A Spot of Surgery and a Saveur Blog Award Finalist

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To be honest, blogging has been the last thing on my mind recently.

About a month ago I suddenly decided to have some hip surgery I’ve been putting off for a while. I did a few last beautiful spring walks in Old Delhi with friends, my husband and son wangled some time off work/school and we flew back to Edinburgh.

It’s now been two weeks since the surgery and needless to say my usual musings on my beloved Old Delhi have been on hold as I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

I’m very thankful that all seems to have gone well but frustrated to not be racing around yet. One of the things I think about every day is ‘could I manage Old Delhi yet’? That could take some time – I’m still struggling to cross the road in Edinburgh before the green man disappears!

I’m also not doing much in the kitchen beyond making cups of tea and heating up soup – although Dean says I must be on the mend because I’ve started bossing him around when he’s cooking.

I’ve got to say, though, everyone in the family is proving to be pretty nifty in the kitchen. Dean has produced a constant supply of stews and roasts (it’s bloody freezing here – in fact yesterday, the alleged start of British Summer Time, saw snow in Edinburgh). My daughter makes a mean Thai Green Curry and my youngest son is the king of Carbonara. My eldest son has yet to rattle the pots and pans but I have big plans for him in the weeks ahead.

My Mint newspaper baking column is also on hold for the time being but I’m hoping to rustle up some recipes in the next week or so.

Anyway, as you can imagine blogging has been the last thing on my mind given that the things I most love to write about – Old Delhi and baking – are out of reach for now.

So I was absolutely flabbergasted, in fact I thought it was a codeine-induced hallucination when I saw on Twitter yesterday that Eat and Dust is a finalist in the Saveur Magazine Blog Awards 2015. Stunned – out of 50,000 entries, I’ve been shortlisted in the Culinary Travel category. Thank you, thank you, thank you to whoever nominated me!

If you’d like to vote, or just take a look at the wonderful range of beautiful blogs Saveur have highlighted again this year (they’ll certainly be helping me pass the hours between physio and binging on Netflix), click here.

If you’re new here, I apologise for the lack of ‘eat’ and ‘dust’ (Edinburgh has to be the least dusty place in the world and street food is limited to the weekly hog roast at the farmers’ market) appearing at the moment but here are a few posts from the archives you might enjoy:

One of Old Delhi’s Most Fabulous Breakfasts at Khan Omlet Centre

God’s Own Street Food – Daulat ki Chaat

Eid Prayers at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid

A Round-Up of Old Delhi’s Best Street Food

A Recipe for ‘Old Delhi’ Cheesecake

Sita Ram Diwan Chand’s Chana Bhatura (with recipes)

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The Kismet of Jamaluddin and a Recipe for Kheer

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So finally Korma, Kheer and Kismet – the product of years of joy (in Old Delhi) and heartbreak (at my desk) – is here. Although I still can’t quite believe it and do a double take every time I see it in a shop – my little book out there trying to make its way in the world.

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The response to the book so far has been incredibly cheering, particularly in Old Delhi itself.  As soon as I got back from my holiday in Scotland I went straight there to give copies to the vendors who feature in it.

First stop was Bade Mian’s shop in Lal Kuan.

The Siddique family’s kheer shop is a stone’s throw from the Chawri Bazaar metro and I always start any Old Delhi jaunt there – sitting at one of the tables at the back with a cup of chai and a tiny square metal plate of kheer. Jamaluddin is a wonderful character who is always ready with a colourful story – many of which I can’t understand because he seems to speak in Urdu rhyming couplets.

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Some (non-election) snaps of Old Delhi this morning

 

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The world’s biggest ever democratic election got underway here  this week and, as always in India, the numbers are staggering. Over 800 million people are eligible to vote in 9 phases between now and 12th May (there will be 6 days of voting in UP and Bihar alone); 543 seats will be contested; there are 930,000 polling stations equipped  with 1.4 million electronic voting machines and 11 million personnel have been deployed to keep the whole show on the road.  The Indian media and Twitter, needless to say, are in a frenzy trying to predict the outcome. Will Congress and the Gandhi dynasty cling onto power or will the right wing BJP sweep in? In most Delhi neighbourhoods the last few weeks of campaigning ahead of voting on Thursday have been, to put it mildly, boisterous. We happen to live right next to one of the  Aam Admi (‘common man’) Party’s offices and getting any peace and quiet to work has been virtually impossible.

In comparison, Old Delhi at dawn today was blissfully quiet. I arrived with a  friend just as it was getting light and the city was starting to come to life. I think this might be my favourite time, in my favourite place, when the craziness of the day is still to come and people are taking a little time for themselves. We wandered mainly around the Jama Masjid area where many were waking up on the pavement, the seat of a rickshaw or at one of the many open air charpoy (rope bed) ‘guest houses.’ The chai and  omelette sandwich-wallahs were doing a roaring trade.  Some early birds were already out selling fruit, vegetables and buckets of meat.  

We probably saw more men in their baggy underwear than was strictly necessary but watching a young barber set up his stall in the shadow of the Jama Masjid was sight for sore eyes.  We climbed onto the roof of the Haji Hotel and marvelled at the (rare) blue sky behind the mosque. We had a quiet cuppa in Haveli Azam Khan, stocked up on rusks and biscuits at the Diamond Bakery and were back home in time for breakfast and a full  day of campaigning.

 Anyway here are a few non-election snaps…

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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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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.

Kishan Lal Halwai – the rock god of Old Delhi sweet makers

Narender Lal, rock god

I’ve been putting off posting about this recent Old Delhi find because the pictures I took are so terrible. Like this…

Not an illegal poker game, a sweet shop

and this…

Literally throwing money at the guy

Then it occurred to me.  The reason the pictures are so bad is that the food is just so good and the crowds so mental that it’s impossible to get a shot without  being trampled in the crush.  How could I not pass on such treasure?
The chaotic scene you see above is played out every evening on Chandni Chowk and if you didn’t know any better you’d think it was a high-stakes illegal poker game.
In fact it’s possibly Old Delhi’s most popular sweet shop.
Actually, it’s not even a proper shop, more of a nightly pop-up event in the doorway of what during the day is Bishamber Dass Prannath Jewellers.
Whatever you want to call it, Kishan Lal Halwai make some of the best sweets and samosas you are ever likely to taste.  The proof:  the trays of freshly made Sev ki Barfi, Karachi Halwa and samosas which are carried in at about 7pm are gone within an hour.
As you can see, above, people are literally throwing money at the poor guy whose job it is to weigh the sweets out.
Despite its seeming impermanence,  this is no fly by night operation.  The family have been in  business for over 50 years; the founder,  Kishan Lal, used to sit outside the Mercantile building on Chandni Chowk.
The business is now run by the founder’s son Narender who I imagine must feel like the rock god of halwai  every night in life.
They also have a shop in Sitaram Bazaar  which I later remembered visiting a couple of years ago  during monsoon when they make stunning ghewar.  I didn’t manage to get any good shots then either…

A sweet maker at Kishan Lal in Gali Shankar

Ghewar, although not Kishan Lal’s

The sweets I sampled, Sev ki Barfi and Karachi Halwa, are some of the best, and certainly the freshest, I’ve ever eaten.  Sorry there are no drool-inducing close-ups – you’ll just have to take my word for it.
A huge thanks to my high-energy companion for the day, Surekha Narain, for pointing out Kishan Lal’s spot in Chandni Chowk.
How to find Kishan Lal:  The stall is at 1210 Chandni Chowk and is directly opposite landmark shop  Chhabra 555 which is roughly halfway down Chandni Chowk on the Gurudwara side.
Arrive before  8, though!
To find their Sitaram Bazaar workshop: from Chawri Bazaar metro walk almost to the end of Sitaram Bazaar, then turn right into Gali Shankar.  Ask for Kishan Lal Halwai

A Delhi Street Food Feature For Feast Magazine

Here’s a link to a feature I wrote for the Australian food magazine ‘Feast’. Photographer  Alan Benson and I did this in May when it was boiling, boiling hot and even I was finding it hard to eat huge amounts of deep-fried food!  At Dilli Haat craft market we were literally the only people at the food court.

Alan’s  photos are gorgeous though – Old Delhi never looked better and happily, there are no shots of my red, sweaty face in there!

Feast Feature

Our Son Leaves Home and Official: I’m Writing a Book

Suddenly and devastatingly, our big boy, Charlie, has  become big enough to leave home.  How does that happen?  One minute we’re changing nappies and hanging out in the ball pool, the next he’s got himself a bank account and a place at university in Scotland.

After a long summer of goodbyes as his friends here in Delhi left for various corners of the globe, last week it was his turn.  Lots of tears, yes, but also lots of ‘last’ meals. Like the wonderfully comforting garlic pepper chicken prawns at Swagath in Defence Colony – Charlie’s favourite and one of Delhi’s most devour-able dishes. For lunch on his last day Dean and I took him for Delhi’s best sandwiches and cold coffee at Novelty Stores  in Jangpura where he loved the old fashioned stool-at-the-counter vibe.

But his last dinner had to be at home and he asked for his favourite: chicken pie.  I made them in individual tins with everyone’s names on – a bit of a fiddle but it kept my mind off the the very imminent departure.

I packed him off with a recipe notebook  containing  family favourites,  and like a good Indian mummy I padded out his case with  chaat masala ( I actually found myself saying “you might need it for the bland food”), garam masala and enough Five Stars and All Bar Ones to last him till Christmas.

The days since Charlie left have been the saddest we’ve gone through as a family; knowing that our boy is out there on his own and until December we’ll only set 4 places for dinner.

We’re all dealing with it in different ways.  His brother and sister message him constantly, his Dad makes sure the Nelson menfolk are all watching their beloved Tottenham Hotspur at the same time, and I’m sending recipes and reminding him to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day.

The day after he left  I went to Old Delhi.  This increasingly seems to be my cure-all – there’s something about the overwhelming chaos of the place that calms me down and eclipses other concerns, at least for a little while.

Old Delhi will have to work overtime in the next few weeks as I try to get used to Charlie leaving home.

And, as  luck would have it, I will be spending a huge amount of time there over the next year as I’ve just signed a contract with Aleph to write a book. The working title is ‘A Year in Old Delhi’, a portrait of (a love letter to?) a world that has transformed my life over the last few years.  I’ll be exploring the food and  the people who make the food;  peeking into homes and restaurants; collecting stories and recipes.    I’ll be watching the changes in the seasons and the way the food reflects the rhythms of the year.  I’ll be there for all the high days and holidays and plenty of others in between.   And of course, I’ll be blogging as I go.

I’m incredibly excited about the book –  without question, the highlight of my writing life – and to have the opportunity to spend the next few months in what is fast becoming my spiritual home is a huge thrill.  To be working with publisher David Davidar, and agent David Godwin is an enormous,  privileged bonus.

The publishing contract arrived yesterday – probably the most wonderful  letter I’ve ever received but also the scariest.  Apart from all the  daunting ‘hereafters’ and ‘witnesseths’ there are  phrases like ‘in the event of the death of the Author’.

But perhaps the most terrifying of all  is ‘The Author shall deliver the typescript of the Work (of approx 100,000 words) to the Publisher by 31st January 2012 (“Submission Date “).

Yikes! That’s a LOT of words. That’s really SOON.  Better crack on.  Wish me luck.

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