I was standing on the first-floor balcony of my home, enjoying the much-awaited monsoon showers with a hot cup of tea. Then I heard a voice, which I had gotten familiar with over the last 20 years since I have known it. It is the voice of Sultan Uncle who sells our area’s most popular Chhole Kulche. I simply crave them. So like always I grab one plate of Chhole Kulche for myself. This is something I have done on an innumerable number of occasions in my childhood whenever I came back from school.
I know the taste of his chhole kulche too well but this once I decided that I need to know his personal story too.
Street vendors and street food play a very important role for the foodies in Delhi. The food history of Delhi is very interesting and with time it is only adding new varieties of food. Among all those foods Chhole kulche is the most loved dish which everyone loves and is also affordable. You can almost find this yummy dish at every corner of Delhi.
Sultan (48), a native of Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, he came to live in Raj Nagar Extension when he was just 8. He is still residing in Raj Nagar Extension Delhi, selling Chole Kulche at Dwarka sector 8 and nearby areas for the last 30 years. In 1990 to meet his family's financial needs, Sultan started this work. At that time he was only 16 years old.
Slowly he came out from his area to nearby areas and people started liking the taste of the chhole kulche he prepared. Residents of Shahbad Mohammad Pur, Raj Nagar, Baghdola, and Dwarka sector 23-22, started loving the taste of Sultan's Chhole kulche. From 05 Rs per plate to 60 Rs per plate, the homely taste and serving with a smile remain the same.
“When I started selling chhole kuche, at that time my family was in very poor condition. We were struggling to fulfill our basic needs, I felt helpless because it felt bad to see your father struggle each and every second. I was the elder one, so I really wanted to help him. Someone told me about chhole kulche, at that time we used to call them ‘Matar and Double Roti’. I decided to sell it to earn something to help my siblings with their school fees”, says Sultan.
Sultan faced many problems when he started selling chhole kulche on a bicycle. As the situation of that time was totally opposite from the current scenario. At present time people love to eat street food and want to taste and explore something new every day. In previous years people thought many times before spending their money because people did not have enough money and ways to earn money were also limited.
He says, “Previously people were not aware of this food and were not ready to spend money to eat something from outside. Even I served some free meals to kids so that they could taste them and ask their parents for them. My mom helped me in the making of the chhole and Kulche. Slowly people started liking it and soon my fame spread through word of mouth. With time Originally I made my kulche at home but as the volume of my work increased I had to buy them from outside. But even today I still make kulche at home for my special old customers”.
Sultan uses special masala which his mom used to add. This masala is what made his chhole special. Says he, "My mother is ver happy and her masala recipe are still winning the hearts of people."
Sultan told us about the bond he shares with the residents of Dwarka Sector 8 and especially with the residents of Village Shahbad Mohammad Pur. The people living in this area always treat him as family. People also call him by different names. Some call him bhai, some uncle and some simply call him by his name Sultan. School kids especially love his Chole Kulche. People call him to ask his whereabouts so that they could catch him then and there to get their favorite plate of chhole Kulcha.
Talking about his bond with residents he says, “I never miss my village because I found my second family in these people. I got the same love and affection from the elder ladies living here. I call them ‘Amma’ and ‘Mata’. Also, people of my age treat me like their brother. School kids are very fond of the taste of my Chole kulche and Mirchi ka achar.”
He further added, “People even call me to ask when will I come or I’m coming or not. Some people are my daily customers because some live far away from their homes and they eat chole kulche as their breakfast. Some people take only chole from me so; they can eat with chapatti in lunch. Almost every customer has my number so, they can reach me.”
Everything was going well till the 2020 Covid pandemic. During the Covid pandemic, Sultan faced lots of difficulties, financial crisis, Covid isolation, and no earnings at all like many people and street vendors. Sultan stands among those street vendors who need to earn daily to eat at night. Lockdown became the full stop, especially for street vendors. "Before lockdown, I used to set up my stall in front of Shahbad Government School and in Dwarka sector 23 Government School. During lunchtime, children used to come out and eat chole kulche. But this all stopped during and after lockdown."
“That was the most difficult time of my life because we were not supposed to go out. My work totally got off track and I was struggling every second to fulfill my family's needs. I tried going back to my hometown but because of the lockdown, I didn’t succeed. But deep down I felt it brought me closer to my family and especially my kids and we all learned the value of family. I became mentally strong and my kids too because they learned to adjust to life's difficulties."
Sultan shared that after lockdown he started selling chhole kulche on a bicycle because no one was ready to come and eat outside because of Covid.
“After lockdown, I go back to my chole kulche stall in the same place in front of government school, students were not there but village people too were not ready to eat outside food. One week later, I earned nothing. I was worried about how things will work out now. Then I decided to go to every doorstep on every street. I started on a bicycle and came back to the bicycle. I talked to several people and told them about the precautions and hygiene I took. Some people did accept it and started having my chhole kulche. But still some were not ready so it was difficult for me but I kept on my hard work patiently.”
He further says, “Slowly when people saw me daily wandering in streets they started eating my preparations again. When people were not touching anything from outside they still ate my food. Many people also called me during the lockdown and asked me if I needed anything. Their love and trust were enough for me. My life came back on track. I remember a young man named Sagar, one of my customers, got me Covid vaccinated."
From that day Sultan keeps wandering on streets of this village and stopped selling Chole Kulche in any other area. He also talked about his daily routine.
“I start the preparation at night by soaking chole and matar in water overnight. Then I wake up around 5 am and start chopping veggies and preparing my secret masala and also collecting fresh Kulchas from the shop and some I make by myself for my old age customers because they don’t like the packet kulchas. After that, I boil chole and put them on the big ‘Pateela’, and wander on streets to sell them. During my whole day, I talked to and meet several people. I really enjoy my work and love serving people.”
With a big smile on his face, he moved to serve people on different streets, and his sound 'Garam Garam Chole kulche', faded down with distance.