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Revisiting Old Delhi & a vote of thanks

My love affair with Shahjahanabad aka The Walled City aka Delhi 6 aka Old Delhi began almost 7  years ago. Back then, I had just joined Hansraj College in Delhi University, stepping out of the confines of a military cantonment into the vast civilian world that lay before me. It is when I first realized my extraordinary affinity for good food. 

I took to educating myself on what good food ought to be like and and more importantly, where to find it. Even though Delhi wasn't quite the haute-cuisine destination it has become now, it had much to offer back then as well. The well-known stalwarts of fine dine still held sway - Bukhara, Dum Pukht, Veda, Diva, etc. However, when it came to street food, almost every food writer worth his salt would  point towards Purani Dilli.

Bereft of my present-day paycheck, I survived on pocket-money and would often trawl the narrow streets of the Walled City in search of affordable gastronomical delights. I must credit a few people in particular who had a profound influence on my adventures there - Mr. Rahul Verma, EOID and Ms. Pamela Timms.

Mr. Verma writes for The Hindu.  He is my favorite food writer.

Every Sunday, I would pick up Hindustan Times' Brunch Magazine and turn to page 5 where Vir Sanghvi would transport me to the most luxurious hotels and classiest fine-dines in his Rude Food column. We would chase biryanis from kitchens of the Nawabs into the streets of Kolkata. Then reality would hit. I would solemnly swear that one day I would make it in life and retrace his steps.

Then I'd wait for the next morning.

For on Monday, I would pop open the Hindu's Metro Plus supplement with an excitedly expectant smile on my face. Right there, along with a cute little cartoon, would be Rahul Verma's column. Rahul Verma was my food literature's white knight. For although he sometimes wrote about swish joints, he wrote a lot more about the places I could afford to dine in. He would be the first to discover hole-in-the wall gems before they become fashionable; restaurants with tacky names like Lazeez Affaire, that would have the most unbelievably delicious Tandoori Aloo.  I would go through years of Hindu's archives, picking out Rahul Verma's food articles and chalking out which classes I needed to bunk for my gastronomical forays.

For me however, his best work was not in the columns of India's most reputed newspaper. It was on his obscure blogger page - Delhi Street Food. This unassuming blog, devoid of fancy web design or #foodgasmic images is perhaps the richest treasure trove of classic Delhi food you may ever come across. There was no Zomato back in those days and I completely relied on resources like these to discover great places to eat. I doubt even now with all the social media food rants, you will find a better source for rare gems like Keema Kaleja at Gullu Meatwalla! Sadly Mr. Verma's last post on the blog was on 11th October 2011. Thankfully, his Hindu columns are very much alive and kicking. Go and salivate as you read about Aslam's Butter Tandoori Chicken in the 9th January issue and then plan a trip to Old Delhi. Like I did, many years ago!

EoID or Eating Out in Delhi is a now defunct eating group started by Mr. Hemanshu Kumar. The concept was simple - a group of  people would meet, eat, split the bill and leave. You end up trying a lot of food and making new friends. I wasn't a regular, but I did make it to 3 or 4 of their meets. The most memorable one was an Old Delhi foodwalk where we feasted our way through Matia mahal and proceeded to stuff in even more food at Chawri Bazaar. That night, I came across Kuremal Kulfi and realized that Al-Jawahar is a notch above Karims.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Pamela Timms on that meet. She was the other writer I stalked for new leads on Old Delhi food. Her unique Scottish-perspective and charming gestures would bring out behind-the-scene stories at some of the most fabled Old Delhi establishments. Her blog Eat and Dust also had the most delectable pictures of the the Walled City's fare. She has recently come out with a book on her adventures, Kismet, Kheer and Korma and I just ordered my copy. I was delighted to connect with her recently on Twitter

Gratitude over, it is now time to talk about food. A full post on the delights Old Delhi has to offer will have to wait. All those years of loitering around in Delhi 6 led to a lot of discoveries! I cannot possibly do justice to them without return visits :) So, the legendary Lotan's Matra Kulcha or Kashmiri Kebabs of Bulbuli Khana will have to wait for another day.

Today, I'll write about a recent visit to some of the classics.

On a gorgeous afternoon this winter, I hopped on a metro headed to Chawri Bazaar. As the escalator lifted me up from the depths of the metro station, into the bright and welcoming Delhi sun, I was greeted by familiar chaos of Hauz Qazi Chowk.

A nodal point for the crowded and narrow streets of the Walled City, where man, cattle and rickshaws compete for turf, the Chowk provides the best entry point for an Old Delhi food walk. It is extremely inadvisable to bring your car to this part of town. Parking is non-existent and you'll be lucky to drive 10 metres down the narrow gallis. The best option is to park your car at Connaught Place and board a metro. Besides, walking through the gorgeous haveli-lined streets is part of the fun.

Since I was here in the afternoon, I had to to skip the Niharis and Kebabs near Jama Masjid. I was also meeting a friend over beer in Gurgaon later that evening, so I didn't want to stuff myself at Shakahari (amazing homely daals) either. Confused, I headed straight to Ashok Chaat Bhandaar.

Now there are two Ashok Chaat Bhandaars. The story goes that Mr. Ashok’s sons split up the famed Delhi institution and set up shop right opposite each other. I've tried both of them multiple times, and would recommend the one to the left, at the beginning of the road that leads to Jama Masjid. 

This is a real hole in the wall establishment and perpetually crowded, if you come late in the evening many of their items will be sold out. Here you poke and wave your way through to the chatwallah, place your order, eat, pay and leave. Bystanders are not welcome. I highly recommend pretty much everything available. The Golgappas are perfect, with crunchy aata/suji shells and perfectly brewed paani and chutney. I also reach out for their dahi and chutney laced chaats – the spongy Dahi Bhalla and the crispy Dahi Paapdi topped with tangy Kachloo. This time, I went for their Kalmi chaat. The crunchy Kalmi vadas beautifully shone through the chutney cocktail and smooth dahi. If you like it spicy, you’ll be left with that pleasant tingle in your mouth.

To soothe your spiced up palate, just look around for Daulat ki Chaat. A Delhi speciality, this beauty is only to be found on the streets of the Walled City in winters (It goes by a different name - Malaiyo/Makhan Malai in parts of U.P.) It's best described as a milk mousse or a milk froth, only much lighter and way creamier. It is prepared by churning milk and skimming the foam on top. The foam is then set, and topped with saffron, slivered almonds and sometimes varq. Ms. Timms fortunately managed to observe how it's done. She wrote an excellent piece about it in the Sunday Guardian, you can read about it here.

I spotted one right next to Ashok and promptly asked for a plate. The easily identifiable Daulat ki chatwallahs set shop in the streets of Old Delhi right after Diwali. They spread out their ethereal fare on a large metal tray, the yellow and white DKC gleaming amidst the chaos. Here they shall remain till about Holi, only to return when the winds turn cold again. The best one I've found so far is in Dariba Kalan, though I can't recollect his exact location. You pick your serving size and the vendor scoops out some foam for you and mixes it with shakhar and khoya, as per your taste. He then delicately doles it out on a dona. I generally ask for a little extra saffron-hued foam, and I've never been declined. You put a spoon in your mouth and marvel at how something can be so rich yet airy. Before you know it, you've gulped it all down. Repeat. I once bought huge matka-full of DKC and it stayed fresh under refrigeration till the next day. If you do this, take care to use a cut and fold motion to mix the toppings into the foam. Go too hard and you will beat the air out of it.

Tingling taste-buds pacified, I head over to the adjoining Bazaar Sitaram. There’s always a couple of Matra Kulcha carts at the entrance to the lane and I just can't resist the aroma. Another Delhi favorite, thin chewy Kulche with an almost yeasty-bread like texture served with a bowl of matra, spiked with masala and pickles. Add a garnish of some onions and tomatoes, and you have one of the most satisfying street food to be found anywhere. These days vendors also serve buttermilk/raita to soothe your palate after all that masala, but I had something else in mind.

I walk further inside Bazaar Sitaram and turn right into the second lane - Kucha Patiram. I am greeted by the familiar blue hued havelis; over the years time seems to have stood still here. I walk past Dulichand Kulfi  - the 2nd best kulfi in this part of town, till I reach a shop that reads Kuremal Kulfi. The legendary Kuremal Kulfi. For my money, the finest purveyors of all things frozen in Delhi. If you turn up on a Monday, like I did, you'll probably find it shut. But do not despair, just walk a little more and turn left after a large temple, you can ask anyone for directions to Kuremal. They'll point you to small shop. This is where the regulars come to. I found a couple of gentlemen lounging around and asked for one each of their Paan, Sharifa and Phalsa kulfis.

A familiar face offered me his seat on the cot inside and sent an errand boy to fetch the kulfis from their warehouse. Nothing seems to have changed since I first came here 6 years ago, inspite of the accolades Kuremal has won. Prices too are almost unchanged, with each kulfi about 60 bucks. It is advisable to bring along as many friends as you can, so you can try out every flavour on offer. My all time favorite remains the seasonal Phalsa Kulfi, made out of the eponymous red berries found in this part of the country. It's like a pomegranate-red sorbet, and the sweet and sour Phalsa flavor explodes in your mouth. If there ever was a perfect palate cleanser, this would be it.

When in season, the stuffed Mango Kulfi is unmissable. Grade A Alphonso Mangoes from Ratnagiri are scooped clean of their ghutlis, filled with rabri and frozen. Served sliced, the reminiscence is enough to make me fly to Delhi just for them.

The Sharifa Kulfi is deliciously smooth and creamy with bits of the fruit. It brings back memories of the Sitafal-cream I love at Bachelors in Mumbai. I end with the Paan Kulfi. This light-green hued creamy kulfi imbibes the zest and mintyness of a Meetha paan. I've had many renditions of this across the country but predictably, nothing beats Kuremal. The folks are even kind enough to pack a large order in thermocol with a salt-ice mixture, which keeps the kulfis frozen for a few hours. 

I am in total bliss as I sit in that quaint little shop licking away the wooden spoons and donas clean. 

With that I hop back into the Metro and bid adieu to the wonders of Chawri bazaar, till next time.


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  2. Already I have been on the phone with the elder statesman, my father, arguing about which salami is most delicious. Somehow Loukanika isn't in the running. I respect his judgement on many things, but in this regard he is wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps this is another nascent Hanukah tradition, the vociferous ranking of the pork products.
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