Some (non-election) snaps of Old Delhi this morning

 

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The world’s biggest ever democratic election got underway here  this week and, as always in India, the numbers are staggering. Over 800 million people are eligible to vote in 9 phases between now and 12th May (there will be 6 days of voting in UP and Bihar alone); 543 seats will be contested; there are 930,000 polling stations equipped  with 1.4 million electronic voting machines and 11 million personnel have been deployed to keep the whole show on the road.  The Indian media and Twitter, needless to say, are in a frenzy trying to predict the outcome. Will Congress and the Gandhi dynasty cling onto power or will the right wing BJP sweep in? In most Delhi neighbourhoods the last few weeks of campaigning ahead of voting on Thursday have been, to put it mildly, boisterous. We happen to live right next to one of the  Aam Admi (‘common man’) Party’s offices and getting any peace and quiet to work has been virtually impossible.

In comparison, Old Delhi at dawn today was blissfully quiet. I arrived with a  friend just as it was getting light and the city was starting to come to life. I think this might be my favourite time, in my favourite place, when the craziness of the day is still to come and people are taking a little time for themselves. We wandered mainly around the Jama Masjid area where many were waking up on the pavement, the seat of a rickshaw or at one of the many open air charpoy (rope bed) ‘guest houses.’ The chai and  omelette sandwich-wallahs were doing a roaring trade.  Some early birds were already out selling fruit, vegetables and buckets of meat.  

We probably saw more men in their baggy underwear than was strictly necessary but watching a young barber set up his stall in the shadow of the Jama Masjid was sight for sore eyes.  We climbed onto the roof of the Haji Hotel and marvelled at the (rare) blue sky behind the mosque. We had a quiet cuppa in Haveli Azam Khan, stocked up on rusks and biscuits at the Diamond Bakery and were back home in time for breakfast and a full  day of campaigning.

 Anyway here are a few non-election snaps…

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Chocolate Coconut Cakes for Mother’s Day

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So it’s Mother’s Day tomorrow—well, it is in Britain and much of Europe. To be more accurate, though, tomorrow is Mothering Sunday—a Christian celebration that is always on the fourth Sunday of Lent; the date changes every year according to when Easter falls. Churches hold special services on the theme of maternal love and the reading for the day is often from Galatians: “Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the Mother of us all.” The name dates back to times when people, often domestic servants, were given a day off to return to their “Mother”, or home church. As the workers walked along the country lanes from the big house to their village, they would pick flowers for their mothers—hence the later custom of giving presents.
I confess that I always assumed American Mother’s Day, which is celebrated in May, was devised purely as a way of boosting the profits of gift galleries Hallmark and Archies. How wrong I was. It actually appeared in the early 1900s when a woman named Anna Jarvis set up the day in memory of her own mother, Ann Jarvis, the founder of the “Mother’s Friendship Day” which aimed to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.
Anna Jarvis, though, deplored what Mother’s Day became even during her lifetime and in 1948 was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting its commercialization. “A printed card means nothing,” she once said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Before she died she said she wished she “had never started the day because it became so out of control”. She must be turning in her grave at the 21st century Mother’s Day. In the US alone, around $2.6 billion (around Rs.15,860 crore) is usually spent on flowers, $1.5 billion on gifts, $68 million on greeting cards.
Mother’s Day was also once known as Refreshment Sunday because Christians were allowed a break from the 40-day Lenten fast and baking has always been part of that tradition. Young servant girls often made a simnel cake to take home to their mothers and some English bakeries still sell mothering buns—a sweet yeasted cake covered in icing and coloured sprinkles. Whenever you celebrate Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday, you can’t go wrong with the gift of a home-made cake, surely one of the greatest expressions of love and appreciation.
My recipes today honour the two best mothers who ever lived, my husband’s and mine. My mother and mother-in-law never met. Oddly, the two recipes I often associate with them involve more or less the same ingredients but produce very different cakes. My mother Margaret’s is a simple traybake which we loved as children, an intense hit of chocolate and coconut. Brenda’s is a much-loved family cake that she always made for birthdays, and my husband thinks it was probably the first cake she ever learnt to make. I hadn’t made either for years and I have tweaked them slightly to take out some of the worst of the 1970s (margarine!).
For the cake I used fresh coconut instead of dried, but I think Brenda would have approved. The cakes brought back many fond memories for us all. As my son said, “that cake is fantastic. Just one mouthful is instant nostalgia.” I think Margaret, Brenda and Anna would all have been happy with that.
Margaret’s Chocolate Coconut Squares
Makes 12 squares
Ingredients
100g plain chocolate
50g soft butter
100g caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
113g desiccated coconut
Method
Line a tin—about 17cm square—with foil. Bring a pan quarter-full of water to a gentle simmer. Break the chocolate into a glass bowl and sit this over the pan (but not touching the water) until it melts. Spread the melted chocolate evenly over the foil-lined tin and place in the fridge to set.
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Beat together the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy, then beat in the egg. Stir in the coconut and spread this mixture over the set chocolate. Bake for about 15 minutes until the surface is golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely before slicing into squares.
Brenda’s Chocolate Coconut Cake
Serves 8
Ingredients
175g caster sugar
175g soft unsalted butter (Brenda, and most bakers of the day, of course, used margarine)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour, sieved with
1 tsp baking powder
100g fresh, grated coconut (Brenda used desiccated but the fresh does make the cake more moist)
2 tbsp coconut milk (my addition, again in the interests of moistness)
150-200g milk chocolate (depending on how chocolatey you want the cake)
2 tbsp of coconut, lightly toasted
Method
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Grease a ring tin (Brenda used a loaf tin, but the ring version gives you a bit more chocolate per mouthful).
In a large bowl beat together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs. Gently fold in the flour, add the coconut milk and fresh coconut and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the tin and even out the surface a little. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool slightly, then turn out on to a rack to cool completely.
Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl over a pan of water as above, then spread evenly over the surface of the cake. Sprinkle with a little toasted coconut.

Chikki Market and Gupta Chaat Wallah, Old Delhi

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As we cling onto the last few cool days here, it’s a perfect time to take a leisurely wander around Old Delhi and enjoy some some of the winter specialities that are still available.

One of the never-ending delights of walking in Old Delhi is coming across the tiny markets within markets, the little lanes devoted to one commodity. This winter I discovered a market tucked away in Kothi Shri Mandir near the Khari Baoli spice market and devoted almost entirely to Chikki – a type of nut brittle made from jaggery in the winter months.

Kothi Shri Mandir is so narrow there is hardly any daylight and it almost feels like walking through a secret underground passageway where your path is lit on either side by piles of magical sugar.

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There’s chikki everywhere you look made from sesame (also called gajak), peanuts, cashews even dried rose petals which come in all shapes and sizes – bars, rolls, discs, slabs, golf balls, tiny coin-sized pieces and hearts.

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This is my favourite shop, Lal Chand Rewri Wale – beautiful fresh chikki and I love the way the owner is practically wearing his merchandise.

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There are also some namkeen shops in the street like Pappu Caterers who sell everything you could possibly wish for to put a bit of crunch into your chaat – the spinach matri was particularly good.

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You can  see the chikki being made in some of the shops – these guys are pounding slabs of sesame and jaggery

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And this is the peanut brittle being shapedIMG_4570
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As you come back out of Kothi Shri Mandir, take a minute to appreciate Gali Batashan itself – a whole street devoted to all things sugary, pickled and candied – like these carrots, ginger and amla.
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The gali is also home to some excellent snacks. The Bombay Sandwich wallah often makes a stop here and there is a chana puri stall doing a roaring trade on the corner of Kothi Shri Mandir.  But my new favourite chaat is made by the Guptas who told me they had been in the gali for 45 years – verified by a happy customer who said he’d been visiting their stall for over 40. They run a hugely popular, very spic and span cart from which father and son dish up all kinds of fresh and flavoursome chaat.

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Finally, on the corner of Gali Batashan and Khari Baoli there is a  seasonal vegetable stall – look at all these gorgeous black carrots, fresh green chick peas, star fruit, sweetcorn, lotus roots and fresh turmeric…

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Gali Batashan runs between Khari Baoli and Naya Bans.  If you’re coming from Khari Baoli, Kothi Shri Mandir, where you’ll find all the chikki wallahs, is the last turning on the left before reaching Naya Bans. Gupta Chaat wallah is on the left of Gali Batashan before you turn into Kothi Shri Mandir.  Here’s a map of the exact locations.  Go soon, though, the hot weather is on its way!

https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=z5yQqd-1sTFU.kwW3uh74zD_M

Cooking the Book: Recipes from Korma Kheer and Kismet – 1. Sita Ram Diwan Chand’s Chana Bhatura

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While I wait  for my editor to put her red pen through the manuscript for Korma, Kheer and Kismet,  I’ve finally found time to  test the book’s recipes. Even though it isn’t a cook book – more of an Old Delhi street food memoir –  each chapter contains one or two recipes.  Some of them were given to me by street food vendors, others are my own versions based on watching the cooks at work.

First to be tested was one of north India’s favourite comfort foods: Chana Bhatura, specifically the version made by  Sita Ram Diwan Chand.  They have been making their magnificent dish in Paharganj since their ancestors arrived in the area after Partition and I once was lucky enough to spend the morning with the shop’s owner Pran Kohli.  He patiently showed how they make all the various elements, the chickpeas, bhatura, pickled carrot and tamarind chutney.  I blogged about it in 2009 and it has been the most popular post on Eat and Dust ever since but somehow I never got round to making it myself. (although I do frequently make my friend Anita Dhanda’s extremely easy and delicious recipe for Chana Bhatura).

I  was right to feel daunted by their incredibly detailed recipes and can finally testify that Sita Ram’s recipe is not for the fainthearted cook – it took me about a day and a half to complete – but it turned out to be well worth the effort.  As well as being very time-consuming, the recipe is also  very nuanced  - from the careful spicing of the chick peas and potatoes to the subtle accompaniments like the pickled carrots, paneer-stuffed bhatura, and tamarind sauce, every element of the dish has a vital role to play in producing an astounding range of flavours and textures. We’ve been happily gorging on it for days.

So here it is, a (rather lengthy)  sneak peek of one of the recipes that will appear in Korma, Kheer and Kismet. It’s been thoroughly tested and somewhat amended from my original scribbled notes from Pran Kohli of Sita Ram Diwan Chand.  Of course it’s not as good as his – after all they’ve been practising since 1947 – but it’s still an outstanding dish to make at home.

SITA RAM DIWAN CHAND’S CHANA BHATURA

Serves 6-8

Chana

500g chickpeas

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 cassia leaf

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

150g chopped onion

100g yoghurt

100g peeled and chopped tomatoes

½ teaspoon turmeric

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 heaped tablespoon anardana (pomegranate seed) powder

1 tablespoon garam masala

½ – 1 teaspoon red chilli powder (or to taste)

Spiced Potatoes

2 medium potatoes, boiled until cooked with skin on

½ onion, finely chopped

1 tomato, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon red chilli powder

½ teaspoon anardana powder

1 teaspoon garam masala

  1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in cold water.  In the morning, drain then put the chickpeas in a large pan with the ginger, cassia leaf, bicarbonate of soda and about 2 ½ litres of cold water.  Boil the chickpeas until they are tender but not mushy – about 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, melt a tablespoon of oil or ghee and brown the onion.  Add the yogurt, chopped tomatoes and turmeric.  Stir well and cook on a low heat until the mixture is a deep reddish brown then remove from the heat.
  3. When the chickpeas are ready (retain the cooking liquid which will be much reduced) add the onion/tomato mixture and stir well.  Add salt, pepper, anardana, garam masala and red chilli powder and stir well.  Continue cooking until the gravy has thickened then take off the heat.
  4. To make the spiced potatoes, peel the boiled potatoes and chop into 2cm cubes.  Heat a tablespoon oil in a pan, add the chopped onion and tomato cook until browned.  Add the turmeric, salt, black pepper, red chilli powder, anardana powder and garam masala.  Cook for a few minutes until the spices are roasted.  Add the potato cubes then stir well to coat them in the spiced mixture. Stir the potato cubes into the chickpea mixture.

Bhatura

Makes 12

150g plain flour (maida)

150g semolina (sooji)

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons yogurt

150-200 mls water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Bhatura Stuffing

150g paneer, finely chopped

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

½ teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

5g chopped fresh coriander

  1. Mix together the flour, semolina, salt, yogurt and 150 mls of water.  Knead well until you have a soft, springy dough.  As the flour and semolina absorb the water, you may need to add more water.  After about 5 minutes of kneading you should have a smooth ball of dough. Put the dough in a clean bowl, cover and leave for 4-5 hours.
  2. To make the bhatura stuffing, combine all the ingredients and mix well.
  3. Work a tablespoon of oil into the rested bhatura dough then divide it into 12 pieces.  Roll each piece into a ball between your palms.  With your thumb press a large dent in each ball, put a dessertspoonful of the stuffing into the dent then close the dough back up over to cover the stuffing.  The stuffing should be completely enclosed.
  4. Roll each stuffed ball out as thinly as possible.
  5. Heat about 6 cm oil in a kadhai.  When a small piece of dough dropped into the oil rises quickly to the surface, the oil is the right temperature to fry the bhature.  Gently slide in one bhatura, let it cook for a couple of seconds then press it down with a slotted spoon – this helps it to puff up.  Flip the bhatura over and press down again.  When the bhatura is golden brown and puffed up, removed to drain on some kitchen roll.

Pickled Carrot

The pickled carrot needs to be started a few days before you want to serve the chana bhatura.

200g red, ‘desi’ carrots

5g black mustard seeds

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon turmeric

juice of 2 limes

250ml water

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon red chilli powder

  1. Peel and cut the carrot into small batons about ½ cm thick and 6cm long and place them in a clean jam jar.
  2. Mix together the mustard seed, salt, turmeric, lime juice and water.  Pour over the carrot sticks, close the jar and leave the carrots to steep for at least 2 days.
  3. Drain off the pickling liquid, rinse the carrots then mix with ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon red chilli and mix well.  The carrots are now ready to serve.

Tamarind Sauce

1/2 cup tamarind water (imli)

6 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon roasted cumin powder

1/2  teaspoon red chilli powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

Mix together all the ingredients in a small pan, bring to the boil then let it bubble for a few minutes until slightly thickened.

Serve with the chickpeas along with slices of raw onion, pickled carrot, and tamarind chutney.

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The Truest Sign of Winter in Delhi? The Daulat ki Chaat Wallahs are back in town!

 

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Winter has arrived here in Delhi.  I know this not just because we’re all starting to cough and splutter with the dreaded ‘Change of Season’ ailments.  Or because my feet are starting to get cold in bed at night and I can’t quite remember where I stashed our quilts last spring.  

No, I know the cooler days are here again because a few days ago I got a call from Babu Ram Kumar to let me know he and his brothers are back in town.  The Kumars are from Uttar Pradesh but every winter they’re based in Old Delhi where they continue a family tradition of making Daulat ki Chaat, that ethereally magical dessert that’s like a cross between a soufflé and a cloud.

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The lore that surrounds daulat ki chaat is every bit as amazing as the taste.  Food writer Madhur Jaffrey remembers it from her childhood in Delhi when a mysterious ‘Lady in White’  brought it in little pots to her family every morning.  It is said that Daulat ki Chaat must be made, by hand,  by the light of a full moon then left to set in the morning dew. It can only be made in the winter and has to be served and eaten quickly before the sun reduces the vendors’ snowy platters to a milky puddle. I’d been intrigued by these tales for years but for my book on Old Delhi I was determined to get to the bottom of the stories.  I pestered every Daulat ki Chaat maker I could find to let me watch them at work but it was the Kumar brothers who  eventually buckled under the pressure.   And so, last winter I spent several  unforgettable hours in the middle of a freezing cold  night watching pails of milk  being transformed into the food of the Gods. Were angels involved? Or the morning dew?  I couldn’t possibly say – at least not until my book, Korma, Kheer and Kismet, comes out in April!

For now, though, don’t miss the brief season.  Once almost extinct, for the past few seasons the daulat ki chaat stalls have been multiplying and from now until about Holi you’ll find them at various spots in Old Delhi including Dariba Kalan, Kinari Bazaar and outside the Chawri Bazaar metro station.  

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My book has a name!

Thank you to everyone who took the time to help decide on a name for my book about Old Delhi.

The clear favourite both here and on Facebook/Twitter was ‘Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi’ and I’m delighted to say that’s exactly what the book will be called.

It should be out by the end of the year… In the meantime, here are some lovely Old Delhi sweets to celebrate

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Help Name My Book!

HELP!   

I thought the agony of doing the first draft of my book on Old Delhi was bad enough! Now I have to decide on a title.

The working title has been ‘Mutton Korma at Shokkys’: Five Seasons in Old Delhi’ but a few months ago I took against it.  However, coming up with something that I love more has so far escaped  me.

What do you think?  I want the title to convey what my book is about – the street food of Old Delhi, the families who make it and their stories.

Here are some of the options, sort of in order of preference… As you can see they all have the same strap line – ‘Five Seasons in Old Delhi’

 

All input greatly appreciated!

 

1. Mutton Korma at Shokkys’:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

 2. The Kheer Wallah’s Kismet:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

3. Korma, Kheer and Kismet:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

 4. Kheer and Kismet:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

 5. Mutton Korma and the Kismet of Kheer: (husband thinks this one sounds like ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’!)

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi 

6. Mutton Korma and Kulfi Wallahs:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

7. Tandoori Days:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

8. Aloo Tikki Times:

       Five Seasons in Old Delhi

 

Thanks!

Recipes: Pearl Millet Crackers With Dukkah and Fresh Rosemary Cheese

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Well I must say, I was slightly anxious about logging on to Eat and Dust today.  It’s been almost 6 months since I’ve been here – I thought the blog police might have snuck in and closed me down on the grounds of extreme neglect!

The fact is, for the past year I’ve been working on a book about Old Delhi, and for the past few months I’ve done virtually nothing else. Anyway, I finally sent off the first draft  last week then  promptly collapsed in a heap. When I  eventually picked myself up again one of my first thoughts was “My poor blog!”

But what to write about?  I’ve hardly left the house recently except to walk the dogs so I have no new street food joints to report (although I intend to put this right very soon).  Also, my own cooking has dwindled to the bare minimum – so no new dinner recipes to suggest.  I have, though, in the interests of staying sane, managed to keep doing a little  baking.

Bizarrely, for someone so keen on sugar, deep-frying and ghee,  I suddenly seem to be thinking healthy  thoughts. Worrying, I know, I’ll be sending fan mail to Gwyneth ‘no carbs’ Paltrow next!  Anyway I’ve been experimenting with all the wonderful grains that are available in India and I have to say it has been a revelation.

According to my husband, whose job it is to pronounce on such things, this recipe for pearl millet crackers with dukkah may well be my best yet. I’m not sure how I feel about that as these crackers are little more than a dinner party twist on what food historian K.T. Achaya once dismissed as the “staple dietary item of the common folk”, bajra ki roti.

Yes, pearl millet may well be the main form of nutrition for over a third of the world’s population and in India, where it is known as bajra, it is widely used to make warming winter rotis but it rarely, if ever, attracts superlatives. And although millet has been around for over 10,000 years, I’d never used it in my baking before.

But it turns out bajra, or pearl millet, has a delicate sweet, earthy, nutty flavour which made me wonder where it had been all my life. A few minutes in the oven and a sprinkling of the wonderful Egyptian roasted nut and spice mix called dukkah transformed it into total deliciousness.

Incidentally, I’ve become completely addicted to Dukkah recently – my favourite winter soup this year, during the dark days of the first draft, was a roasted carrot soup with a sprinkling of dukkah and yogurt.  It’s worth keeping a tub of it in the freezer – I can’t think of many things that wouldn’t be improved by it.

I was so excited I also decided to make a simple cheese to go with the crackers, a sort of firmed-up ricotta made from milk and buttermilk (chaach).

Just making these recipes made me feel gratifyingly rustic, as if I’d just spent the morning on a farm, especially when I used the whey from the cheese to bind the crackers. But the flavours were a revelation and the combination of spicy, nutty crackers and creamy, herby cheese was, as my husband will testify, anything but home-spun.

Bajra and Dukkah Crackers

Makes 16-20 crackers
Ingredients
200g bajra flour
100g maida (plain flour)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
30g butter
Approximately ¾ cup (about 200ml) whey or water
Dukkah to sprinkle on top of the crackers
Method
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Sprinkle a baking tray with flour.
Sift the flours, sugar, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips. Add enough of the whey or water to make a soft but not sticky dough.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Then divide the dough into walnut-sized pieces and roll them out as thinly as possible, no more than 1mm thick. Keep checking the dough isn’t sticking to the surface and sprinkle a little more flour if necessary. The pieces don’t need to be neat—in fact they look nice rugged and rustic. Carefully lift the rolled out dough on to the baking tray. Brush a little water over the surface of each piece and sprinkle on the dukkah (although you could also use sesame or caraway—I made a couple with dried pomegranate powder). Bake for 6-8 minutes until the crackers are lightly browned and crisp. The crackers keep well for a few days in an airtight container.

Dukkah

Ingredients
½ cup hazelnuts
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp rock salt
Method
Put the hazelnuts in a heavy frying pan and roast over medium-low heat for a few minutes until a little browned, then add sunflower seeds and roast for a few more minutes. Tip them on to a plate to cool, then add the sesame, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds and peppercorns to the pan and heat until fragrant and popping. Be careful not to let any of the nuts or seeds burn.
Put the nuts and seeds into a pestle and mortar with the salt and grind gently—you want to retain a range of different textures. Store for up to a month in the fridge or longer in the freezer. Dukkah can pep up almost anything—salads, hummus and lentils, but my favourite winter lunch this year has been a roasted carrot soup sprinkled with dukkah and a good dollop of yogurt.

Fresh Rosemary Cheese

Makes a small cheese approximately 12cm wide
Ingredients
1 litre full-cream milk
1 litre buttermilk (chaach)
Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp salt
A small bunch of fresh rosemary, chopped
Method
Heat the milk and buttermilk in a large pan until it just reaches boiling point. Stir in the lemon juice for a minute or so until the mixture separates into white curds and greenish whey. Tip it all into a sieve (but keep the whey for bread or cracker-making!). Put the curds into a bowl and stir in the salt—you could also add other flavouring like toasted cumin or cracked pepper.
At this stage, the cheese is ricotta and could be served as it is with the crackers. If you want a firmer cheese, either wrap the curd in a piece of muslin or put it in a perforated metal paneer (cottage cheese) mould. Put the muslin or mould on a plate, then weigh it down with something heavy to press out the liquid. Leave it in the fridge for a few hours. When the cheese is as firm as you want it, take it out of the mould and sprinkle it with the chopped fresh rosemary. The cheese will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Eid ul Azha Prayers at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid

Recently, I’ve spent way too much time sitting at my desk writing about Old Delhi, and not nearly enough time doing what I love most – actually being in Old Delhi.  But yesterday, a couple of friends and I decided to try and catch the Eid ul Azha prayers at Jama Masjid .

Thinking the prayers would be the first  of the day, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4, only to find the mosque closed.   A policeman suggested we come back at about 8.  A difficult moment.  I’m not going to lie – at this point, still half asleep, staring at the locked gates of the Jama Masjid, the temptation to head straight back to bed  was enormous.  It was a very close call but  somehow we forced ourselves to stay, and I’m so glad we did.

Of course every walk in Old Delhi is an adventure but there’s something particularly special about watching the city wake up. First, though, we needed to wake up properly ourselves.  We wandered down into a very dark and  almost deserted Matya Mahal and found a tea shop.  Several sweet chais and omelettes later,  and after quizzing every Muslim customer about the exact time of prayers, we were ready to take a stroll.

We found many stalls starting to set up including this splendid young man taking care of the pre-dawn Kachori business

The beautiful emerging light showed off the dazzling sweet displays which people would later give as Eid gifts.

At the junction of Chitli Qabar lines of prayer mats were being laid out for early prayers, stretching back along the lane from a mosque in Churiwalan

The soft, barely audible sounds of the mosque and  gentle rhythms of the prayers were mesmerising.  As the line grew and we were pushed further and further down the street, we realised we couldn’t get back to the Jama Masjid without disrupting the men’s prayers so we looped back through the tiny back alleys, where  we joined hundreds of men in  fresh white kurtas all heading in the same direction.

Eid ul Azha, which is also known as ‘Bakra’ (‘goat’) Eid is one of the most important dates in the Muslim calendar.  It commemorates   the moment the Prophet Ibrahim’s faith was tested when Allah asked him to sacrifice his son Ismail.  Allah replaced Ismail with a goat at the last moment hence the tradition of sacrificing  a goat immediately after the Eid prayers.  The meat is then distributed among family, friends and the poor.

At the mosque we were shown into the ‘press gallery’ a raised platform with the best view in the house.

The mosque was full (it can hold up to 25,000) and even beyond the walls, every bazaar and piece of open ground was filled with neat rows  of worshippers.

When the prayers started, everyone, inside and out, moved in a single wave.  Sitting high above the bazaars, it felt as if  the soft prayers had the power to silence the city.

At the end of prayers, everyone turned to their neighbour and embraced. Eid Mubarak!

As everyone exchanged Eid greetings, I looked  out over the Meena Bazaar side of the mosque. The early morning mist  seemed to blot out everything beyond the Old City.  It felt as if, for a few moments, there was, again, nothing but ‘Sheher’.*

A good feeling.

* ‘Sheher’ means ‘city’ and is the name for Old Delhi used by residents and former residents.  It refers back to time when Shahjahanabad was the only city and everything beyond the city walls (where New Delhi now lies) was wild jungle and primitive villages.