Our columnist and gastronome prefers the 'aloo tikki' and 'sutli kebab' of Old Delhi to the fancy new menu of a south Delhi restaurant. A tour of this food paradise shows how and why it changed her life
There is no shortage of beautiful restaurants in Delhi these days. If money’s no object, you could indulge in a different cuisine every night of the week, from Japanese to Spanish, Korean, even Ethiopian. Delhiites are spoilt for choice, but if you asked me to show you some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, anywhere, we would only need a few rupees and a Metro ticket to Chawri Bazaar in Old Delhi. My only hesitation would be in trying to decide which street food joint to show you first.
Then we might wander along Lal Kuan to the Siddique brothers’ kheer shop where younger brother Jamaluddin will talk to us about the kismet of street food while plying us with the best rice pudding we’re ever likely to eat. As we head towards the Jama Masjid we might stop for a portion of kulle chaat at Hira Lal’s cheerful little stall. Here we will be presented with a little plate of fruit and vegetables whose centre has been scooped out to form a container for chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, lemon juice and masala—a surprising and perfect palate cleanser for what comes next.
As we turn away from the Jama Masjid we might well be wishing we had left a bit more room for the delights of Matia Mahal—a street where every night is a cause for culinary celebration. The air is thick with the fire and smoke from a hundred braziers; fluffy white naans fly out of tandoors; piles of sweets and sev tumble from stalls. From here it’s a short stroll to the Aslam Tandoori Chicken Corner, although I would be willing to walk many miles for their sensational buttery, creamy chicken mopped up with feathery roomali roti. Manish Mehrotra—eat this and weep.
Kulle chaat in Chawri Bazaar
At this point we’ll probably decide to take a rickshaw back to the Metro and I’ll beg you to make one last detour, to Kuremal’s ice-cream shop in Sitaram Bazaar, where the falsa and pomegranate ices will make you believe you’re eating at a Mughal banquet.
It wasn’t always thus. When I arrived in India nine years ago, it was with dire warnings of Delhi belly and hepatitis ringing in my ears. And like most visitors, I took one look at the dust, flies and dubious hygiene and decided to steer clear. But as a lifelong food obsessive (I come from a family which talks of very little else), I couldn’t hold back for long. I decided I hadn’t come to India to eat filet-o-fish or spend the afternoon in the air-conditioned food court of a mall.
Nimbu soda in Chandni Chowk
I soon discovered a whole new world of food and flavours to obsess over and crave, light years away from the shrink-wrapped sanitized food culture I had left behind in Scotland, and even the gloopy bland curries I had eaten in Indian restaurants at home. There was the comfort and spice of chhole bhature, the delicate lemony zing of shakarkandi and that ultimate sugar hit provided by the Old Famous Jalebi Wala.
It wasn’t just the food of Old Delhi that fascinated me, I also love the chaos and drama of the surroundings. I’m often to be found nibbling on milk cake and sipping frothy chai on an old car seat outside Hemchand Ladli Prasad’s hole in the wall joint in Kucha Ghasi Ram, usually marvelling at the blade skills of the barbers opposite. One of the most magical times of my life was devouring omelette and chai at the Haji Tea Point at 5am on the morning of Eid-ul-Adha, surrounded by men in starched white kurtas waiting for the call to prayer.
The kheer shop in Lal Kuan
The questions I asked took me deeper into the lives of the people who make the wonderful food of Old Delhi, and the histories that have shaped them. I once spent the early hours of a very cold night in a tiny room in a filthy gali watching two young farmers make that extraordinary Old Delhi winter dish daulat ki chaat while 10 members of their family slept around us. My discovery of one of Old Delhi’s best lunches, a mutton korma, led me to delve deep into the shady mystique surrounding the two men called Ashok who first made it. Although there was a moment, in the middle of a scorching May day, when I found myself in a butcher’s shop in an obscure corner of Sadar Bazar and did wonder if I was in too deep.
The aloo tikki stall at Katra Neel
The care he takes is apparent from the first bite: The crust shatters saltily in your mouth, followed by the fluffy, perfectly seasoned interior, while your tastebuds get a full workout from the sweet tamarind, sour yogurt and a kick of chilli and masala. For ₹ 20 you have eaten a dish you’ll forever crave and come back to.
So you could take me to the latest glitzy restaurant in south Delhi—I’m always happy to eat—and I might even enjoy it. But at some point in the evening you’ll see a faraway look in my eyes. That’s the moment I’ll be wondering if the fancily plated food in front of my eyes, the trio of this, the fusion of that is really any better than Moinuddin’s kebabs or Gupta’s aloo tikki and whether it’s too late to hop on to the Metro.
Pamela Timms writes the fortnightly column A Piece Of Cake. Her book, Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons In Old Delhi, has just been released.