Chawri Bazar, Delhi, 9:00 am: If you are a food lover in Delhi, you may have time and again heard of Chawri Bazar as the haven for kebabs, biryani and nihari. Yet, some people may not know that it is equally rich in regional delicacies such as Bedami puri and Nagori with halwa, it is also abundant in century-old Namkeen shops and Delhi staple Chola Kulcha and chaat.
This Sunday, I experienced the best of this part of old Delhi in the Chawri Bazar food walk organized by Delhipedia, a food, culture and history organization in Delhi.
It was a typical pre-December winter morning in Chawri Bazar. The roads, in need of maintenance, were yawning in the cold air. The clothes were soaking the morning sun on the jumbled wires. The business in small shops was about to get started. A few were seen enjoying their morning tea while others were still sleeping.
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A group of like-minded individuals, irrespective of age and origins had gathered on a journey to experience the flavours of old Delhi. Leading us was Mr Sadaf Hussain, a young, Delhi based chef and author who likes to call himself a ‘khansamah. What followed was a trail of less heard, and iconic delicacies along the lanes of Old Delhi and stories of their origins.
We began our sojourn with the good old tea and paape at Shabnam Restaurant, a traditional way to start mornings in this part of the town.
Paape, as Sadaf mentioned, is the traditional name for the modern-day rusk. It is a crisp roasted biscuit meant to be dipped in it. When the Persians came to India, biscuits became a good snack to carry as they can last forever if preserved properly. The second story was that biscuits came with the Parsis or Iranians. A man who sold bread realized that by evening, his bread became hard which he sold for a cheaper price.
Slowly, he realized that the demand for this dehydrated bread is increasing as people are dipping this into their tea. That gave rise to our version of “biscotti” which literally means bread baked twice.
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Interestingly, we learnt that the concept of tea is relatively new in India. India always had 'Kadha', or a concoction of warm water, and seasonal ingredients. The word Chai is derived from Chaa. The Britishers smuggled tea leaves from China to grow them in India only to realize that they were present in India, just used in a different form for medicinal purposes. Tea later grew significantly in the British era. Milk was later added by Indian traders in regions abundant in milk, giving rise to what we call masala tea now.
Next on our journey were the old Delhi special Bedami puri and Nagori halwa. Interestingly, neither of these delicacies are from Delhi but traditional recipes of UP.
Sadaf mentioned that Shah Jahan invited people from different classes and castes to set up this city. Moreover, the names we hear now like Chawri Bazar, Johri Bazar, Matiya Mahal were not given by him but came to be known by the articles they dealt in.
“What we notice in old Delhi is that despite lacking in urban planning, it is a very democratically set up place where people came, set up their shops and for some reason, most of them have taken off now.” said Sadaf
Bedami is a combination of flour, dal and red chilli fused into a flatbread and fried at high temperature. While Nagori is a crispy poori that is eaten with sweet sooji halwa. Bedami originated from baniya households or trader communities. As they were always traveling, fried food was a practical solution as it could be preserved longer.
Here comes the story of the royal physician of Shah Jahan’s time who said that the saline water of the Yamuna will have an adverse effect on the people. He eventually mentioned fried and spicy food as the only solution to counter the salinity of the water. Thus, started a gastronomical affair of fat-rich and spicy dishes in old Delhi.
We also tried the popular Daulat Ki Chaat, also known as Makhan, Malaiyyo or Nimish which literally means to vanish. As Sadaf mentioned, Daulat Ki Chaat can be termed as the old age alternative of whipped cream. The frothy mixture made from milk and nuts can quickly dissolve into the mouth. This time, I learnt a rather interesting story behind its name. Just like “Daulat” which means wealth in English disappears quickly and does not stay for a long time, the chaat melts on the palate as soon as it is consumed.
The walk could not be completed without trying the iconic Kuremal ki Kulfi in Chawri Bazar. The specialisation here is stuffed fruit kulfi and 'Julpep', or juice lollipops. As a matter of fact, the stuffed kulfi available here is truly one of its kind wherein any fruit is converted to ice cream and deep froze.
Our journey came to an end at a 93-year-old anonymous Namkeen shop nestled in the bylanes of Chawri Bazar. The shop’s owner Anil Kumar Goyal is also the caretaker of an iconic Krishna temple which was commissioned by Maharaja of Gwalior and bought by him in 2016. The shop specializes in different spicy Namkeen and snacks. When I asked Mr Goyal, (who is known to give a special ginger recipe that cures sore throat to all his customers), why did he never give his shop a name, he smiled at me as though it was an unnecessary question. I smiled back and said, “Shayad kabhi zarurat hi ni padi.”
For me what stands out is the integration of communities in the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, which is far beyond an exclusive Muslim culture. Plus, it was nice to hear the possible stories of origin. Sadaf reiterated that perhaps none of the stories is true, it's just, “We Indians like our food and stories spicy.”