Ask a Bengali his traditional food and he’d answer, without batting an eyelid, “Bhapa chingri, illish paturi, rui-kalia and roshogolla.” The same goes for a Marathi or a Keralite. But put forth the same question to a Delhiite and you’d see the conundrum in his eyes… “Err, butter ‘chikkan’, mutton korma, naan…” Somewhat unconvincing, especially if you are a connoisseur who knows where his food is coming from. Maybe keeping this in mind, Delhi Tourism and the Delhi government have organised Delhi Ke Pakwan, a nine-day food extravaganza which will put up delicious Delhi fare. From paranthewalas from Chandni Chowk, dahi bhalla stalls to kulfiwalas from Karol Bagh, a royal spread awaits you at this culinary extravaganza.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
Truly, Delhi food has always been an amalgamation of cuisines brought in by people who migrated to the city and made it their home. “But when we talk about the original food of Delhi, we refer mainly to the days of Shahjahanabad, and the era of Emperor Shahjahan. The cuisine at that time comprised food from mainly three communities - Mughals (the rulers), Kayasthas (administrators attached to the Mughal court) and Baniyas (money lenders and traders). The traditional food of Delhi meant nahari, kebabs and ulte tawe ki roti of the Mughals, and then the very Hindu, no-onion-no-garlic food of the Baniyas, and the amalgamation of both in the Kayastha kitchen,” informs food writer and consultant Anoothi Vishal. “The Ganga-Jamuni culture was apparent in the Kayastha food. Paranthas and kebabs, mutton curry with naan were the order of the day.” Historian Sohail Hashmi says, “It would be wrong to put Delhi cuisine in a time bracket. It has been influenced from the time of the Sultanate kings. The food then had a definite Central-Asian influence.”
Aeons ago, when pasta and lasagna would have left mouths agape, a typical Delhi breakfast would consist of bedmi-aloo, nagori-halwa, various types of chaats, kulle (roasted potatoes stuffed with tiny chickpeas) with a generous sprinkling of kala chaat masala. “Kalmi bade, moong dal pakodas, and a lot of lentils were favoured. Nahari, meat stewed overnight with dollops of spices, was a bazaar breakfast, and was also popular for keeping the cold at bay. Dum-aloo, an old dish, is still a hot favourite. Curd and whole spices, including javitri, saffron, peepli, paan ki jaad, ittar, and even samudri jhaag (coral) were generously used in the dishes,” informs Vipul Mathur, executive chef at Mosaic Hotels and a self-confessed old Delhi food connoisseur. What Mathur likes about Hindustani khana vis-à-vis Western cuisine is the fact that everything is measured by the hand and not on weighing scales!
Indian cuisine is largely a product of geography and caste. “It’s wrong to think of food as insular. It keeps changing,” remarks Vishal, adding, “Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalised world, these authentic flavours have been taken over by generic food, mostly restaurant-created and quite unlike those painstakingly put together recipes of yesteryear.” “Luckily, some fine gems like Ghantewala, Sriram Hariram at Kinari Bazar, Natraj, Karim’s in Jama Masjid, and scores of others in the gullies and nukkads of the Walled City still preserve the flavours of the past,” says food consultant and restaurateur Marut Sikka.
A lot of Middle Eastern influences were seen in the mithai of yore. Meethi chawal was a hot favourite in both Muslim and Hindu households. Along with mithai made of semolina, khoya-based mithai was mostly favoured. Halwa and kheer were relished. Nuts and dry fruits were essential for all sweetmeats. Later, Anglo Indians brought with them a whole world of sweet dishes. Legend has it that Ghantewala, which was operational somewhere around the Sepoy Mutiny, served sweetmeats so delicious that the enemies stopped warfare after a hearty fill of their sweet dose!
With so much food history, so many influences, it’s difficult to say where exactly lies the origin of Delhi food. But thanks to a rich heritage, today Delhi has a vast repertoire of delicious dishes which it calls its own.
Now go, sample!
Let your gastronomy dream come true. Wander in the lanes of Old Delhi, enjoying forgotten foods...
• Heritage and Food walk conducted by Sohail Hashmi through the week, from 7.30 am–10 am. The heritage walk ends with bedmi-aloo, puri-halwa breakfast. Onwards Rs 400 per person (kiddies tours too). Contact: email@example.com; 9818690910
• Delhi Food Adventure conducts food tours of Old Delhi and Connaught Place, daily from 5:30 pm–8:30 pm; during December /January (12.30 pm–4 pm), Feb (5.30 pm–9 pm); Rs 1,750 per person (including food); Contact: Prabhat Bhadauria; 9560579179; delhifoodadventure.com
• Cultural historian Dr Navina Jafa specialises in custom tours of Old Delhi, including stops at food stalls. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 9810150152
• From Kake di Hatti to Dariba’s Jalebiwala, Red Earth’s food walk in old Delhi lets you relish exotic delicacies. Contact: Himanshu Verma @ 41764054; email@example.com