab a table as the food, cooked by folks from Bijoli Grill, is popular for good reason.
Give the overrated kosha mangsho a miss and order aloo poshto with luchi (Bengali pooris made with maida). If you’re feeling a tad bit greedy, go for the prawn kobiraji too, a fried fluffy omelette of sorts with prawns. Oily but delicious.
And, to wrap it all up, we come back to Andhra Bhawan. The lines snake around the corner and if you don’t get there early enough, there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait for up to an hour.
However, the shared tables are not a place to linger and you will soon find yourself seated and an impatient server asking for your order. Close your eyes and order the vegetarian thali with an additional side of mutton fry. You can thank me later.
Note: This article has been updated to remove Assam Bhawan’s restaurant (run by Jakoi), which was shut down recently.
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. Harnoor was content head at NDTV Food until recently, prior to which she worked on the Times Food Guide and authored an e-book, among other notable works. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines and now lives in Singapore with her husband and six-year-old daughter (whose first word reportedly was 'yummy' and not 'mummy').
Photographs by Harnoor Channi-Tiwary.
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