Over the years I have gone through a host of articles written on Old Delhi food, even seen a number of Youtube video posts on the subject. What I have noticed is that all this published material just celebrates the Old Delhi Food. But do they give you the real picture? I guess they do not.
I have done my share of food hunting in Old Delhi. I have been at it for years. So, now my aim is to bring to you the real Old Delhi, with all its warts, wrinkles, blemishes, quirkiness and not just the exotic idealistic beautiful washed over version, which is what you often get.
To begin with, one must understand that the Old Delhi (also called the walled city) of today is not what it used to be and I am not talking about the Old Delhi of centuries ago. The Old Delhi has changed a lot in the last few decades. Especially post 1980’s the residential area of the Old Delhi has seen a steady erosion. A huge number of old residents, who had been living here for centuries, are gone. The whole residential quarters (called Gali and Kucha) have morphed into something totally unrecognizable. The residents from here have shifted to new residential colonies in rest of Delhi with high rise apartment blocks, such as Rohini and Pitampura. What has replaced these residential quarters are a host of commercial establishments. Located in the heart of the City, the Old Delhi was always prime real estate. But lack of development and neglect of years meant the infrastructure here was close to collapsing. Things were so bad that even getting into and out of this area was a nightmare. For many decades the residents of the rest of Delhi had almost stopped their routine visits here. People only used to come here for their trousseau shopping and that does not happen every day. Especially the food lovers had totally stopped venturing into Old Delhi, baring a few. But the post year 2000 coming of the underground metro has changed things. Though the residents have not returned and continue to move out even today (under sustained commercial pressure) the new found easy accessibility brought back the food lovers. There has been a new-found interest in the food joints of Old Delhi. But decades of just catering to the local, that too a predominantly commercial populace (who rather than visiting a particular outlet would send someone to fetch the food to be consumed in their shop), meant that the hygiene standards and presentation of food have really gone down. With no outside customers to impress the presentation and the look did not matter.
If you would notice most of the visuals of food blogs or videos showing an outlet would focus on close shots of the food or the preparation. But no one shows the surroundings in which they are being prepared. Unless they are shots of a few high-end places such as Karim’s or Haldiram. But some outlets have improved with times and with the arrival of ‘outside of Old Delhi’ customers.
All said the food in Old Delhi has some peculiarities and innate attractions. But that does not mean that what is served here is the best Delhi has to offer. In other more upscale or even middle-class parts of the city, there are several places (some of which may even have started from Old Delhi too) that sell excellent food.
Also, it is to be mentioned that most outlets you will find mentioned in food blogs, travelogues or to which you would be taken to during formal “food walks” would claim to be operating for generations and decades, some over centureis too. But the antiquity of a shop is no guarantee of the quality of food it is serving. Also, in many cases the claim is also not beyond doubt. There are many places where the original owners are long gone and someone else is just using their name to sell food that is nothing like what it used to be served here.
Here is another thing which needs to be cleared. The uninitiated and ignorant, that include many long-term Delhiites, have a very misplaced impression of Old Delhi food. And believe me there are many Delhiites who have never been to Old Delhi, specially to its food outlets. Many would simply abhor such a suggestion. Now back to the point I wanted to make. The Old Delhi food is not hot at all, barring exceptions such as Lootan Chholewala of Chawri Bazar. The taste of good preparations here is often subtle, smooth and full of flavour but never hot. Yes, it would be shockingly greasy, oily and buttery, but not hot. That is what I love about the food served here. It may be heavy or too sweet or deep fried, but it would be something you get here only. It is surely not the kind of food you would want daily, but again, it is the kind of taste that you would surely love to indulge in every once in a while.
So, Old Delhi food is to be enjoyed for what it is. Enjoy its quirkiness. For example, you would find many outlets which are famous but are nothing more than ‘holes in the wall’ shops. Some preparations, such as Daulat ki chaat, is available in Old Delhi only. Though it is available in other Indian cities such as Lucknow and Varanasi among others. The fun you have eating while jostling for space in a crowd, being pushed by a cow or threatened by a rickshaw puller, is something you will experience here only.
There are a lot of things from which you have to keep your senses away. You will definitely get some avoidable smells, the poverty you will encounter would be disturbing, the heat, dust, grime, slime and fumes would be all there. The simply huge numbers of human bodies which would be milling around you would be something you must never have experienced (specially our friends from developed countries). To ignore all that and still enjoy the food is a challenge like you must have never faced before.
All told, a visit to Old Delhi is definitely an Experience with capital E.
Now I will list a few must-visit outlets with the ‘speciality’ food items they serve.
The name does it
Paranthe Wali Gali- What could be more inviting, exotic and quirky than a lane that is named after the Parantha (stuffed fried bread) that is served here. And that too for more than a century. That is the reason people flock to it. But it takes a strong heart to palate what is offered here. A meal here will change your idea of a parantha. What is being served here for decades (the oldest establishment having opened in 1872) is a totally different take on parantha. It is not done over a tandoor or a tava but is deep fried in a small karahi. The result is a thin crispy preparation with a very thin layer of filling. The list of fillings on the menu is simply mind numbing.
With a name like that one visit to the place is required. But then, one visit is also enough. I consider the fare served here as one of the most overrated that I have ever experienced. But still all food walks would take you here and food blogs would tell you to come here. You can in fact just look around and not taste the food at all. That would be the best policy. That way you can save your appetite for much better fare listed on the menu in other parts of Old Delhi.
Karim’s and Al Jawahar
As you enter Matia Mahal you will spot the famous Karim’s and just next to it (and if seasoned connoisseurs are to be believed, it is much better than Karim’s) the Al Jawahar. These are the two big places that offers the best of Mughalia cuisine in Delhi. Karim’s is a few steps inside a lane known as Gali Kabaiyan (meaning lane of kebab makers). You will see the deghs displayed on a platform with a chef pulling out food from it on to plates which are then ferried by men to one of the three sitting areas around, where food lovers wait to dip their pieces of khameeri rotis in the curries. It is very atmospheric.
Karim’s and Al Jawahar, are famous for the curries such as Mutton Korma, Mutton Stew (pronounced as ishtu and inspired by the British stew), Mutton Aloo and Nihari. The nahari is a meat curry dish that is slowed cooked overnight and is served only for breakfast. Another preparation that is served only for breakfast is the Paya, which is goat feet in a curry. This rich fare is to be consumed with (my favourite) Khameeri roti (bread). They also do a killing mutton burra and an acceptable biryani. One can also order the roasted raan, which is a complete leg of lamb done in a tandoor. I have tried it, it is too good.
Ashok Chaat Bhandar
Right at the Chawri Bazar metro station (old name is Hauz Qasi) is the famous Ashok Chaat Bhandar. This is another hole in the wall shop. Recently the owners have opened another bigger and proper outlet on the road leading to Sitaram Bazar from Hauz Qazi by the name Ashok Chaat Bhandar.
Jain Fruit Sandwich
There is a lane in the middle of Chawari Bazar on your left if you are walking from Chawari Bazar metro station (Hauz Qazi) towards Jama Masjid. This lane will take you to another extremely small outlet that also features in many food blogs or videos. It is the Jain fruit sandwich shop. I had heard about it a lot (from very seasoned foodies too) so I had to try it.
What is made here is surely unusual. But nothing great. It is a sandwich with a variety of cut fruits inside. And some sauce spread on the bread. But my issue is not with the taste or by the way the sandwich is turned out. Now my problem is the shop itself where they are made. It is practically a stall. And it’s so unhygienic that nothing good could ever come out of it. In fact, the guy, who claims to have been making sandwiches here for decades, does not try to make even a feeble attempt at keeping things clean and presentable. There is prehistoric grime all over the walls and the shelves. Fruits are all kept in the open with flies flying around. No gloves too. I don’t understand why would anyone travel across half the city to have something as ordinary in as dismal a setting? It beats me. The guy also makes some fruit shakes. They are also bad and over-priced too. Jain Sandwich is surely much overated and avoidable.
Jung Bahadur Kachori
Just a few meters ahead of the parantha shops of Paranthe wali gali is the small outlet of Jung Bahadur Kachoriwala. A few food connoisseurs hold this traditional north Indian snack maker, with another hole in the wall shop, in high regard. Surley his Kachoris are good. He serves them in a disposable bowl with a patato curry (sabzi). The curry is spicy and hot. The Kachories are crispy with a filling of spices. You can actually see them being fried in a huge cauldron right there. I would like to point here that I have tasted equally good Kachoris served in same style with patato sabzi in Najafgarh (in the lane inside the Dilli Gate), an old locality at the western edge of Delhi. The lovers of Kachoris should try Jung Bahadur Kachoris. He gives it in two ways. One, he breaks the crispy kachoris into small pieces and pours the sabzi over it. The other way is to give the Kachori as a whole which you can then dip into a bowl of sabzi with each bite or can take a bite or two without the sabzi. The customers have to consume the Kachori standing in the busy lane. So watchout for passing rickshaws and two-wheelers scooters. Also it would be better if the person sserving you does it with a smile and not hold that bored and at times irritated expression on his face.
[Reposted from Travel Bug Asheesh]