A few months ago, Dean and I spent some lovely times in Old Delhi introducing American food writer Joe Ray to the wonders of Delhi street food. Joe was a charming companion and enthusiastic devourer of everything we put his way.
We worked our way through chaat, jalebis, japani samose, fruit sandwiches and a vegetarian thali at Adarsh Bhojanalaya. But it was while we were polishing off korma at Ashok and Ashok in Sadar Bazaar that Joe confessed he was ‘having a moment’. Dean, too, looked distinctly emotional as he savoured the melting meat curry. We all agreed it was one of the finest meals we’d eaten for some time.
Joe’s lovely article about his time in Old Delhi appeared in the Boston Globe yesterday and while I was reading it I started thinking about the moment when my eating life was transformed by Indian street food.
It was a couple of years ago, on the second morning of a trip to Amritsar with the Eating Out in Delhi group. This picture was taken as I was about to taste my first chhole kulcha; it records the precise moment I was bitten by the street food bug.
It was a chilly February morning and we had arrived at a tatty, nondescript dhaba, the All India Famous Kulcha, in Maqbool Road. We were cold and famished and distressed to see dozens of people already ahead of us in the line for breakfast.
As we waited we had plenty of time to watch crispy kulche being lovingly shaped and baked in the tandoor and bowls of steaming chick peas making their way to the lucky diners already seated at the few plastic tables.
As you can see from the expressions on Supratim, Hemanshu and Ashwan’s faces, by the time our food arrived, the anticipation had reached devotional levels.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the first mouthful of Amritsari chhole kulcha is the reason I will probably never be able to leave India. The chick peas were wonderful; soft, savoury, spicy – just right. But it was the kulcha (parantha-sized crispy bread, dripping with salty Amul butter) that was the revelation: perfectly crisp, flaky, buttery layers worthy of a French pastry chef. And the two together? Well, let’s just say I can’t envisage living anywhere that would take me out of striking distance of Maqbool Road.
We lost count of the plates we devoured as the winter sun warmed our backs. I’ve had similar experiences since (some of them later that day in Amritsar) but you know what they say about your first time.
When we really couldn’t eat another crumb, we wandered round to the business end of things to chat to the owner Kawaljit Singh, whose family has been dishing up ‘All-Famous’ kulche for over 45 years.
He spent about two hours explaining the family’s history and the detailed preparation of the Chhole Kulche. ‘Baba’, the man who has been making the bread dough for the past 30 years showed us the way ghee is repeatedly layered into the kulcha dough to give the exquisite flaky finish. I’m fairly certain he didn’t train at Lenotre but I’m sure he could have taught the famous French patissier a thing or two.
This was the moment a whole new world of food opened up to me. A world where unpromising-looking roadside shacks produce world-class food; a world where generations of a family slave over their one prized recipe – sometimes their only possession as they fled at Partition; a world where the expertise handed down through the years is apparent in every mouthful.
Just flicking back through my journal of the Amritsar trip makes me feel emotional – notes on a trip that changed the way I think about food, the day I discovered food I would cross continents for. Maybe not for a while though – I’m not going ‘home’ anytime soon.
All India Famous Kulche, Maqbool Road, Amritsar