Sadia Dehlvi’s culinary history of Delhi
Sadia Dehlvi’s book is a culinary exploration of Delhi as well as a chronicle of the Capital’s past and present, through the prism of her own family history
To meet a person from Delhi outside the city is not unusual, for it is a city with a population of over 18 million. But to find a person who truly belongs to this historical city settled by migrants and invaders is not all that common. Sadia Dehlvi is one such Dilliwalla. Her family name “Dehlvi”, meaning one from Dehli (as it was called in chaste Urdu), was adopted by her paternal grandfather because of the family’s long association with the city.
The book’s dedication reads, “For Amma, Abba, Nani… and all those for whom ‘Dehli’ is a way of life.” The book is an ode to this relationship with the Capital. It is a culinary exploration and a chronicle of Delhi’s past and present, indelibly intertwined with the changing fortunes of the Dehlvi family.
In the linear tradition of the memoirist, she goes back to the very beginning, which in this case is the earliest records of Delhi’s food culture, in the writings of 14th century poet and historian Amir Khusrau and Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta. The narrative effortlessly segues from the royal kitchens of Muhammad bin Tughlaq to Mughal feasts to the historical journey of Dehlvi’s ancestors, the Saudagaran merchants, from west Punjab (modern-day Pakistan) to Delhi. A small group arrived in Delhi at the behest of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Over the centuries, the family’s carefully preserved culture fused with the seasonal bounty and flavours of Delhi, resulting in a rich culinary tradition.
Her family is the prism through which Dehlvi assimilates the larger history of the city, especially its food and culture, and in so doing, ends up owning them in a way no ordinary chronicler can. From their erstwhile ancestral home in central Delhi, to the legendary outpost of kakori kebabs, Al Kauser at the corner of Malcha Marg, to an apartment in Nizamuddin with a goolar (cluster fig) berry tree creeping into her balcony, these are pieces of Delhi that belong to her.
The stories and perfumes of Purani Dilli are imprinted on the book. Dehlvi calls it the “mystique of Shahjahanabad”, for it is a place where the markets had a carnival-like atmosphere and every evening, dastango (Urdu storytellers) would spin yarns of “conquest, romance, jinns, flying carpets and magic”. Legendary kebabwalas would lord over their magic grills at Jama Masjid while the ghee-rich aromas emanating from Ballimaram and Chitli Qabar announced a fresh batch of halwa. Among its traditional households, the way to the heart was always through the belly.
It was a world removed from the “new” Delhi rebuilt by enterprising Punjabi refugees post Partition. Dehlvi writes, “Mamoo Abdullah (my mother’s older brother) remembered Delhi as a leisurely city, one in which shopkeepers pulled their shutters down to celebrate the monsoon rains.” As Dehlvi’s ancestors moved from this world to the sprawling Shama Kothi in central Delhi, they carried with them the ethos of Old Delhi.
Shama Kothi, literally meaning house of light, was a veritable beacon of warmth and hospitality. Named after the popular Urdu film and literary magazine Shama, brought out by Dehlvi’s grandfather Hafiz Yusuf Dehlvi, its legendary feasts saw a gathering of literary stalwarts, political leaders and film stars. Nobody was turned away from its doors without being fed.
For Dehlvi, this house was the epicentre of her intellectual and culinary awakening. This is where she learnt how pink and white kachnar flowers made deliciously fragrant bhartas and salan (meat curry); this is where she locked herself in the room when goats were sacrificed during Eid al Azha. This was where she learnt about the mischief of jinns and their love for the jasmine. It is the place where she forged lifelong bonds with the women in her life—her mother (Ammi), her grandmother (Amma) and her nanny, Apa Saeeda, and learnt the art of cooking food that would nourish the soul.
Every recipe in this book rekindles specific childhood memories and is inextricably linked with a person, a season, a tree, a festival. Some are memory stamps like the neembu achaar (lemon pickle). “I remember Amma storing achaar in large martabaan, ceramic jars. She would wait for the lemon trees in the garden to bear fruit and then made pickle using just lemons and salt...it is said that the older the pickle, the better it becomes…. Ammi recalls that when Amma had once left Delhi on vacation, she decided to clean the kitchen and pantry thoroughly. On finding the lemon pickle with salt crust, she mistook it for fungus and threw it away.” Of course, the story ends with Amma despairing at the loss of her “priceless fifteen-year-old pickle”.
Others are precise manuals of prep, cooking times and doneness. The recipes flit between the spice-heavy meat curries of winter and the light chutneys and sherbets of summer, carrying with them the stories of the family. And that is what makes each dish memorable. The evocative photographs of Purani Dilli’s food by Omar Adam Khan and black and white images from Dehlvi’s family albums give each dish its individual character.
This book is impossible to judge by its cover. At first glance it is a hotchpotch of images and iconography. But on reading it, one realizes that it is a whimsical collage of its many parts—the deghs of biryani and qormas, Old Delhi’s fragrant spices, the iconic India Gate, Shama Kothi, and a portrait of the writer as a young and exuberant girl, carrying forward the legacy of being a Dehlvi.
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