This time of year is bliss in Delhi. After prolonged, air-conditioned hibernation, it feels like the start of the long summer school holidays, with every day a potential outdoor adventure until we’re chased back indoors in Spring. The parks are full of power-walkers, tourists are taking their time at India Gate and al-fresco eating is the order of the day; happy family groups are out picknicking and we suddenly see the point of restaurants with gardens.
I always know winter is well and truly on its way when I spot the Shakakandi seller in Khan Market with his piping hot pile of roasted sweet potato – just say the word and he’ll load up a plate with scooped out flesh and douse the lot with masala and lemon juice – with optional kamrakh (star-fruit) garnish: a mini feast to ease you through those awkward times when your next meal just seems a little too far off.
My grown-up India equivalent of building dens and climbing trees, are long days spent in Old Delhi. Just a month ago the scene in the bazaars was of traders mopping their brows between bouts of haggling, recalcitrant rickshaw-wallahs dawdling in the shade, a roaring trade at the kulfi (ice cream) and nimbu pani (lemonade) stalls. My own trips were short and to-the-point, preferably with ice-cold beer waiting at home.
Now there’s energy to spare and time to soak it all up. It’s true of India generally that there’s a relish in seasonality that we’ve mostly lost in Britain. Despite the increased availability of imported food in Delhi, in the winter months we still look forward to strawberries, cape gooseberries and salad; when the temperature starts to soar again, one of the few compensations is the arrival of mangoes and the rising excitement as each new variety appears in the markets.
One of the many wonderful things about the old city is the way the food there moves with the seasons – this is not the place to go if you’re looking for year-round avocadoes – and you can still feel the intense right time, right place-ness of the food on offer. Winter in Old Delhi means dishes like the spicy nehari, a rich meat stew cooked slowly overnight and served with brains and marrow to put lead in the pencil early on a nippy winter morning.
There are certain things which can only appear in the winter months. One which makes my heart skip like a kid with a Strawberry Mivvi and one of Old Delhi’s most tightly-guarded secrets, is Daulat ki Chaat. How to describe something which should really only be served to people who’ve led exemplary lives as they finally make it through the pearly gates? In her ‘Essential Delhi Cookbook’, Priti Narain translates it as ‘milk puff’ but this merely underlines the sheer inadequacy of language to convey the enormity of the experience which eating Daulat ki Chaat entails. According to Old Delhi legend, Daulat (which means ‘wealth’) ki Chaat is made only during the cold winter nights (preferably by the light of a full moon) when gallons of sweetened milk are whisked for hours into a cloud which is then set by the dawn dew. The top layer is touched with saffron and decorated with vark (silver leaf) and by morning the Daulat ki Chaat is just solid enough to be spooned into plates and sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts, khoya (condensed milk) and bhoora (unrefined sugar) before gradually collapsing in the heat of the day.
In its thaal (a wide metal platter) the Daulat ki Chaat looks like the soft meringue of Lemon Meringue Pie but the taste is altogether more ethereal – it dissolves instantly on the tongue, leaving behind the merest sensation of cream and sweetness. The balance of milky cloud, saffron, sugar and nuts is subtle and tantalising, almost not there – generally requiring a greedy second or third plateful to try and audit this gully-found glimpse of heaven. If there’s one dish that sums up the magic and mystery of Old Delhi street food, it’s Daulat ki Chaat – at 20 rupees a plate it’s within the reach of rickshaw-pullers but this is a dish – surely with Mughal heritage? – that could hold its own with the world’s most extravagant delicacies – in fact I know of at least one Delhi Embassy which has started calling in the Daulat ki Chaat wallahs for its swanky parties.
In Delhi, I’ve never seen this other-worldly delicacy anywhere but the old city, although I know different versions exist in other cities – the first time I tasted it was right off the night train to Lucknow, where it’s called Nimish. This is a cruelly short season but for the next few weeks the Daulat ki Chaat wallahs, with their khomchas (a fold-up bamboo stand which street food vendors use to display their wares) are dotted around Old Delhi, standing proudly behind their platters of ‘cloud’. Last week I ate Kemchand Adesh Kumar’s Daulat ki Chaat in Nai Sarak but he moves around – his phone number is 9899417485 if you want to avoid disappointment.
I include Priti Narain’s recipe, from The Essential Delhi Cookbook, which calls for electrical appliances, although I refuse to accept Daulat ki Chaat can be made in the kitchens of mere mortals – I firmly believe this sweetened slice of paradise is created with the assistance of angels rather than a Kenwood mixer.
Daulat ki Chaat
2 litres full cream milk, unboiled
2 and a quarter cups cream
1 heaped tsp cream of tartar
1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp rosewater
2 tbsp chopped pistachio nuts
Combine milk, cream and cream of tartar in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight.
Next morning stir in 4 tsp caster sugar and rosewater and whisk using a rotary or electric beater at high speed. Using a tea strainer collect the foam that forms and transfer to a large thali or tray. Keep thali tilted so that foam stays on one side; some milk will collect on the lower side. When the thali is fairly full, spoon foam into clay saucers or teacups, sprinkling a little caster sugar between layers and on top (the foam will condense a little during this operation. What looks like four bowlfuls in the thali will yield only two bowls).
Pour milk collected in the thali back in the bowl and continue collecting foam till all the milk is used up. The whole process will take 2 – 2 and a half hours.
Sprinkle pistachio nuts on top of each bowl of foam and refrigerate till serving time.
The Daulat ki Chaat can also be layered in 2-3 large bowls but it loses some of its fluffiness and becomes dense.