What does the menu for 2018 look like? Finding inspiration in Pradyumna Malladi's Vishakhpatnam

Crystal gazing in a pootha rekhu in
Vizag's Swagrama Food Court

1. I went to Vishakhapatnam after a gap of 18 years. I saw that the city had changed, just as I had too over the years
2. I tried out various Andhra dishes at local favourite joints while at Vizag. Some of which were new discoveries for me
3. I was most impressed by the Andhra sweets that I had there. Especially the pootha rekhu. Discoveries that I made thanks to Pradyumna Malladi who is a Finely Chopped reader and who took me around in Vizag
4. I figured out what I wanted to do next in life after I had the pootha rekhu. Puzzled? Read on...

Back in Vizag, twenty years younger

If you follow my social media feed, then you would know that I was at Vishakhpatnam for a couple of nights recently. 

I had gone to speak at the Jagriti Yatra summit at the Gitam University. The topic of our panel discussion was, 'the enterprise of food.' The audience consisted of around 500 odd youth who are future entrepreneurs and change leaders from 28 states from across India and  included international youth delegates too, They were travelling across India for a fortnight, gathering valuable life experiences, in a train called The Jagriti Express which is a wonderful initiative which is into its tenth year now.

The audience. Our future!

At the end of our panel discussion. Moderated by Ruben of Jagriti
and which also had Ajay Koneru of Dosa Place, Mukesh Manda of
Tinmen and Yeshwant of Thick Shake 
The trip to Vishakhapatnam was very significant for me at a personal level. I had last been to Vizag, as Vishakhapatnam is called colloquially, 18 years back. I was fresh out of B School then and had just started a career in market research. I was was probably of the same age then as the Jagriti Yatra folks are now. 

The city of Vizag has changed a lot from my last visit. It has risen from the ashes after being damaged by a cyclone and its people have turned poison into medicine. It has now become the hotspot of modern Andhra Pradesh after the state was split into two. It is a tourism hub, is among the top three cleanest cities in India (a far cry from people poo'ing in the beach as I remember from '98) and, from what I gathered from the talk of the IT secretary of AP at Gitam, is a centre of fintech too.

My life has changed a lot too since then. I am a food writer today and no longer am a market research agency man, though my training in market research, cultural observation and trendsetting hold me in good stead still. I would rarely leave the comfort of the hotel then when travelling on work and happily ate in the hotel then. Today I try to make the most of my travels by trying to understand the community and culture of places I go to, by experiencing its local food by eating where locals eat and that is exactly what I did in Vishakhpatnam today.

The start of the Middle India chapters of The Travelling Belly

Yes, I did try out a lot of dishes during my short stay at Vizag. Most of what I encountered turned out to be eye openers for me. In this post, I want to tell you about some of these and most so about one specific dish. That of an Andhra sweet dish called the pootha rekhu. This is a discovery that I made thanks to Pradyumna Malladi.

Pradyumna and I are connected on Instagram. He has had read my book The Travelling Belly, and reached out to me through Instagram when I landed at Vizag. Turned out that he is a local Vizag boy who now lives elsewhere due to work. Luckily for me, he had come home to meet his family when I was at Vizag. He most kindly offered to me around during this trip. I jumped at the offer and met him soon after I had settled down in the hotel.

Let me now tell you about some of the places that I went to with him.

With Pradyumna Malladi

Inside Pradyumna Malladi's Vishakhpatnam

Meaty tales from Raju Gari Dhaba

Chicken biryani, prawn fry, mutton fry, crab masala at Raju Gari Dhaba

He first took me to the Raju Gari Dhaaba near the Rushikonda beach.  This is a no frills eatery where you go for spicy but simple non-vegetarian dishes such as fried mutton, chicken, prawns, fish, crabs and biryani too. I went back there the next day with the Jagriti guys and I found it to be packed with students from the Gitam University and a million Bengali tourists...'ei tebil ti khali hoyechhe chole aai (there's an empty table, come) - and all. The food has fairly rustic flavours. It is spicy and is high on chilli heat without being 'toxic' and even I could handle it despite my low tolerance level for chillies. The quality of meats and seafood used is very fresh and it was cooked just right and nothing was overcooked or raw. It seemed to be the one place that all visitors to Vizag are referred to. It's a bit of a drive down the coast from RK beach where hotels like the Grand Bay, where I stayed, and Novotel are.

Food Truck Revolution

Seafood food truck

Foodtruck chef. Lovely bhetki fry here.
It's on the green plate

No, not my food truck. Tasty chicken fry with loads of bones

Pradyumna and I also stopped at a food truck sponsored by the local fishery ministry. This was parked on the road which connected the two beaches. I had a lovely fried bhetki (Rs 200) where the skin was fried crisp and spicy and where the flesh inside so very juicy and delectable. I know that food trucks are the in thing at Mumbai and Gurgaon but in Vizag they are a way of life it seems and they dot the city. 

The next evening, I stopped to have some lovely cashew chicken (Rs 100) at one of the 'Kalyan cashew chicken food trucks' on the stretch by the sea. No, the chain has nothing to do with me!

Muri Mixture by the beach

Muri mixture by the beach

Muri mixture by the beach

Jhal muri memories

Pradyumna took me to a muri mixture stand by the RK Beach too. Muri mixture, is a snack that Pradyumna had grown up on as a kid it seemed, just as I had on muri chanchoor in Kolkata. The 'muri mixture' consists of muri (rice crisps/ bhel/ kurmura) mixed vigorously and rhythmically with lime juice, finely chopped peanut bhajji (chilli pakora fritters), peanuts - which were the soul of the mixture according to Pradyumna, finely chopped raw red onion and boiled white peas and tomatoes and salt, chilli powder and garam masala powder. 

What tickled me the most was that they called rice puffs muri, here just as they do in Bengal. However, unlike in Bengal's jhal muri, no mustard oil is added to the muri mixture of Hyderabad. The dominant flavour notes are tangy and heat unlike the bhel puri of Mumbai which too is a dish of muri/ bhel mixed with condiments and which has a prominent sweet dimension too. Bhel puri is the wettest of the lot (bhel, dhal muri, muri mixture, due to the chutneys added to it, unless you have a sukha (dry) bhel.

Pradyumna told me that the bulk of the Vishakhaptnam's tourist crowd apparently comes from Odisha and Bengal. I even saw guest houses which advertised that Bengali meals were available there and this was written in Bengali. The Bengali food was cooked by Odiyas possibly given than most Bengali catering and restaurant kitchens are manned by Odiya cooks!

I wonder if the word muri was a legacy of Bengal's many tourists as well as settlers in Vizag. Yes, many Bengalis and Marwaris have been living in Vizag for ages from what I gathered.

Vizag's Bengali legacy

Sweet surprises in Vizag

A shop that specialised in Andhra sweets and
savoury snacks

Pradyumna takes charge 

Pradyumna took me to a sweet shop called Swagrama (their bags were lablelled Swagruha though) too. I was not keen to go there as I didn't associate Andhra cuisine with sweets. Or the whole of South India for that matter, apart from the Mysore Pak of Karnataka and the payasam of Kerala. I thought that going to the sweet shop would be a waste of time. I wanted to call it a day. However, Pradyumna gently insisted that I do go with him there and I went in as I knew that I was in good hands.

Some of the amazing Andhra sweets that I tried
Clockwise: Junnu, arise, kakinada khaaja, madatha khaaja, bellam jalebi,
pootha rekhu, minapasunni laddoo

This is stuffed with a sweet mashed dal mixture...bobbatu

Pradyumna chose a plate of sweets for me which featured sweet treats that I had  never come across before. The included a gur (jaggery sweetened) jalebi called bellam jalebi. Bellam means gur in Telugu. This was an interesting concept. Jalebis that I have had before, including in m gur loving Bengal, are made in sugar syrups. The taste was different here thanks to the gur and gurs lovers would love it I imagine. 

There was also a beautiful textured, sugar syrup kissed khajas and gajas which were crunchy outside and soft and spongy inside.  One had sugar syrup inside and is called Kakinada Khaaja and the other had a folded texture and is called madatha khaja.  There was a pudding-like dish similar to the kharwas of Maharashtra. It too was made the cow's collustrum and is called junnu. Then there were laddoo made with dal, which are apparently given as energy boosters to kids by Andhra mothers. It had a beautiful texture and is called minapasunni laddoo. This was not too sweet unlike what many other laddoos tend to be. There was another lovely dessert which had a sal based stuffing inside and which is called boori.

There was a thick sweeten mashed dal stuffed dessert covered with a maida coating which seemed like a more regal version of the puran poli of the Konkan belt to me and is called bobattu here. There was also a disc like sweet made with sesame seeds and which is called the arise.

The magic of pootha rekhu

The white paper roll is actually a pootha rekhu
On top are the boori and the minapassuni laddoo

There was also a roll of butter paper on one of the plates. I was about to unroll it and take out its contents when Pradyumna stopped me, and said, looking alarmed, 'Put the entire thing in your mouth please, don't unroll it'.

"The paper,' I asked.

"Yes, yes,"

I did so and was stunned by what followed. What looked like butter paper turned out to be an edible sweet sheet in reality. Nestled inside it was an assortment of crushed nuts. It tasted divine and I kept nibbling on it. This is what would be called an example of molecular gastronomy in Indian cuisine I guess. However, it was not a Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria inspired dish created by a modern Indian chef. It is a dish traditional to the east Godavari region of Andhra Pradesh as I found out, and has been made painstakingly and lovingly by Andhra grannies over the ages. It is called Pootha Rekhu and is made with a rice flour, sugar and ghee based hot mixture, from what I gather. The mixture is boiled in a pot and then magically transformed into these sheets using a piece of cloth. The sheets are then rolled up and then stuffed with a mix of nuts or jaggery. Pootha means coating and rekhu sheet, as I saw from the Wikipedia entry for it. From what I understand, rekhulu is plural and many refer to it as pootha rekhulu.

When you bite into it then you first feel as if you are biting into paper which then immediately dissolves into your mouth and you get a sweet sensation and then the crunch of nuts. It’s as if an Andhra epic movie is playing in your mouth with its many twists and turns and the experience is sensational.

What struck me about the experience at Swagrama was how amazing these sweets were, and how technically wondrous the pootha rekhu was, and yet how I had not heard of any of them before. Nor did I even know that Andhra Pradesh has a strong sweet culture.  And do keep in mind that I am slightly more aware of regional Indian food than the average diner thanks to my work and the research that I did for my book and for my blog. Every Andhra'ite that I met in the trip spoke lovingly of their native sweets and told me specifically to try the pootha rekhu but I doubt if too many non-Andhraites even knew of the existence of this.

Just goes to show one that there is so much more to learn about the rich and diverse of food culture of our country.

The recipe for 2018

At the end of the last year, I was wondering where to go next, figuratively speaking, as a food writer. I think that this became clear to me when I took my first bite of the pootha rekhu at Vizag.

That's when it struck me that I should start my rediscovery, or even discovery for that matter, of 'middle India,' and its food culture. I am referring to places that were once called the small towns of India and what have now grown to become the fulcrum of India's growth. These are cities and parts of the country that I have not travelled to much in recent years or in general. 

It is time to take to the Travelling Belly out of the metros and of the big cities, to explore the richness and vastness of the regional food of India and to tell you the stories of what I ate when on the road.

My short stint at Vishakhapatnam seemed to be just the right place to start.

 So that's how my 2018 looks. What about your's?

Breakfast with Pradyumna at Maa Nethi Vindhu
with our earnest waiter. Not knowing Telegu makes it a
bit tough for visitors but one figures ways out

After Sunrise

I managed to sneak in another meal with Pradyumna when he took me for breakfast the day I left. He drove me past 'pop up' stalls serving tiffin to the queues of people who had gathered there before we zeroed in a restaurant that is a local favourite and whose name is Maa Nethi Vindhu. This literally translates into 'our ghee feast' said Pradyumna and nothing could have described our breakfast of the delicious podi masala freckled baked idli cake-like aviary kodum, the onion rava dosa and the pongal (a slow cooked rice and moong dal khichdi) better. It was as if the food was excitedly giving one big wet ghee kisses of welcome. The food tasted great and came with an assortment of fresh chutneys and podi spices to balance the richness of the ghee. 

Some of the other places that I ate at in Vishakhpatnam were Venktadri Vantillu where I had a lovely breakfast of spongy ghee karma dosa and Upma stuffed pesaratu Upma dosa and Sairam Plaza where I had a vegetarian thali for dinner and the Dakshin at Grand Bay where I got a master class on Andhra non-vegetarian food from chef Shreeda along with dinner. 

More on those later and here's wishing you a very happy new year.  May the year be one of brilliant achievement, joy and happiness and great food for you.

Note: Here's the link from where you can purchase my debut book, The Travelling Belly, where I talk about my travels across the big cities of India and what I ate in the bargain

Breakfast with Pradyumna at Nethi Vindhu

Breakfast at Grand Bay where thanks to the Bengali chef Satyajit Goswami
and Odiya F&B manager, Pradip Mishra, I scored some ghoogni paratha to go
with my filter kaapi 

Breakfast at Venkatdri

Dinner at Sairam Plaza with Ruben Mascaranhas

With chef Shreedhar at Grand Bay's Dakshin
Also read, my post on how difficult it is to try define Indian food given the vastness of your food.