Diwali Special: Old Delhi writes sweet notes with ‘desi ghee’
Those who have spent time in Old Delhi would know that rickshaw-pullers in the area are a better guide to the crowded alleys than a smartphone app. “Fatehpuri Chowk? Haan, pata hai. Sab wahin jaate hain mithai ke liye. Baithiye (Fatehpuri Chowk? Yes, I know it. Everybody goes there for sweets. Come sit),” says a rickshaw-puller as he makes his way through the congested main road of Chandni Chowk. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper, the heat searing and the honking, unending.
For a weekday, Chandni Chowk is unusually packed. As our rickshaw inches closer to its destination, we notice the signboards of famous sweetshops. Once you cross the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, there’s Kanwarji’s Confectioners, famous for its savoury snacks. Annapurna Bhandar and Haldiram’s are the other go-to names in the area.
Our destination, though, is Chaina Ram Sindhi Confectioners. The setting is perfect. Adjoining the Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th century mosque, an old signboard on the shop reads “matchless quality since 1901”. It has lost its sheen but this is made up by the modern flashy signage on top of it. The shop moved from Lahore to its current location in Old Delhi after Partition.
There’s a crowd of people outside, waiting to be served. You know you are in the right sweetshop when you are greeted by the aroma of ghee and a stack of bread pakoras fresh out of the kadhai (wok).
Hari Gidwani, 64, part of the family that founded and owns Chaina Ram, introduces us to his nephew, Kunal Balani, 30, who is a fifth-generation partner at the shop and handles its day-to-day functioning. How difficult could it possibly be to carry forward a tradition and family business that has been more than 100 years in the making?
With one of the biggest festivals on the Indian calendar just days away, Balani has his work cut out.
“It’s going fine,” he says as we take a seat outside a storeroom behind the main packing and sitting bay. Behind Balani is a stack of blue cardboard boxes containing an order for the next day—mathris—for a customer in west Delhi. Workers keep walking past us, performing a balancing act as they carry more empty boxes from the storeroom to the packing area. These boxes will soon be filled with gulab jamun, kaju katli, meethi mathri and other sweetmeats, ready to be despatched.
“The rush is usual, like it is every year for Diwali,” adds Balani.
At most sweetshops, business grows exponentially in the days leading up to Diwali—Balani says their day starts at 6 in the morning and ends at 8 in the night.
As we speak, a customer in the sitting area is gorging on piping hot samosas, dipping them in a sweet red chutney. He’s also eyeing the milk cake, a famous Chaina Ram preparation, covered by mesh on a table nearby. Many loyal customers frequent the shop only for the milk cake, which is available all-year round.
But Chaina Ram has an even more famous delicacy that is loaded with, among other things, pure desi ghee that now finds approval with nutritionists.
‘Ghee’ is good
“Our speciality is the Karachi halwa. There’s also the sev pak, sohan halwa, patisa, pinni. We concentrate on just these sweets throughout the year. The most important thing, however, is to maintain the same quality for all products,” says Balani.
The Karachi halwa is a saffron-coloured, chewy dessert, generally made with arrowroot powder or cornflour, dry fruits, sugar and ghee.
This brings us to the debate on the use of desi ghee versus Dalda, or hydrogenated vegetable oil, in mithai.
“Desi ghee makes a world of difference when it comes to the taste and flavour,” says Sadia Dehlvi, author of Jasmine And Jinns: Memories And Recipes Of My Delhi. “It’s a natural product. There is nothing in the world to beat it. Dalda, on the other hand, is the worst thing one can have. I am not saying desi-ghee mithai is good for health, but it’s the taste that makes the difference.”
Sweetshop owners in the nearby area agree. Adnan Qureshi of Sheeren Bhawan, which is known for its halwas and is a stone’s throw from Jama Masjid, rues the increasing use of Dalda in the area. “This entire area (near Jama Masjid) has lost customers because most sweetshops use Dalda. For pure desi-ghee products, people head to the main Chandni Chowk area instead,” he says.
Balani is upbeat. “There will always be people who are concerned about health, but there will always be new customers. People now understand the true value of sweets that are made in desi ghee…. They know that these are ‘healthy’ sweets. That’s why we have more young customers now,” he explains.
Returning to his roots
After seven years on the job, the 30-year-old now understands the nuances of running a famous sweetshop. It hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way through.
Orders keep coming thick and fast. Kaju katlis are being stacked in perfect symmetry in packages that look like jewellery boxes. There’s a lot of number-crunching happening too. And numbers come naturally to Balani.
Before he took the “hot seat” behind the counter, Balani had worked in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, in the financial services industry. He graduated in mathematics from Delhi University’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh College in 2008 and joined a leading wealth management service in Mumbai. But he soon realized that he didn’t want to work under someone and decided to join the family business.
“When you get an opportunity to take the family name forward, and that too something that has been going on for a century now, you don’t say no.... On my first day behind the counter, there were some goof-ups. The staff was angry with me but Hari uncle stepped in. He has been really supportive,” he says.
The job, as one can see, involves more than just taking orders and getting them packed. One has to be on top of all the processes, from buying the raw material to keeping an eye on the manufacturing and packaging. Customer feedback is important too.
For someone who “hates traffic” and congested areas, Balani seems to have settled nicely into Chandni Chowk. “My work gets me here and I like it. I used to be really short-tempered during the festive season but I have calmed down now,” says Balani, who lives in Derawal Nagar, near Model Town in north Delhi.
The tin box
Over the years, he has learnt more about the shop’s history—and one small but important part of it is the tin box, which has been part of the Chaina Ram tradition for 80-odd years. It is the preferred container for their Karachi halwa. “People are quite fond of it. Last year, one of our customers came especially to show us a Chaina Ram sweets tin box from the 1950s,” Balani adds.
In an age when presentation trumps quality, Chaina Ram has kept the boxes and packaging consistent. The tin boxes are only available in 1kg packs. Their cardboard boxes come in 500g and 1kg variants. All the raw material—milk, ghee, dry fruits and other products—are sourced from Chandni Chowk. The kitchen is not far from the shop, but it is, as both Gidwani and Balani say, a restricted area.
“I was 14 when I first tasted their sweets,” says Kuldeep Raj Arora, 54, a businessman from Old Delhi’s Ajmeri Gate area. “I prefer their pinni and Karachi halwa. The prices are a bit on the higher side (prices start from Rs230 a kg), but you get that traditional taste when you take a bite…. That way, the tin box from Chaina Ram has been a part of my childhood,” he says.
Gidwani remembers frequenting the family shop as a child and rues how the spirit of Diwali has changed. “It’s not the same any more. People who are worried about calories will eat burgers today but not sweets,” he says. “Diwali, during our childhood, used to be different.”
Balani, though, is unperturbed. He has witnessed an encouraging change in the number of orders over the years.
His small break on a packed weekday ends with another big order for sev badam mithai. “There is no time to breathe. It’s rush-hour.”