The Truest Sign of Winter in Delhi? The Daulat ki Chaat Wallahs are back in town!

 

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Winter has arrived here in Delhi.  I know this not just because we’re all starting to cough and splutter with the dreaded ‘Change of Season’ ailments.  Or because my feet are starting to get cold in bed at night and I can’t quite remember where I stashed our quilts last spring.  

No, I know the cooler days are here again because a few days ago I got a call from Babu Ram Kumar to let me know he and his brothers are back in town.  The Kumars are from Uttar Pradesh but every winter they’re based in Old Delhi where they continue a family tradition of making Daulat ki Chaat, that ethereally magical dessert that’s like a cross between a soufflé and a cloud.

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The lore that surrounds daulat ki chaat is every bit as amazing as the taste.  Food writer Madhur Jaffrey remembers it from her childhood in Delhi when a mysterious ‘Lady in White’  brought it in little pots to her family every morning.  It is said that Daulat ki Chaat must be made, by hand,  by the light of a full moon then left to set in the morning dew. It can only be made in the winter and has to be served and eaten quickly before the sun reduces the vendors’ snowy platters to a milky puddle. I’d been intrigued by these tales for years but for my book on Old Delhi I was determined to get to the bottom of the stories.  I pestered every Daulat ki Chaat maker I could find to let me watch them at work but it was the Kumar brothers who  eventually buckled under the pressure.   And so, last winter I spent several  unforgettable hours in the middle of a freezing cold  night watching pails of milk  being transformed into the food of the Gods. Were angels involved? Or the morning dew?  I couldn’t possibly say – at least not until my book, Korma, Kheer and Kismet, comes out in April!

For now, though, don’t miss the brief season.  Once almost extinct, for the past few seasons the daulat ki chaat stalls have been multiplying and from now until about Holi you’ll find them at various spots in Old Delhi including Dariba Kalan, Kinari Bazaar and outside the Chawri Bazaar metro station.  

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Gulabi Chikki – Coming Up Roses In 2012

Happy New Year everyone – wishing you all great things in 2012! One  of my wishes for the year ahead is  to spend more time here on my poor neglected blog. Thank you to everyone who wrote to find out if I’d dropped off the face of the earth – I really appreciate all your messages.

The truth is, I wouldn’t let myself do any blogging until I’d made some serious headway with the book.  I spent most of the autumn in Old Delhi, taking part in all the festivals, soaking everything up and filling dozens of notebooks but as soon as Diwali was over I knew I had to just sit down and try to make sense of it all. For a while I seriously doubted I could do it (I still have my doubts actually).  How could I possibly do justice to my beloved Old Delhi? How would I ever get beyond my journalist’s comfort zone of 1500 words?  Was my spine , and sanity, going to survive sitting at a desk for months on end?

Eventually I gave myself a good talking to,   strapped myself to a chair, switched off the internet and vowed to do no blogging or  excursions to Old Delhi until  I’d made significant progress.  It worked, sort of, and  it was a massive relief when  I sent off the first chapter a day before Charlie arrived back for the Christmas holidays.  Baby steps, but still an achievement.

My back’s still killing me but at least I’d earned a trip to Old Delhi. So last Friday, Dean and I left the kids sprawling on the sofa and headed out into the chilly morning. When we  arrived  in Chawri Bazaar  the streets were still thick with cold winter fog so we decided to warm up in Standard Sweets, a few steps from the Metro station.   We ordered two plates of Chhole Puri, a soft and comforting chick pea dish served with piping hot deep fried breads.  The Standard version of  this ubiquitous Delhi  dish is the addition of   potato, paneer and an extremely tasty kofta (a creamy vegetable dumpling).  We parked ourselves at a table to watch the shop and street get ready for the day.  A huge platter of carrot halwa was set on a stove to keep warm while young men in mufflers trooped in bearing trays of freshly made samosas and balushahi. Our breakfast, washed down with sweet spicy chai was delicious – I particularly enjoyed the kofta.  All round, a perfect winter warmer. From Standard Sweets we decided to wander through  Gali Peepal Mahadev where several temples were doing a brisk trade in early morning pujas.  Here, on the left,  we spotted the young owner of Standard Sweets making his offerings

We came across  an embroidery workshop and a dyeing shop

From Ballimaran we headed towards Kinari Bazaar and found a Daulat ki Chaat vendor.

I say ‘found’ but they’re not exactly difficult to come by these days.  Has anyone else noticed the multiplying of  Daulat ki Chaat wallahs in Old Delhi this year?  A happy renaissance to be sure but I’ve noticed some of them, particularly those clustered round Chawri Bazaar metro station,  taste a bit synthetic – cutting corners perhaps? The one we ate in Kinari Bazaar, however, was top notch.  The vendor, a serious young man in a Nehru waistcoat, was almost hidden from view in a side lane.  He took great pains to make sure each plate was just so, waited for us to finish then folded up his stand, put the platter on his head and disappeared into the main bazaar.

Dean stopped for a haircut, which as cruel friends have pointed out, never takes that long

From Kinari Bazaar we turned into Paranthe Wali Gali, not for paranthe but for sweets at Kanwarji which is at the end of the street on the corner with Chandni Chowk. Here I bought the beautiful rose chikki you can see at the top of this post. Chikki are like  nut brittle –  usually  nuts, seeds or puffed rice set in sugar or jaggery.  In the winter months, when the roses are at their best in India, the sweet shops sometimes add rose petals to their chikki.  Delicately rose-flavoured and beautiful to look at, they made the prettiest of new year gifts.

We also popped into the historic Ghantewala sweet shop a few doors up on Chandni Chowk to try their Habshi Halwa, a dark sugary, nutty, spicy sweet which, it turns out, both looks and tastes like Christmas pudding.

Then, just as we were about to head home, we decided to  take a peek in one of the lanes between Chandni Chowk and Kinari Bazaar. And in that little detour  we found  this lovely little place;

this young man with his thriving knife-sharpening business. Can you see the sparks flying from the scissors he’s sharpening on a stone that he’s turning by pedal power?

an old abandoned desk;

and a happy doggy  soaking up the winter sun…

It’s not just the food of Old Delhi  I’ve missed over the past few weeks, I’ve also missed  these endless discoveries.  It doesn’t matter how often I go to Old Delhi there’s always something I haven’t seen before; a doorway, a clock, a shaft of light, someone making something or fixing something, the boy with one blind eye  watching the crazy foreigner have his hair clipped.

Here’s to a year of discovery!

Standard Sweets, Gali Hakim Baqa. From Chawri Bazaar metro station   turn into Chawri Bazaar and take the first little turning on the left and you’ll see the shop on the left.

Daulat ki Chaat: God’s Own Street Food

This time of year is bliss in Delhi.  After prolonged, air-conditioned  hibernation, it feels like the start of  the long summer school holidays, with every day a potential outdoor adventure until we’re chased back indoors in Spring.  The parks are full of power-walkers, tourists are taking their time at India Gate and al-fresco eating is the order of the day; happy family groups are out picknicking and we suddenly see the point of restaurants with gardens.

I always know winter is well and truly on its way when I spot the Shakakandi seller in Khan Market with his piping hot pile of roasted sweet potato – just say the word and he’ll load up a plate with scooped out flesh and douse the lot with masala and lemon juice – with optional kamrakh (star-fruit) garnish:  a mini feast to ease you through those awkward times when your next meal just seems a little too far off.

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