I visited the streets of old Delhi after many years. One goes to Delhi quite often, but nowadays towers of Gurgaon divert attention from the fabulous treasures of Chandni Chowk. This time, however, an accommodation website pointed me to the Maidens, a hotel situated in the quaintly named Civil Lines and appropriately full of chandeliers, heritage certificates and directions to the nearest Metro station.
Nowadays, visiting old Delhi isn't what it used to be. Nadir shah or the Mongols had to climb mountains and kill a million people, but I discovered (with some help from a uniformed doorman) that nowadays you could step out of the hotel, pop down some escalators, get groped by some khaki and swishy minutes later you're hearing Chandni Chowk platform is on the left hand side. Inspired by an article in the Mint about nahari joints, I decided on a pass to Chandni Chowk (where I’d gone the last time in search of parathewali galli), head on to the next stop - Chawri Bazaar - and then find my way to Kala Masjid (which google informed me was a short walk away). Thats where, I was told, was Haji Shiroo, the oldest of the nahari joints.
So I walk out of the Chawri Bazaar metro, into the chaotic, litter-strewn world of late evening old Delhi and stumble straightaway on what I’ve been told is that hard-to-find-come-early-morning sweet – Daulat ka chaat or malai makkhan. Rahul Verma of the Hindu had put a fair amount of mystery into it and a food blogger in Delhi had put some extra spin (and a nicer picture) to this nearly mythical sweet. I blogged about it too, almost exactly a year ago but here it was – not early in the morning, not hidden in some bylane but two side-by-side vendors right in front of everyone at the Hauz Kazi Chauk just as you come out of the metro. And the clock just crossing 8pm. Of course it was the real thing – just as airy and buttery as I remembered it.
Feeling perky with my first find of the evening, I continued my scooter-dodging rickshaw-avoiding stroll towards Kala Masjid and its nahari promise and stumbled next upon a small stall selling many different kinds of vari, two of which I purchased; back in Mumbai a few days later, I’d discover that they were some of the best varis I’d ever had, but right then it was just a way to change a hundred rupee note while asking for directions. A few feet from the vari wallah, flitting past a couple of kulche-chole and anda-paratha vendors was a chaat guy who threw me another twist. While watching him make chaat, I noticed he put in something that looked to me like sliced ginger; it took a few tries for him to explain that it was raw potato! Some disbelief and tastings ensued, but raw potato it was - sliced thin and marinated in lime the potato has just a hint of a bite - a great addition to all the crunchy and squishy bits in the rest of the chaat.
It set me thinking about Delhi’s fascination with potatoes and the myriad ways it is used in the chaats on the street – boiled, mashed, fried, mashed and then fried, now even raw.
Bad news awaited me at Kala Masjid. I was told that Bakr-Id had preceded my visit by a few days, and the specialist nahari shops were closed for the week. A harrowing rickshaw drive then took me to the Jama Masjid and Matya Mahal street, with its usual line of mughal restaurants including the renowned Karim’s. I decided to be contrarian this time; skip the famous and try some of the other choices. This brought me to an old man sitting at a huge degchi of biriyani – he said he had started the day with 400kg – and interestingly, it was beef biriyani (Unlike Mumbai’s bylanes, beef isn’t as common in Matiya Mahal. Mutton is the king here, maybe there’s some story there). The biriyani too had a twist – there were bits of chilli and lime pickle in it, giving the occasional bite the most interesting zing. Not close to the best biriyani ever, but nice.
The old man also told me to try Jawahar at the mouth of the galli that houses Karim – he was convinced that though it was less famous, it was better (a view shared by many, it seems). Jawahar turned out to be Al-Jawahar, a large, multi-room restaurant serving pretty much the Karim menu but unlike Karim quite easy to find bang on Matya Mahal road. A stone thrown from the Jama Masjid by an old woman in crutches would reach it. Its big, brightly lit, serves no beef, and has halfway decent service. Mutton Korma, Achari Biriyani and a sheermal soon landed on my table. The sheermal was fantastic (but fantastically rich too, I barely had a quarter) – slightly sweet, soft yet ever so slightly chewy, quite a beguiling bread. The korma was rich, complex and satisfying. The achari biriyani was redolent with pickle smells, but otherwise just about average.
Its hard for me to generalize from scattered meals on the streets of Delhi, but it seems to me that biriyani is not Delhi's thing. Like Mumbai, Delhi biriyani is nice, occassionally very nice but nowhere as genuinely-world-class, ohmygod transporting experience that the best of Delhi’s kormas or burrahs can be. Lucknow, Hyderabad, Andhra, Moplah – these biriyanis are occassionally memorable – I’ve never found that in a Delhi biriyani yet (Dum Pukht, but that’s true blue Lucknow). There are still some leads left, though – Yahoo answers has some for me, will eventually be pursued. Of course, nahari too awaits a second try. The interesting part was how small the whole area really is. Most of the area (including the enormous Jama Masjid) is well within the grasp of the average walker - provided of course he or she has the reflexes of a top-notch video gamer at avoiding things moving at arbitrary speeds.