Eating Out in Delhi trips are always an adventure, but the vegetarian excursions are a particular delight. Not because we’re all militant meat-haters. Quite the reverse in fact. However, despite the fact that most of us believe a meal without meat is no meal at all, our leader, Hemanshu, is committed to providing an equal opportunities dining experience.
He means well, but it’s probably no coincidence that our ‘veggie’ evenings are invariably held in Old Delhi, where, if the meat-free fare fails to thrill, an emergency kebab is never far away. So on Sunday evening, to pre-empt possible disappointment at Shakahari (literally ‘vegetarian’) restaurant in Chawri Bazaar, we took a carnivorous detour via Gali Qasim Jan where the great Urdu poet Ghalib once lived. On the corner with Lalkuan Bazaar, sits the legendary beef kebab maker Ustad Moinuddin.
At first we couldn’t see him for all the drooling hordes crowded round. As we resigned ourselves to a lengthy wait, we watched the master at work, hands constantly on the move, packing soft meat onto skewers, judging the exact cooking time for optimum succulence before tipping them quickly onto plates and into waiting hands.
I can only guess what makes Moinuddin’s kebabs so tender – he wasn’t giving away any secrets – but hours of marinading and energetic pounding have to be a distinct possibility. The real puzzle, though, is how he can serve up something worthy of Bukhara at 4 rupees a throw (3 Rs till recently, apparently)
Of course, gorging on kebabs on a veggie night out is not really in the spirit of things but then eoid has plenty of eccentric rituals. Another is a tendency to eat dessert before dinner – a new one on me, but essential according to Hemanshu because the best places often run out by 8pm.
Which was why, by 7.30 (we weren’t taking any risks!) we found ourselves standing in Lalkuan Bazaar before the undisputed King of Kheer. Bade Mian serves up his saffron-streaked delicacy from a tiny shop opposite Badal Beg Mosque, where his family’s 100 years of experience is evident in every moreish mouthful.
As I was waiting for my takeaway stash to be packed, I asked Bade Mian how much kheer he sells every day. “Faqiri Muamalaat” he replied, enigmatically. The Urdu scholars among us explained a ‘faqir’ is a kind of wandering holy man and ‘muamalaat’ means ‘concerns’ but fell short of a totally convincing translation. I think the gist of it is that Bade Mian is doing quite well for himself.
I didn’t ask but I’m sure the kulfi-wala in Sitaram Bazaar, Duli Chand, where we had our second pre-dinner pud, is also a rich man, to judge by his delicious mango and pomegranate ice creams. In a first for me, the latter was served laced with the house masala mix.
And so to the ‘main’ event. It was always going to be a David and Goliath affair but Shakahari bravely fought the veggie corner. The Urad ki Dal was surprisingly peppy, expertly tempered and served with besan rotis doused in ghee. The Baigan ka Bharta and cumin potatoes were surprisingly hearty, the whole meal true to its gutsy roots in Uttar Pradesh. It might well have fared better on an empty stomach.
But then again, that wouldn’t be in the spirit of things.