Eating street food in Old Delhi in the middle of the monsoon isn’t everyone’s idea of a great night out. But Monday evening, when temperatures were still up in the mid thirties and humidity was around 70% , the caveman and I had a date with Rahul Verma, the man with the best job in Indian journalism – Street Food Correspondent for The Hindu newspaper – and nothing was going to stop us.
Rahul’s knowledge of Delhi’s street food is encyclopaedic – he’s been pounding the city’s pavements for more than twenty years to bring his readers news of everything from Kharorey in Jheel to Nahari in Bara Hindu Rao. His great passion is the food of Old Delhi although even he doesn’t usually venture there in August. He agreed to come as a special favour but issued a few Monsoon-condition health warnings: don’t touch the fresh chutneys or the raw onions – by evening they’ve probably been lying around too long in the humid heat; liberal use of hand sanitiser – a surprise here, I thought it was only for sissy expats; keep moving, it’s too hot to linger; and most important of all, make sure you’re back at the Press Club in time to cool off with some ice-cold Kingfisher before last orders at 10.30.
Fully briefed, we dived into Central Secretariat Metro Station and four stops later we emerged sweatily from Chawri Bazaar and in rickshaws we headed for Chitli Qabar in the Jama Masjid area. For me, trips to Old Delhi are the absolute highlight of living here, a glimpse of a world that’s fast dying out, in India as much as the rest of the world. I love day trips when the lanes and gullies are teeming with trade: rickety old porters bent double under sacks of spices; mothers and daughters buying wedding-loads of trinkets in Kinari Bazaar; mountains of paneer at Church Mission Road, lighting at Baigirath Palace, books in Nai Sarak, paper, car parts, electronics – in fact just about anything you can think of in this, north India’s largest wholesale market. But it’s the evenings I love best when, after a hard day’s bargaining, the focus turns, inevitably, to food: the tantalising smells from hundred-year-old family recipes every few yards; the smoke swirling round the lightning – fast hands of the Kababchis, the queues of expectant diners; the whole scene fully festive every night of the week.
These days there’s also the added frisson of knowing that, if the authorities have their way, the street food of Delhi’s days might be numbered and any kebab could be your last. On Monday, we were looking for Gola Kebabs – the tenderest of meaty mouthfuls – buffalo meat spiced and pounded until it’s softer than the most delicate pate. Gola kebabs are so soft they have to be held onto the skewer with fine thread to stop them dropping off during cooking. We tried a couple of stalls, eating quickly and greedily – of the two Saeed’s were the most melt in the mouth. We also stopped at Mota Biryaniwala (so-called because of his resemblance to the huge ‘degh’ from which he ladles out his spicy Biryani).
Lastly, Rahul dived into a small restaurant near Karim’s (our stop was so brief, I didn’t even clock the name) to sample Korma and Ishtoo (a legacy of British stew, as Rahul pointed out, opening up a whole new avenue for my British Food in India project). The food was tasty enough but inside was like a sauna, and it was a relief to be back on the street. Another rickshaw ride with a chap who seemed to be in training for the Tour de France, or perhaps just enjoying the breeze, and we were on our way back.
The miracle of the wonderful Delhi Metro meant we had managed to squeeze in two plates of kebabs, one Biryani, a Korma and Ishtoo before it was our turn to get the beers in at the Press Club: the perfect formula for enjoying Old Delhi in the summer.