I’m quite fond of the eclectic mix of restaurants that form the Kasbah complex in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash-I, but it is usually Café de Paris that I head for. This time, however, I was warned by fellow foodies not to miss the biryani festival taking place at Zaffran, their north Indian restaurant. Presided over by Messrs Fareed Khan and Reyhan Khan, the festival consisted of a modest number of biryanis that changed every few days, a couple of kormas, stews and nihari.

The catalyst: The harsingar ke phool in this biryani make its flavour unique. Zaffran Kasran

The Khans, who hail from Churiwalan, near old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, revealed to me a slice of life that I had scarcely suspected, living as I do in New Delhi. First of all, there are around a hundred cooks all over old Delhi, seven of whom live in Churiwalan alone. Kallan, Yasin, Ahmed, Hakim, Babushahi, Altaf, Yamin and others of their ilk cook on wood fires in the courtyards of their customers’ homes on special occasions. In that regard, they are very like the wazas of Kashmir, except that this bunch is hardly known outside their circle. Certainly, if I had missed the biryani festival at Zaffran, I would never have known about old Delhi’s cooks.

Unlike their counterparts in Kashmir, Messrs Khan and Khan pride themselves on preparing a tiny menu. Not for them the 36 dishes of a Kashmiri wazwan. On the day of my visit, there were just two non-vegetarian biryanis: one featuring chicken and the other with lamb. It was the former that was more subtle, though the cooks themselves had nothing but scorn for farm-bred broilers that became overcooked before you had time to extract a stock. The unusual flavour came from a tiny flower called harsingar. I quailed at my ignorance: I’ve never set eyes on this flower before, nor have I seen such a tiny (2mm long) orange, trumpet-shaped blossom in bloom or in a spice shop (the management of the restaurant hadn’t, either).

Messrs Khan and Khan are better at cooking than talking, so I couldn’t figure out where exactly this flower grew, but they said that “everybody" in Churiwalan knows about it and that it was available in Noori, the iconic spice store in Chitli Kabar from where I buy many of my spice mixes.

You don’t need to wait for a wedding or a trip on Haj to hire one of these banquet caterers: Even a relatively simple occasion, such as an Iftar party, can have a delightfully novel menu. I had never heard of Kachri Keema and Pithi Kachori before, but it is supposed to be a classic combination, kachri being a dried fruit with a tang not unlike amchur. Their other Ramzan preparation is Hari Mirchi Keema and Paratha.

It is a novel idea to have a caterer from old Delhi showcasing his cuisine in a plush south Delhi restaurant. Common wisdom is that the best Muslim cuisine is in people’s homes. For a brief while, it had stepped out into the limelight.

Chicken Zaffrani Biryani

Serves 4


150g ghee

200g curd

500g golden sela rice

750g chicken

25g garlic paste

25g ginger

10g laung (clove) and elaichi (cardamom)

5g ground jaiphal (nutmeg) and jaivitri (mace)

5g whole dalchini (cinnamon)

½ tsp harsingar ke phool and sugar in kewra water

One pinch saffron in kewra water


Fry the garlic in ghee, add 150g of the curd. Add some water and let it cook. Add the chicken, along with the laung and elaichi. Cook the chicken till it is almost tender. Remove some of the liquid from the chicken.

In another degh (deep vessel), boil the rice. Add some of the harsingar ke phool and saffron water to 50g of curd for colour and flavour, and add the curd to the chicken.

Put the boiled rice on the chicken. After a few minutes, when the rice and chicken are almost cooked, add the liquid the chicken was cooking in and the remaining ghee.

Put the biryani in a small degh or handi, garnish with the ginger and seal it with dough. Heat and serve.

Write to travellingtiffin@livemint.com