Bikaner, Rajasthan, India (CNN) — Indian poet Ashok Vajpeyi called Bikaner “a town where half the population is busy making bhujia and the other half eating it”.
Anyone visiting this remote destination in India’s northwestern border state of Rajasthan might agree. The golden and crispy fried snack, shaped like noodles, is served everywhere, from tiny roadside tea stalls to upscale cocktail bars.
It is found in all dishes – as breakfast toppings and in lunch and dinner curries. Why? Because it’s delicious – made with a local bean known as moth or gram flour seasoned with traditional spices. Another popular variation, aloo bhajia, is made with potatoes.
Bikaner does not lack flavor in itself. A place of shifting dunes, camels and ancient forts built by warrior kings, just 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the Pakistani border, it’s a quintessential desert landscape.
The locals consider themselves to be saral, sukh and sust (simple, happy, lazy). Simple and cheerful, perhaps, but the bhujia makers here are far from lazy – they start work at 4am most days in order to collectively produce over 250 tons before leaving.
Some bhujia makers have experimented with flavors like barbecue and wasabi.
A delicious story
It’s an obsession that’s been going on for almost 150 years.
The story goes that in 1877, the monarch of Bikaner State, Maharaja Shri Dungar Singh, commissioned a new savory item to treat his palace guests – and the royal heads came up with the bhujia.
Little did Singh know that what came out of his kitchen would become an edible Indian national treasure.
Word of the bhujia spread quickly and soon it was being made in homes across the state. In 1946, an enterprising local, Ganga Bishan Agarwal, started selling the snack from a humble shop in an alley in Bikaner.
A decade later, Agarwal left town to create his own sweet empire, which proved so successful that several curious businessmen from further afield were inspired to trace his origins and discovered the magic of bhujia.
This gate once marked the entrance to the old town of Bikaner.
Stefano Barzellotti/iStock Editorial/Getty Images
Today, most bhujia producing companies have their roots in Bikaner. But that doesn’t mean you can set up a wok and produce bhujia anywhere and call it “Bikaneri”.
For many fans, only the bhujia made in Bikaner counts as the “real thing”.
In 2010, Bikaneri bhujia received a coveted geographical indication label from the Indian government. Now, only those who manufacture in the geographical territory of Bikaner are allowed to use the adjective “Bikaneri” to label their bhujia – just as only one region of France can call its sparkling wine Champagne.
Despite its fame, Bikaneri bhujia remains a cottage industry in Bikaner – although it provides employment for around 2.5 million people, especially women, in villages across the region.
From a local favorite to a global brand
But what makes Bikaner snacks so special?
“The magic is in the air,” says Deepak Agarwal, a scion of the Ganga Bishan family who is a giant in today’s Bikaneri bhujia scene, selling the delicacy under the popular Bikaji brand.
“While the rest of our family took over different geographical regions of India, my father decided to settle here and started his business,” he says.
“You can’t get the same flavor even if you export the ingredients from here to make them elsewhere.”
An arid climate, a distinctive red chili called longi mirch, which pairs well with local spices, and the region’s salty water are also key ingredients, he says.
Bhujia is namkeen – a term that refers to many savory snacks in India and elsewhere in South Asia.
Deep Creation/Adobe Stock
For Dr. Chef Saurabh, food writer and educator, “Bikaneri bhujia is not a food, but an emotion.”
“There is a distinction in the taste of any food when it comes from its origin, and Bikaner bhujia is a perfect example of that,” he says.
And now bhujia is attracting worldwide attention.
In 2019, international food giant Kellogg’s considered taking a stake in Haldiram Snacks, Bikaner’s top-selling bhujia maker, although the deal was later scrapped.
PepsiCo attempted to launch its own bhujia product in 1996. The spicy masala product, which it called Lehar, could not compete with the classic Bikaneri and eventually disappeared from store shelves.
A snack that travels
Meanwhile, a world away from Bikaner, bhujia from one of Ganga Bishan’s family-owned brands can even be found on the shelves of a New Jersey Walmart – much to the delight of the emigrant from Rajasthan Aartee Sodhani,
“We have a large population of Indians here,” she says. “Besides Walmart and Indian stores, it’s even available on Amazon.com. I sometimes add it to a burger or sandwich to enhance my child’s food. It gives the food a bit of ‘Indianness’. strangers.”
For Sodhani and other Indians abroad, the bhujia serves as a story anchor to the ever-changing Indian culinary scene, no matter where they are on the planet.
And Ganga Bishan’s achievement is just one of many. Today, Maharaja Singh may rest proudly in his grave knowing that Bikaner produced bhujia barons who made their presence felt far beyond the desert lanes of a small town in northwest India.
Top image: A woman buys bhujia from a street stall in Bikaner (Purushottam Diwakar/The India Today Group/Getty Image)