Breakfast in Chandigarh: Samosas at Sai Sweets

Chandigarh??” Travelers often squawk in confusion when we share our India itinerary with them. While places like Rajasthan, Kerala, and Varanasi register as usual suspects for visits to India, Chandigarh – a planned and rather atypical city in the northern Indian state of Punjab – rarely finds itself on travelers’ must-see checklists.

Nek Chand's Rock Garden - Chandigarh, India
The Bangle Man of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh.

Our primary motivation to stop in Chandigarh was to visit a friend, one we’d never met in person. (Actually he’s the programmer we hired last year to help us tune some parts of our website photo gallery.)

As it turns out, our high expectations for the visit were far exceeded. We solidified a friendship, developed some new ones, gained insights into India’s culture, and even peeked into its future. And we experienced all of this in the context of some thoroughly stunning and unexpected dining experiences. In the course of one day – from a modest-looking snack shop to a friendly home to a five-star restaurant – we came to know Chandigarh – and India, its people and its food – just a little bit better. We were the beneficiaries of kindness and serendipity.

You could say that we – and our stomachs – were completely charmed in Chandigarh.

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Breakfast – Sai So Sweet

To start our day, we wandered downstairs from our guest house to Sai Sweets, a friendly local café that serves up quick savory vegetarian Indian snacks and a seemingly endless range of Indian sweets. The day before, we had noticed a varied array of relaxed locals coming, going, eating, and socializing. High turnover, diverse clientele and a friendly atmosphere were all good signs.

Indian Sweets - Chandigarh, India
No shortage of sweets to choose from at Sai Sweets in Chandigarh.

The following morning, the vast Indian sweets display and mounds of savory pockets and dumplings piled near the ovens in the back looked like a good opportunity for a photograph or two. In search of a first-hand encounter with our breakfast options, I wandered past the sweets case into the back where the savory snacks were being churned out and sided with various sauces and chutneys. After all, salty was Audrey’s order for today’s breakfast. I poked around with my head and camera and asked a few questions, usually along the lines of “What’s this?

A man appeared from around the sweets case. “What are you looking for?” he asked.

Oh, I just like food. I like to photograph it, write about it, talk to people about it.” I said, as I gazed about, taking in all the colors and textures around me.

Oh really?” he added.

A Surprise Breakfast

I hope you like what I ordered for you,” he said as we sat down together.

A round of introductions yielded the name of our breakfast host: Vikram.

Samosas and Chole Batura - Chandigarh, India
Samosas, batura and chole, breakfast of champions.

Samosas (fried potato and spice-stuffed pockets), batura (fried, puffed bread – like a puri, but made with white flour) and chole (also called chana, a savory chickpea masala) quickly graced our table.

Travel through India for any period of time and you realize that all samosas are not created equal. These were perfectly flaky and featured a few doughy inner layers. Just beyond their perfect shells, they were packed dark with spices, herbs, potatoes and even a little paneer (Indian cheese). These were at the very top of the samosa satisfaction hierarchy.

The batura was surprisingly light and fluffy considering that it was a fried bread. Vikram filled us in on its history, indicating that it had originated in Afghanistan as a relative to the local Afghani nan bread and made its way south to be perfected in India.

This wasn’t our first taste of batura and wouldn’t be our last, but it was some of the best. Audrey was now a bona fide batura addict.

The chole stole the show, however. By itself, this savory dish was appropriately thick and balanced. Then Vikram took over:

I will teach you how to garnish it,” he added as he dolloped sweet mango and spicy mint chutneys over the chole in quick strokes of expert proportion.

The contrasting chutneys complimented one another and enhanced, much to our surprise, the myriad flavors at work in this already rich masala (curry).

To your average local, this was just another snack, albeit an exceptionally well-prepared one. To us, it was mind-bendingly good.

Our conversation continued over gleeful bites of samosa, batura and chole. As we ate, Vikram continued to educate us on everything in front of us. Then he ordered kachoris (dough pockets loaded with herbs) lassis (tangy fresh yogurt drink) and kesar pista kulfi (saffron pistachio ice cream) to finish us off.

Between bites, we shared our journey and its purpose. Though people often humor us with nods of approval when we explain our lives, Vikram actually understood our mission and he seemed to do so immediately. Through his own words, he was able to reflect some of our broader objectives. He talked about his own writing and projects. We enjoyed his ideas, energy and inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, he made us think.

With an exchange of business cards and a handshake, we sealed our friendship. He welcomed us as his guests. As we departed, we hoped to continue our conversation, wherever, whenever, however that might be.

This re-affirmed that some of the most delicious food, interesting connections, and satisfying experiences on the planet are waiting in some of its most unassuming venues.

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Comments

  1. Pete De Ritter says

    My mouth is watering. Sounds like it was a great culinary experience. I’ve been telling everyone about your website.

  2. Brian says

    I was eating an expired yogart yesterday and not surprisingly, I thought of you two. So it is good to see this story about food with the interpersonal connection worked in. Great update, and I have to say that your writing is improving; and it was good to start. This is how I remember most of the time we spent together, eating great, although slightly expired food, while discussing world issues or talking about absolutely nothing. We are hoping you will stop by and see us soon!
    Take care,

    Brian.

  3. Sharandeep Brar says

    Really Enjoyed the post. May be a bit more because more was written about us than we expected :) Actually, I was curious how you would summarize the things and i must say i am really impressed. Now, waiting for posts on Varanasi and Kolkata.
    Take Care,
    Sharan

  4. Harikumar Nair says

    Dear Dan / Aundrey, My mouth is also watering about your detailed explonations. but what to do? but onething I can say “Iam also traveling with you through this sit,after we met and travelled by ‘posts’ in the mail. (from chennai to mumbai) which means chennai mail train. do you remember me? Actually its not a question. how can you remeber me only? b’cz you are meeting so many persons like me every day, night, hours, minutes and seconds. am i right ? So you people remember or not, ” I my self, remembering allways. So my U.S brother ans sister, please take care allways. especially your belongings. try to avoid the situations like in bankok airport. So at last you met your most favourable friend in chandigarh. well. and get homly food also.I also get it through your writings. so keep it up . well wishes. by harikumar.

  5. Pete De Ritter says

    I’ll bet northern India is really beautiful. Can’t wait until you post your pictures. Will you be stopping in Darjeeling for a cup of tea?

  6. Pete De Ritter says

    Just spent some time Googling Bhutan. Since you’re not to far, I was wondering if you have any plans to try to go there?

  7. Vikramjit says

    Hey guys when is the next post due. You cant get us hooked to your posts then leave us high and dry……. Hope you are well and going places…… Warm regards

  8. joyshri Lobo says

    Enjoyed the piece. I agree: roadside food is the most authentic, cleanest and tastiest in India.

  9. says

    All: Thanks for your comments on the piece and for your patience. Apologies for not responding sooner. We’ve been in the mountains of Sikkim and in some remote villages in northern West Bengal. And, whenever we seem to arrive in “civilization,” electricity is flickering on and off and internet access is extremely unreliable, if available at all. Not the best conditions for writing and publishing on the run, but we are doing the best we can with what’s available.
    Individual responses to each of your comments are below.

    Pete: Glad you enjoyed the piece. The culinary experiences were fantastic, but the way in which they unfolded really amazed us. Thanks very much for spreading the word about our site.
    We are in Darjeeling as I draft this. High tea is planned for tomorrow afternoon. We’ll post a few photos in the next couple of days from in and around Darjeeling. Our other photo essays from the region (northern West Bengal, Siliguri, Darjeeling, and Sikkim) will follow in the coming weeks as time and the availability of electricity and internet permits. We’ll give India the full written and photographic treatment this summer when we “take a break” with a few stops in Europe.
    Bhutan had a spot on our initial itinerary. However, the government of Bhutan requires that visitors book a fixed price tour that runs close to $250/person per day for a couple like us – a little steep for our budget pocketbooks. In addition, the Bhutanese government controls which areas travelers can visit, which also puts a damper on our style of travel.
    Instead, we decided to visit Sikkim (a semi-autonomous mountain principality in Northern India, tucked between Nepal and Bhutan). On our visit to the villages of northern West Bengal, we also stopped at two border points between India and Bhutan to catch a glimpse of Bhutanese people in traditional dress doing their shopping on the Indian side.
    Brian: I was eating a moldy piece of toast the other morning and I thought of you. I’m not kidding…we ordered toast and this 4-stack of crust-cut slices – not much larger than postage stamps – showed up. Apparently, the toast was cut back due to mold. I had to cut away a few more tiny green bits they missed.
    Anyhow, if you buy some yogurt now and make sure it will be well-expired by the end of June/beginning of July, we promise to show up in person to cook you our special dal (Indian lentil) dish.
    Thanks for compliment, too. It means a lot.

    Sharan: Glad you enjoyed it. We’ll write some more about our visit to Chandigarh, but it will have to wait until we are still and have consistent electricity and internet. We also plan to write something about our visits to Varanasi and Kolkata, particularly since we experienced the Ram Navami festival in the former and a strike in the latter!

    Harikumar: Thank you for your comment and well wishes. Of course, we remember meeting you on the “mail” train from Chennai to Mumbai. We will try to keep ourselves and our belongings safe. And we’ll be sure to post more photos and stories from India and our travels throughout Asia.

    Vikramjit: We hoped to post more often, but reliable electricity and internet have been in short supply as we headed into northern West Bengal and Sikkim. Next up: a few thoughts on West and East Sikkim and a snapshot of four villages outside of Siliguri that we visited while profiling an organization that sets up self-help groups and assists in recovering children unwittingly sold into slavery.
    More pieces on Chandigarh (and Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Udaipur, Bikaner, Varanasi, Kolkata) will follow.
    As you await our next post, don’t forget that patience is the companion of wisdom.
    Joyshri: Glad you enjoyed the piece. Street food and Indian roadside dhabas are a lot of fun. They are also a critical anchor in the evolution of “cuisine”, apparently.

  10. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    You are right that all samosas as not created equal. The small samosas at BurraBazaar in Calcutta are just like that – flaky, full of spices. I did not know about putting paneer in the shells! My mouth is watering….

    I sometimes think smaller samosas make for tastier ones. Somehow with larger size, out goes the taste.

  11. says

    @Sutapa: We’ve had good and bad samosas, big and small. The key to my samosa satisfaction is plenty of spices in the filling. If that requirement is met, they will be good. Having said that, there’s probably a sweet spot in samosa size that errs on the small-medium side, because the larger one goes, the greater the temptation is to cheap out and go only with filler potato. OK, end of samosa dissertation.

    Am really glad to hear that you enjoyed this series!

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