Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Food and history in Old Delhi

Old Delhi has been one of my favourite places to explore. I love the old-world politeness of the people and the narrow gullies that make up the most fascinating maze. I've seen it on cold, wintry evenings, when Nan khatai vendors do a brisk trade, and if you listen hard, you can hear the crackles when sweet potato skins burn and blister over red coals, sending up an irresistible toasty smell. I've seen it on burning afternoons, when the roads are crowded with rickshaw pullers and busy shoppers, oblivious to the heat. That’s the time when the lassiwalas powder ice by heaving cloth sacks filled with it at the road, over and over again, and then scoop up the powder into earthen mugs filled with frothy buttermilk, scent it with rosewater, and top it with a generous smear of cream. Nothing quenches thirst better.

But I longed to see it in the morning, a time when there would be few tourists or outsiders, and the roads would be empty, save for the chaiwallas and the pigeons.

Since I write a food blog, and am acutely interested in all matters gustatory, it made sense to combine my wish to see Old Delhi in the morning, with one for breakfast. So it transpired that I met up with Haifa, Rahul and Richard at the Barakhamba Road metro station, at 8 am last Saturday morning, with a plan of renting bicycles and riding them to Chawri Bazaar. The idea was awfully clever: We’d cycle the five kilometers to Chandni Chowk, thereby working up an appetite and negating the calories we’d then consume. It didn't work out quite that way though. There were cycles aplenty, but not a single one with air in its tyres. The stand attendant was sleepy and seemed confused and subsequently baffled by my demand for a bicycle pump. We gave in and took the metro.

The Chawri Bazaar metro station is three levels below the ground and as you ride up on the escalator, the sounds of the morning slowly  become louder and clearer. We stepped out in the sunshine -below the familiar tangle of wires- to incongruously empty roads only populated by stray dogs and a few rickshawallas. I had a map and a list of places to go to, in sequence, much to the amusement of my friends. I led them straight to Shyam Sweets and without bothering with the menu, ordered us platefuls of bedmi aloo, halwa nangori, and earthen mugs, brimming with lassi. The aloo curry was thick and brown and spicy, while the bedmi accompanying it was crisp and fragrant. We broke off bits with our fingers and ate, with sighs of contentment. I tried not to estimate just how much ghee the halwa must have absorbed to turn just that shade of glistening gold, and instead scooped it up with shards of delicately crisp nangori. Cold lassi washed down a very fine breakfast indeed.

Noticeably slower, we walked up the Chanwri Bazaar road to the Jama Masjid. Richard, a history major, explained the mosque's history to us as we climbed up the steps to the massive entrance. We walked around the central courtyard -large enough that 20,000 people can pray there at one time- and then sat in one corner, to take it all in. The mosque was already filling with tourists and the devout, and the pigeons had a giant square, filled with grain, all to themselves. A pool in the center of the courtyard glistened greenly in the sunlight. A faint breeze was blowing, and flocks of pigeons swirled in the sky above us. We sat there contentedly for about half an hour.

As we emerged from the Masjid, right opposite the main entrance, I saw Mushtaq Panwalla, and had to stop. The owner was a smiling but not particularly garrulous gentleman in a pan-stained white kurta. I chatted away about how fond I was of pan, and how I hadn’t yet sampled a really good one in Delhi, at least not comparable to the ones in Hyderabad. He nodded sagely, smiled, and began preparing three meetha pans for me to take home. Once he began, I fell silent. There was too much going on. Bottle after bottle filled with strange looking ingredients was opened, quantities measured, and each placed precisely on giant betel leaves. I identified cardamom, sugar balls, coconut, rose water, chunna, gulkand, and saunf, but there must've been, oh, a hundred things more. Several onlookers joined us. I think we all released a collective breath we didn't know we'd been holding, when he finished. He rolled each pan up expertly, inserted them in paper cones, and put them in a bag for me to take home and share with Appa.

Still talking about the panwalla, we made our way to the Red Fort, paid our entrance fee, and walked inside. Now, this is a food blog, and I suspect my impressions on the fort are the substance of a full, rambling blog post by themselves, so I will content myself by saying that I could’ve spent all day there. In the blazing sunlight, filled with tourists with loud voices and cameras, stripped of its mirrors and precious stones and gold scrollwork, it was still incredibly lovely. The buildings had the sort of dignity that only comes with age and endurance. We walked through silently.

Once we emerged from the Red Fort’s spell though, it was back to gluttony. I was leading everyone unerringly (My nose was buried in my map, so I might’ve bumped into a few people along the way) towards Kake di Hatti, widely renowned to make the best paranthas in Delhi. We unfortunately paused at this small restaurant for cold water and Mountain Dew, and ended up sitting inside and ordering some of the fluffy bhaturas they were frying up in a giant kadai outside. The bhaturas were a disappointment, as were the unassertively spiced chole that accompanied them. It was a lesson to us not to venture into shops not previously recommended by those who know best.

The final stop we made was at Bade Miyan Kheer, a tiny shop without a board, with a cramped seating area and warm, smiling owners. Rahul and Haifa aren’t big sweet eaters and we were all still pretty stuffed, so we only ordered a single plateful. It came to us, tan and sticky, chilled to just the right temperature, in a small square bowl with four spoons. There was silence as we ate; the only sound was of our spoons scraping the bowl, again and again. The kheer was gloriously creamy and deceptively simple. It was rice, milk, and sugar, so masterfully treated that they had all fused together, to form a sum so much larger than the parts. The rice grains were visible but melted in your mouth. There was sweetness, but it was gentle and gave way to the subtler flavours of thick, fat milk and full, creamy rice. We ordered another plateful and polished it off in short order.

Then, deeply content, we boarded the metro and returned to the present.

All my research for this trip (And trust me, there were pages of it) was gleaned from this lovely blog written by Pamela Timms. She is inspiring, and each time I read her words, I want to race out, take the metro to whichever place she recommends, and eat till I’m surfeited.
I also got additional material from Rahul Verma’s columns in the Hindu. I want his job.

If you want the addresses to any of the places I visited, drop me an email or leave a comment to this post, and I’ll do my best to direct you there.

PS: In case you were wondering, the pan was delicious, and really as good as any I’ve eaten in Hyderabad.


Anonymous said...

Delicious! Though, reading about all this lovely food is making me hungry... I wish I'd been able to get up early enough to join you. Next time! :)

Anonymous said...

Pamela and Rahul are inspiring; but you are fresh. The ice breaking ceremony at the middle of the road impressed me. Keep it coming. We love it.

Nithya said...

@Ellie, thank you. We'll go again this weekend, for sure. :)

@Anon, thank you so much! I will most certainly keep 'em coming.

Vaibhav (CC) said...

Hi Nithya , lovely blog and thanx for all the info .. definitely will try out these places whenever i get a chance to visit delhi next time...

Nithya said...

CC! Kaise ho? The next time you come to Delhi, let me know, and I'll take you on a food tour. :)

Vaibhav (CC) said...

pakke se

kitu macker said...

hi i work in air india, recently flew with shourya malik. i reside in bombay, but stay in delhi upto a month sometimes. have covered most of delhi, and was askin SK about things to do and he told me about your trip and sent me ur link.

A QUESTION: is it allowed for women to enter jama masjid (suitably dressed of course) ?

kitu macker said...

hi.... its me again...
QUESTION 2 : have you eaten at kake di hatti since your last blog ???? if yes , would you recommend it ?

QUESTION 3 : could u pls pass on the directions to all the places mentioned in your blog .

QUESTION 4 : did u do this trip on a sunday morning because thats what i wud like to do considerin the traffic. but m only wonderin if all these places are open on a sunday morning.

Anonymous said...

why don't u start writing travelogue.. :P
Not a good fan of exploring food places though, but really want to go to those places u mentioned..very well written article.. :)

Anita Duggal said...

Your blog is very informative and gracefully
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