Saturday was Ashtami, the 8th day of the nine-day Hindu fasting period known as Navratri (literally, ‘nine nights’) during which the goddess Durga is honoured.
Food, as ever, plays an important part.
As the temperatures rise and Delhi-ites rush to get their ACs serviced and start to dread the long, sweaty slog ahead, we have been granted a few days’ reprieve in the shape of unseasonal chilly squalls. This, we are informed by every daily newspaper, is thanks to the ‘Western Disturbance’, a term used in this part of the world to describe a sudden cold snap caused by extratropical storms in the Mediterranean.
The cold winds and swirling leaves are making me think back to some of the lovely book-related Old Delhi outings of the past few months that I never got round to blogging about. Winter is such a great time for Old Delhi pottering, when the city is warm and cheering rather than exhaustingly hot.
Back in January, for instance, on the day of the Lohri , I went for a stroll in the area which specialises in gajjak – a jaggery/nut brittle eaten and gifted during this winter harvest festival. The gajjak shops turned out to be not too far from Chawri Bazaar metro towards the Khari Baoli end of Lal Kuan, and seemed to envelop the area in a tantalising nutty, jaggery aroma.
In Frashkhana, there was a cluster of shops overflowing with nutty delights and doing a roaring trade. It was a street I hadn’t explored before and was keen to keep going but Rahul my rickshaw driver stopped after about 100 yards and said it wasn’t safe to go any further as the end of the gully marked the beginning of G.B. Road, Old Delhi’s red light district.
I wanted to linger, though. Luckily I spotted a busy food stall snuggled up to an old Mughal archway. Bathed in the soft winter sun, Khan Hotel was crowded with workers in their cosy woollen tank tops, an old man was making bread and all seemed well with the world.
The shop’s young proprietor, Chaman Khan, looked astonished when I strolled up and ordered a plate of mutton and potato – I suppose not many foreigners stray into these parts. One of the workers ushered me to a bench in the gully under the arch where I sat and dipped my fresh tandoori roti into the gravy, studiously ignoring Rahul’s rising twitchiness. The meal was simple and homely with none of Old Delhi’s signature spicy pyrotechnics – also on offer was potato and spinach and dal, each served with the freshest of bread for 20 rupees a go.
Eventually, I gave in to Rahul’s constant reminders that this was not a good area and got back on the rickshaw. Returning via Lal Kuan, we stopped at Lal Ramkrishan Das and Sons where a huge crowd was blocking out a beautiful display of gajjak. I sampled a few – a perfect chaser to the savoury meat – then watched sugar being spun at the back of the shop. (unfortunately I’ve managed to delete a video I made of this!)
Just looking at these photos makes me feel winter is already a distant memory but if the Western Disturbance troubles us for just a little bit longer, we can enjoy a few more leisurely Old Delhi strolls.
Khan Hotel, about fifty yards up on the right of Frashkhana coming from Lal Kuan
Lal Ramkrishan Das and Sons, gajjak shop, on Lal Kuan next to the opening for Rodgran Gali
Happy New Year everyone - wishing you all great things in 2012! One of my wishes for the year ahead is to spend more time here on my poor neglected blog. Thank you to everyone who wrote to find out if I’d dropped off the face of the earth – I really appreciate all your messages.
The truth is, I wouldn’t let myself do any blogging until I’d made some serious headway with the book. I spent most of the autumn in Old Delhi, taking part in all the festivals, soaking everything up and filling dozens of notebooks but as soon as Diwali was over I knew I had to just sit down and try to make sense of it all. For a while I seriously doubted I could do it (I still have my doubts actually). How could I possibly do justice to my beloved Old Delhi? How would I ever get beyond my journalist’s comfort zone of 1500 words? Was my spine , and sanity, going to survive sitting at a desk for months on end?
Eventually I gave myself a good talking to, strapped myself to a chair, switched off the internet and vowed to do no blogging or excursions to Old Delhi until I’d made significant progress. It worked, sort of, and it was a massive relief when I sent off the first chapter a day before Charlie arrived back for the Christmas holidays. Baby steps, but still an achievement.
My back’s still killing me but at least I’d earned a trip to Old Delhi. So last Friday, Dean and I left the kids sprawling on the sofa and headed out into the chilly morning. When we arrived in Chawri Bazaar the streets were still thick with cold winter fog so we decided to warm up in Standard Sweets, a few steps from the Metro station. We ordered two plates of Chhole Puri, a soft and comforting chick pea dish served with piping hot deep fried breads. The Standard version of this ubiquitous Delhi dish is the addition of potato, paneer and an extremely tasty kofta (a creamy vegetable dumpling). We parked ourselves at a table to watch the shop and street get ready for the day. A huge platter of carrot halwa was set on a stove to keep warm while young men in mufflers trooped in bearing trays of freshly made samosas and balushahi. Our breakfast, washed down with sweet spicy chai was delicious – I particularly enjoyed the kofta. All round, a perfect winter warmer. From Standard Sweets we decided to wander through Gali Peepal Mahadev where several temples were doing a brisk trade in early morning pujas. Here, on the left, we spotted the young owner of Standard Sweets making his offerings
We came across an embroidery workshop and a dyeing shop
From Ballimaran we headed towards Kinari Bazaar and found a Daulat ki Chaat vendor.
I say ‘found’ but they’re not exactly difficult to come by these days. Has anyone else noticed the multiplying of Daulat ki Chaat wallahs in Old Delhi this year? A happy renaissance to be sure but I’ve noticed some of them, particularly those clustered round Chawri Bazaar metro station, taste a bit synthetic – cutting corners perhaps? The one we ate in Kinari Bazaar, however, was top notch. The vendor, a serious young man in a Nehru waistcoat, was almost hidden from view in a side lane. He took great pains to make sure each plate was just so, waited for us to finish then folded up his stand, put the platter on his head and disappeared into the main bazaar.
Dean stopped for a haircut, which as cruel friends have pointed out, never takes that long
From Kinari Bazaar we turned into Paranthe Wali Gali, not for paranthe but for sweets at Kanwarji which is at the end of the street on the corner with Chandni Chowk. Here I bought the beautiful rose chikki you can see at the top of this post. Chikki are like nut brittle – usually nuts, seeds or puffed rice set in sugar or jaggery. In the winter months, when the roses are at their best in India, the sweet shops sometimes add rose petals to their chikki. Delicately rose-flavoured and beautiful to look at, they made the prettiest of new year gifts.
We also popped into the historic Ghantewala sweet shop a few doors up on Chandni Chowk to try their Habshi Halwa, a dark sugary, nutty, spicy sweet which, it turns out, both looks and tastes like Christmas pudding.
Then, just as we were about to head home, we decided to take a peek in one of the lanes between Chandni Chowk and Kinari Bazaar. And in that little detour we found this lovely little place;
this young man with his thriving knife-sharpening business. Can you see the sparks flying from the scissors he’s sharpening on a stone that he’s turning by pedal power?
an old abandoned desk;
and a happy doggy soaking up the winter sun…
It’s not just the food of Old Delhi I’ve missed over the past few weeks, I’ve also missed these endless discoveries. It doesn’t matter how often I go to Old Delhi there’s always something I haven’t seen before; a doorway, a clock, a shaft of light, someone making something or fixing something, the boy with one blind eye watching the crazy foreigner have his hair clipped.
Here’s to a year of discovery!
Standard Sweets, Gali Hakim Baqa. From Chawri Bazaar metro station turn into Chawri Bazaar and take the first little turning on the left and you’ll see the shop on the left.
The festival season is well under way here in Delhi and with so many celebrations overlapping and coinciding, it can be tough to keep up. I’m doing my best – for my book, I’m trying to make sure I at least catch everything in the Old Delhi calendar – but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s happening when.
So if there’s anything you think I might miss, please drop me a line – for example I hadn’t realised that the Bengali festival of Durga Puja was celebrated in Old Delhi until new Bengali friend Surya took me in hand.
delhi durga puja samiti
It turns out the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja (also known as the Delhi Durga Puja Samiti) is in fact Delhi’s oldest, dating back to the time many Bengalis came to Delhi to work for the British when the government moved from Calcutta. In the early days, the Puja was held in the heart of Old Delhi in Nai Sarak, then Fatehpuri.
The Puja’s new home is the Bengali Secondary School on Alipur Road and last night Surya, her husband Sean and I met at Civil Lines metro to check it out. As I frequently find myself lost in Hindu traditions and rituals, Surya first of all sat me down to explain some of the Durga essentials, calling her Mum in Siliguri a couple of times for clarification.
Durga Puja coincides with Navratra, which began last Wednesday, and both are linked to the start of winter and harvest time. Navratri, which literally means ‘nine nights’, a nine day fasting period for Hindus, is observed several times a year but the most significant is the Maha Navratra (‘Great Navratra’) at the beginning of autumn.
The Goddess arrives on an elephant, leaves on a palanquin
The dates of Bengali festivals and pujas are determined by the annual Panjika almanac, compiled by astrologers and priests; it also determines auspicious days for weddings, business ventures etc. according to the lunar cycle. The Panjika also details how Durga, along with her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, and Kartik will arrive, by horse, palanquin, boat etc. If she arrives by elephant, as she did this time, it’s going to be a good year ahead. Although not such good news for her departure: she’s leaving on a palanquin, signifying epidemic.
The Kashmere Gate Durga Puja is a traditional and low-key affair compared to many in Calcutta: the Goddess was radiant without being too flashy and the music was ‘Rabindro Sangeet’, the beautiful music and words written by Rabindranath Tagore; songs of ‘love and revolution’ according to Surya. Today is the start of three days of religious rituals then Durga’s earthly visit will be over for another year and she’ll go back to heaven via an immersion in the Yamuna river on Thursday.
Ananda mela: the gorging puja
But of course I was itching to get on with the food side of the things and I had already noticed lots of women pulling stoves, pressure cookers and platters out of bags. Which could only mean one thing – the Ananda Mela was about to start. The Ananda Mela is a wonderful tradition of local women sharing their family specialities on the evening before the puja begins (which this year is today).
We tried almost everything on offer: Luchi Chola (chick peas with puri), Jimikand (also known as ‘kochu’ or ‘taro’) Cutlets, Chicken Biryani, Chicken Korma ‘Rashmoni’ Kheer (‘kheer surprise’), Malpua (sweet, fried fritters), and Patishapta (a sweet pancake stuffed with coconut) and the excitingly-named Bonanza Chilli Chicken with Lemon Rice. Wonderful, lovingly-cooked homestyle dishes, a grand start to the glorious Delhi eating season.
Here’s a link to a feature I wrote for the Australian food magazine ‘Feast’. Photographer Alan Benson and I did this in May when it was boiling, boiling hot and even I was finding it hard to eat huge amounts of deep-fried food! At Dilli Haat craft market we were literally the only people at the food court.
Alan’s photos are gorgeous though – Old Delhi never looked better and happily, there are no shots of my red, sweaty face in there!
On India’s 64th Independence Day on Monday I woke to a text message from Old Delhi friend Amit: “Rain has played spoil sport”. I looked out to see the Monsoon rains sheeting down and felt his pain.
Normally rain is met with joy and relief in North India. In Old Delhi, though, Independence Day is celebrated by flying paper kites, a symbol of freedom – rain means the festivities will be a wash out. (There’s a nice piece here on the tradition of kite flying in Old Delhi, with pictures by my friend Simon de Trey White.
I was particularly disappointed because this was the first time I’d been invited to take part in not one, but two kite flying parties in Old Delhi.
Happily, by noon the rains had petered out and I headed off. The first stop was the beautiful haveli owned by Dhruv and Richa Gupta in Sitaram Bazaar. Continue reading
Old and Famous Jalebi Wala, Chandni Chowk
It’s time to right a terrible wrong.
For the past two years or so I’ve been a regular in Old Delhi, delighting in the wonderful street food – most weeks I’m either checking up on a new dish, gorging on an old favourite, begging for recipes or stocking up on crockery for our Uparwali Chai tea parties. We always take visitors for a quick spin and recently I’ve been doing a few food tours too.
Whatever the excuse (and I need very little excuse to jump on the Metro to Chawri Bazaar), there are a couple of places I always visit. At Bade Mian in Lal Kuan I scoop up a week’s supply of the best kheer (rice pudding) in town; I never miss korma at Ashok and Ashok; I gorge on Daulat ki Chaat whenever it’s in season and I always, always come back with a big bag of sticky, sweet, still-warm jalebis from Old and Famous Jalebiwala.
All of these I have written about droolingly, except one. Amazingly, I have never mentioned Old and Famous. Time to make amends.
As I sit down to write this, on Diwali night, the lights are twinkling all over our neighbourhood, Delhi’s streets and skies are erupting with fireworks that will build to an all-nighter of explosions. The local children are shrieking, stray dogs are howling and our own pups Spike and Mishti will be gibbering wrecks till morning. It’s going to be a long and noisy night but we’ll sit on the terrace and marvel nonetheless.
I think Diwali maybe one of my favourite celebrations. Continue reading
I recently put together this street food list for The Guardian newspaper to coincide with the Commonwealth Games. I’m not sure how many athletes or officials have managed to get beyond the Games Village canteen to sample Delhi’s incredible street food but for anyone intrigued by Delhi’s wonderful street food, these are just a few of my all time favourites.
Best korma: Ashok and Ashok
If you only eat out once during your stay in Delhi, head for Ashok and Ashok: the chicken and mutton kormas here have been known to make grown men crumple. As well as boasting an edgy gangster heritage, A&A make chicken korma every day, mutton korma on Wednesday and Saturday (invariably sold out an hour after opening at 1pm) and biryani. The meat just melts, hinting at a magical mystery masala (apparently up to 30 different spices), pistachios, and a devilish pact with the ghee (clarified butter) tin.
• 42 Subhas Chowk, Basti Harphool Singh, Sadar Thana Road, Sadar Bazaar, Old Delhi