Eid ul Azha Prayers at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid

Recently, I’ve spent way too much time sitting at my desk writing about Old Delhi, and not nearly enough time doing what I love most – actually being in Old Delhi.  But yesterday, a couple of friends and I decided to try and catch the Eid ul Azha prayers at Jama Masjid .

Thinking the prayers would be the first  of the day, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4, only to find the mosque closed.   A policeman suggested we come back at about 8.  A difficult moment.  I’m not going to lie – at this point, still half asleep, staring at the locked gates of the Jama Masjid, the temptation to head straight back to bed  was enormous.  It was a very close call but  somehow we forced ourselves to stay, and I’m so glad we did.

Of course every walk in Old Delhi is an adventure but there’s something particularly special about watching the city wake up. First, though, we needed to wake up properly ourselves.  We wandered down into a very dark and  almost deserted Matya Mahal and found a tea shop.  Several sweet chais and omelettes later,  and after quizzing every Muslim customer about the exact time of prayers, we were ready to take a stroll.

We found many stalls starting to set up including this splendid young man taking care of the pre-dawn Kachori business

The beautiful emerging light showed off the dazzling sweet displays which people would later give as Eid gifts.

At the junction of Chitli Qabar lines of prayer mats were being laid out for early prayers, stretching back along the lane from a mosque in Churiwalan

The soft, barely audible sounds of the mosque and  gentle rhythms of the prayers were mesmerising.  As the line grew and we were pushed further and further down the street, we realised we couldn’t get back to the Jama Masjid without disrupting the men’s prayers so we looped back through the tiny back alleys, where  we joined hundreds of men in  fresh white kurtas all heading in the same direction.

Eid ul Azha, which is also known as ‘Bakra’ (‘goat’) Eid is one of the most important dates in the Muslim calendar.  It commemorates   the moment the Prophet Ibrahim’s faith was tested when Allah asked him to sacrifice his son Ismail.  Allah replaced Ismail with a goat at the last moment hence the tradition of sacrificing  a goat immediately after the Eid prayers.  The meat is then distributed among family, friends and the poor.

At the mosque we were shown into the ‘press gallery’ a raised platform with the best view in the house.

The mosque was full (it can hold up to 25,000) and even beyond the walls, every bazaar and piece of open ground was filled with neat rows  of worshippers.

When the prayers started, everyone, inside and out, moved in a single wave.  Sitting high above the bazaars, it felt as if  the soft prayers had the power to silence the city.

At the end of prayers, everyone turned to their neighbour and embraced. Eid Mubarak!

As everyone exchanged Eid greetings, I looked  out over the Meena Bazaar side of the mosque. The early morning mist  seemed to blot out everything beyond the Old City.  It felt as if, for a few moments, there was, again, nothing but ‘Sheher’.*

A good feeling.

* ‘Sheher’ means ‘city’ and is the name for Old Delhi used by residents and former residents.  It refers back to time when Shahjahanabad was the only city and everything beyond the city walls (where New Delhi now lies) was wild jungle and primitive villages.


Hot Cross Buns for Easter

It’s Easter next weekend and for me you can keep the chocolate eggs and shower me with hot cross buns, the traditional way for Christians to break their Lenten fast.  This recipe is so easy – it doesn’t  even need any arm-numbing kneading – you’d be mad not to give it a go.  I guarantee they’ll be better than anything you ever bought in a shop.

There was a time in Britain when the monarchy was given to interfering in the baking habits of its people. In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued an extremely stern edict forbidding the consumption of spiced buns except on certain days:

“That no bakers, etc., at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subjects any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread…except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor.”

Perhaps Britain has become a nation of Republicans or maybe the Brits just can’t resist a spiced bun, but hot cross buns, once only eaten over the Easter weekend, are now available in every supermarket all year round. Though a long way from being a royalist, I resolutely only make hot cross buns at Easter, enjoying the once-a-year treat and the Christian symbolism in my baking. The start of Lent is marked by using up all the rich ingredients (sugar, milk, eggs) in the kitchen to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. After 40 days of abstinence, people would celebrate by eating buns crammed with good things. The buns are made from a soft, yeasted, sweet and spiced dough and marked with a pastry cross to symbolize Christ on the cross. The first record of a bread marked with the sign of the cross is thought to be in the time of Pope Gregory IX when St Clare of Assisi blessed a stale loaf and a cross appeared on it. It is also thought that the spices in the bun represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in the tomb.

There is nothing better (but only at Easter!) than a thickly buttered hot cross bun. They’re also lovely with a slice of mature cheddar—though I wonder what Good Queen Bess would have made of that.

Bake heaven: The buns are best fresh out of the oven. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint






Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Hot cross buns

Makes 12


450g strong bread flour or plain flour

7g (1 sachet) easy blend dried yeast

1 level tsp salt

50g caster sugar

2 tsp mixed spice (see note 1)

50g butter, cut into small pieces

100g currants

200ml lukewarm milk

2 eggs

For the crosses

75g flour

80ml water

For the glaze

2 tbsp milk

2 tbsp caster sugar


Grease a large baking tray. Gently heat the milk to lukewarm temperature, then beat in the eggs. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and mixed spice. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the currants. Make a well in the centre of the mixture and pour in the warm milk and eggs. Incorporate all the flour into the liquid until you have a coherent, soft dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour.

On a floured work surface, knead the dough gently for 10 seconds, then put back in the bowl and leave for 10 minutes. Knead the dough again for 10 seconds, cover again and leave for about 1 hour (these timings are not a misprint—try it and see). When the dough has doubled in size, knock out the air and divide into 12 pieces. Knead each piece into a smooth ball. Put the buns on to the greased tray, place the tray in a large plastic bag and leave until the buns have again doubled in size.

Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Mix the water and flour to make a stiff paste for the crosses. Put the paste into a piping bag and pipe on the crosses. Alternatively, and quite traditionally, you can simply cut a deep cross on top of the buns. In fact, although I love the aesthetics of the cross, I prefer the taste of the buns without the chewy pastry on top. Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes (see note 2). While the buns are baking, make the glaze by heating the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the buns are a rich brown colour on top, take them out of the oven and immediately brush with the glaze. Eat the buns warm, buttered on the day they’re made. If there are any left the next day, they are beautiful toasted and buttered.

• Note 1: Ready-made mixed spice blends can be bought but I usually blend my own using these proportions:

1 tbsp ground allspice

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground nutmeg

2 tsp ground mace

1 tsp ground cloves

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground ginger

• Note 2: Using an electric surface-top oven, I kept the top and bottom elements on for 10 minutes, then turned off the top element for the remaining 5-10 minutes.

Gorgeous Goddesses and Lashings of Aloo Puri in Old Delhi

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.

Continue reading

A Western Disturbance and a Winter Lunch at Khan Hotel, Old Delhi

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 

Ashtami Celebrations in Sadar Bazaar

I’ve said this before (many times) but I’m going to say it again anyway:  I never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary kindness of people in India and the everyday  willingness of complete strangers to open their hearts,  homes and recipe books to me – particularly in Old Delhi.

On Tuesday Dean and I  were extremely  touched to be invited to an intimate family Navratra celebration.  At the home of the Arora family (Amit and his mother Kamlesh) in Old Delhi, a world away from the mayhem of the Durga Puja pandals,  we took part in a quiet and dignified Ashtami Puja.

Ashtami is celebrated on the 8th day of Navratra and is a moment many families hold a special ceremony to offer prayers to the Mother Goddess or Durga/Kali. For the Aroras, Ashtami is a particularly poignant time because it is a time memories of Amit’s father Ashok (of Ashok and Ashok fame) who died suddenly in 1997, come flooding back.

As in Ashok’s day, nine little girls  from the neighbourhood are invited in to represent devi, or goddesses.

4 beautiful goddesses: Moni, Seema, Nandini, Kajal

My devi of the day: Moni

The girls, some as young as 2, all sit perfectly still throughout the proceedings. First, Vijender, from the local temple, lays out offerings for Durga: coconut, almonds, sugar, walnuts, almonds, raisins, burfi and puris topped with chick peas and halwa.

Kamlesh leads the puja, emotional as she remembers her husband, a picture of whom can be seen in the shrine. In his day, Amit tells us later, everyone was invited and his father  used to take Polaroid pictures of everyone to hand out.

When the prayers are finished, and Dean and I have taken a turn at offering prayers,  Kamlesh gets to work in the kitchen, frying up mountains of puris.

As the room fills with the smell of ghee and incense, Amit ties sacred threads round each child’s wrist.

Tying the scared threads

The devi are then served their food.  On Ashtami it’s traditional to eat chole, (spiced chick peas), sooji halwa, (semolina halwa) and freshly fried puris (puffed, deep fried bread). The food looks  and smells wonderful but it’s our turn to be patient as we watch the devi devour their food.

Where are my puris?

Soon the plates are clean  and the girls revert to being a little less heavenly. Perhaps  they’ve been on best behaviour too long or  a sugar rush from the halwa suddenly kicks in but when they realize Amit has a stash of  chocolate and crisps a stampede ensues.

When the snack supplies and 20 rupee notes have been exhausted, the children clatter off down the stairs leaving us to savour our own plates of Ashtami food.

In the Hindu calendar, this is the time of year blessings are bestowed and counted. As I walk slowly back through Sadar Bazaar, Khari Baoli and Lal Kuan I marvel for the millionth time at  the great good fortune that brought me to India then led me to Old Delhi.

Ananda Mela or The Gorging Puja

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.

Kites, Pakoras and Life in a Beautiful Haveli: Independence Day in Old Delhi

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

Diwali in Old Delhi

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

Our first guest post and a navratri recipe

I was recently invited to a wonderful food event – a celebration of  the traditional food of the families of Old Delhi.  The recipes had been collected and recreated by food writer Anoothi Vishal and hosted by The Claridges Hotel in Surajkund and although it was a bit of a trek for lunch, it turned out to be well worth braving the last of the monsoon floods for.

While I worked my way through almost everything on the menu, Anoothi, whose own family hail from the old city,  gave me a fascinating overview of Old Delhi’s different communities and the food they cook.  Many of the dishes were completely new to me and confirmed what I have long suspected – most of India’s great cooking goes on in the domestic kitchen using recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Some of the food highlights – the Paneer aur Aloo Bukhara ke Kofte shown in the picture above, (kofte made from paneer and stuffed with prunes) were unusual and divine, perhaps Persian in origin. The Mutton Pulao was the most succulent I’ve ever tasted, the meat and stock having been cooked slowly in the rice, resulting in  delicate flavours, moist rice and melting meat. One very unusual dish was Anoothi’s family recipe for Take Paise, small  chick pea flour discs (‘paise’) which are steamed then fried and served in a rich sauce.

Continue reading