The year is 1634, and Shah Jahan, one of the greatest Mughal emperors, is getting ready for a royal lunch. The hakim (royal physician) has prepared the menu where every ingredient is medicinally therapeutic. The enormous staff of the court kitchen has started executing orders. About a hundred recipes are being prepared, and every intricately carved corridor, opulent shamiana and flowering garden is besieged by the rich aromas emanating from the kitchen.
The year is 2017, Shah Jahan is long gone, but the architecture and art he left behind continues to inspire awe. Though some of the original glory of his monuments is faded, one part of his legacy that still commands as much attention as it did centuries ago are the recipes from his kitchens. In Old Delhi (the walled city) the aromas from the many types of street food recall the hakim and the royal cooks whose recipes are still being used. We may not be able to take you back to the Mughal Empire, but we can certainly give you a taste of what the royals ate.
Old Delhi is a labyrinth of narrow streets and crowded market places. Among its chaos and noise, however, live makers and vendors of the most soul-satisfying street food. Here is a list to help you navigate the maze.
Parathas are the thicker, more delicious cousins of the plain roti. Best eaten piping hot, topped with delicious homemade butter – they can be plain or stuffed with a variety of meat and vegetables, from mint to potato, cabbage, radish and minced meat. Old Delhi has a narrow lane called Parathewali Galli, which houses four paratha shops. Among them is Pt. Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan paratha shop number 34 that has been serving parathas for decades now, and even claims to have served Indira Gandhi. For starters, you can try the regular aloo or gobi filled parathas and if you are feeling a bit adventurous then try the rabri paratha or mirchi paratha.
Old Delhi has a number of places that sell aloo chaat, but the one that stands out and makes everyone’s mouth water is the Shree Balaji Chaat Bhandar stall in Chandni Chowk. Try their paapdi chat (served with boiled potatoes, boiled chick peas and chilies) and feel the masala mix explode in your mouth. Their secret ingredient is the kachaalu chutney, which the locals swear by. For approximately Rs. 70 you can have a chat over some chaat and wash it down with a bottle of lemon soda.
This delicious golden orange sweet is a deep fried maida-batter ring, soaked in sugar syrup. Old Famous Jalebiwala in Chandani Chowk has been making these irresistible sweets since 1884. Their soft, juicy jalebis, prepared in pure ghee, have been attracting customers like moths to a flame for several decades. A word of advice though – don’t bite into the hot jalebis as soon as they are served to you or you might be nursing a burnt tongue for a while. What gives these particular jalebis an inimitable taste is that they are cooked over coal burners and, instead of being soaked in regular sugar syrup, they are soaked in khand – a pure form of sugar. If you see a serpentine line winding around Chandani Chowk even before the shutters have opened, you know it is for Old Famous Jalebiwala. So join the queue and indulge in some sweet molten lava.
Think of Mughlai food and the first thing that comes to mind are kebabs. Walk down from the crowded and noisy Chawri Bazaar metro station to reach Lal Kuan Bazaar, and you will find the most delicate, supple and definitely the most delicious kebabs at Ustaad Moinuddin. Sparks fly, eyes meet over the coal grill and mouths water as kebabs of all kinds are being prepared for you. Try the beef sheekh kebabs with the traditional green chutney and onions and a dash of lemon.
Rumor has it that butter chicken was invented in Old Delhi at Moti Mahal, established in 1947 (Daryaganj). The owners of Moti Mahal claim credit for introducing tandoori cuisine to India and the world, and through a happy turn of events, butter chicken as well. The butter chicken at Moti Mahal is like none you’ve had before. It is just the right amount of creamy, and stuffed with perfectly marinated chicken. Don’t believe us? Here’s what freedom fighter Maulana Azad had to say: “Coming to Delhi without eating at Moti Mahal would be like visiting Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal.”
After a heavy meal of butter chicken or a plate of sheekh kebabs, if you still have some space left for something sweet, you have to try the kulfi at Lala Duli Chand Naresh Gupta Kulfi (Chawri Bazaar). They have been preparing and delivering Kulfi for over four decades now, though they concentrate more on supplying kulfi to other parts of Delhi and five star restaurants, they do a have a limited seating arrangement. You can try the traditional cream kulfi or the innovative paan or tamarind flavoured kulfi. A must try is the seasonal mango version.
Dahi Bhallas are basically lentil dumplings enveloped in curd, green chutney and tamarind. The guys at Natraj Dahi Bhalle Wale, make magic. They soak the dumpling in water for the right amount of time and then combine it with various spices like chili, cumin, garam masala and top it up with rich spoonful of yogurt goodness. The yogurt balances the sour and spicy chutney and tamarind and you also taste the sudden burst of sweetness from the pomegranates sprinkled on top. At Rs.100 take your tastebuds for a roller coaster ride.
One place that you have to try Mutton Nihari – a stew of slow-cooked beef or lamb, with bone marrow – is at good old Karim’s. From a humble beginning of selling only aloo ghosht and daal, Karim’s has come a long way. Karim’s has everything Mughlai, from roomali rotis to heavenly kebabs. Their mutton nihari is cooked overnight over a slow flame, letting all the spices and flavours fuse together. After a hearty meal, treat yourself to some phirni served in a clay pot.
Attention: Before you venture out to try the street foods in Old Delhi, make sure you forget your diet for the day and if you have a sensitive stomach then tread with caution.
Bonus: For a less chaotic tour of Old Delhi, book a tour with Masterji ki Haveli (www.masterjikeehaveli.com). It is run by management consultant and travel junkie Dhruv Gupta, who grew up in a haveli situated deep in the folds of Old Delhi. He conducts several tours of the area including shopping and marriage, but the half-day food tour, where six participants are taken on a walk of the area’s best street food vendors and to his haveli for a home-cooked meal, sounds like the most delicious option to us. Unless you plan on mixing matrimony with mutton nihari. In either case, congratulations!
This story was contributed by the team at brownpaperbag.in, a culture and lifestyle portal in Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore.