All my birthdays and Christmases came at once last Thursday when good friend Nita offered to help me explore the area around her family’s office in Khari Baoli Spice Market. Now, I never need much of an excuse to go to Old Delhi but when an insider offers to show you around, it’s time to drop everything and run!
Three of us set off mid-morning for what would turn out to be one of my most memorable days in Old Delhi. We started at the Naya Bazaar end of Khari Baoli – Nita’s friend and foodie extraordinaire Anil, on holiday from his home in Paris, also came along and brought a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ to the jaunt. Anil has the most amazing ability to get people to behave naturally in front of the camera and I spent a lot of time pestering him for tips – hope something has rubbed off!
For once, though, this wasn’t an eating trip, but a time to look, listen and try to scribble down as much as possible as fast as possible – Nita was wonderful at coaxing out the kind of in-depth information that my ‘tuta puta’ Hindi prohibits, and by the end of the day my head was swimming with the discovery of new foods, recipes, folklore and family history. We also returned home with a whole heap of new (to me) ingredients to play with. Wah kya bat hai? as they say in these parts!
At one of the dried fruit and nut stalls at the entrance to Fatehpuri Mosque we staggered away laden with prunes, dried mulberries from Afganistan and dried plums from Kashmir. These remind me of a Scottish sweet from my childhood called Soor Plooms – you can’t help screwing up your face when the intense flavour hits your tongue. I’ve got my eye on them for a lamb tagine. Nita bought a big bag of Makhana (puffed lotus seed) which she remembered as the ‘Indian popcorn’ of her childhood and recreated for us later at her house by cooking quickly in ghee and sprinkling with salt – I’d be very happy to watch a film with a bowl of that in my lap.
At one stall, I tucked a Reetha nut into my bag – apparently Reetha, along with Shikakai is a traditional hair conditioning treatment – Nita remembers well the glossy locks of the ladies of her family who swore by it.
We saw little jaggery cakes topped with nuts, given to new mothers to build up their strength, then both silver and gold Warque – the edible foil that decorates sweets and desserts – earmarked for my home-made version of street food bread pudding Shahi Tukda.
A whole sheet of Warque is beaten from that tiny square in the front of the picture.
I discovered that there are three grades of Khoya (milk solid). The most solid, which is sold in a cake shape is used for barfi, the other two are used in looser-structured items like Milk Cake and desserts like Rasgulla.
One thing I recommend for every trip to Old Delhi is to dive into a random gully, somewhere you’ve never been before. These secret worlds always take my breath away and the warren of alleys between Khari Baoli and Church Mission Road is no exception. This is way off the usual visitor map, the scenes are medieval; lane after lane of traders sitting under portraits of their ancestors, counting their money, muttering sagely about different grades of spice and sending porters scurrying. Scarcely, you imagine, ever seeing the light of day.
In fact some traders were worried we could bring some of the smaller lanes – no more than about a foot wide – to a complete standstill – there just wasn’t room for photography, information-gathering and porters going about their business.
One of the most fascinating shops was an Ayurvedic wholesaler -I didn’t recognise any of his wares including this one that looks like fossils
We saw melons the size of a man’s torso
Anil pointed out the accidental art in the way things are arranged – any faults in composition have been introduced by me!
There was no shopkeeper here so we still don’t know what was in the jars but I did rush off and buy some of these beautiful old-fashioned ledgers from one of the paper shops on the main Khari Baoli road – I intend to keep a very rigorous ‘Hisaab’ from now on!
This sack-load is called Laccha, sun-dried shards of potato which are brought back to life by a brief immersion in sizzling oil then either eaten as a ‘Namkeen’ snack or used on top of dishes like Dhansak
Emerging, blinking into the harsh light of the main bazaar, a small vegetable trader, Amar Devi, from Gujarat, caught our eye. She was only selling about 6 items but each one was at its peak of seasonal fabulousness, just begging to be bought.
We left with armloads of amla, gleaming fat green and red chillies, fresh chick peas, plump lemons and a pickle recipe from a fellow customer, which will, of course be the subject of another post.
This was our (approximate – you’ll have to grant me some artistic licence with the gullies!) route – it took us about 4 hours to walk a few hundred yards – no stall or shop was left unexplored!