The last time I walked the entrails of Delhi’s old city, I came across raw potato chaat, beef biriyani with pickle and the fabled makkhan, but also something else that I only discovered later to be quite a find.
That last time, my pocket was full of fresh, atm-expelled five hundred rupee notes which when hunting for street food is a disturbing proposition. I was therefore looking for a way to buy just below a hundred rupees worth of something, so that it would lead to oodles of change. At eight in the evening, there wasn’t that much open in Bazaar Sitaram, but one store displayed stacks of vadis and a friendly shopkeeper willing to give directions, so I bought some eighty rupees worth. Those, I discovered a week later when one of them hit my tongue, was the discovery of the journey. Forget the sheermals and raw aloochaat – this was the best vadi I’d ever had, and frankly one of the best foods I’ve ever bought by accident.
A few weeks later, finding myself near the metro line in Delhi again, I decided to pop in for a spot of old-world retail therapy at my favourite find. This time the friendly young shopkeeper was replaced by his father, toothless and definitely vintage but a fount of information. Apparently, this was a genuine discovery – the variwala (officially Gurmukh Singh di Hatti) turned out to be the oldest vadi shop in the market. Its been selling four or five kinds of varis made at the old man’s home close by for something like a hundred years.
Loaded with vadi but with some more time on my hands, I asked the old man what else was interesting and was led down a galli to Shyam Sweets for some great kachoris and a very nice gobi samosa. Then I struggled down the anachronistically named Nayi Sadak, through an immense mass of cycle rickshaws and more people per square inch than fairies on a pinhead to the Chandni Chowk Metro, but not before more foodie adventures.
These streets, though a mere sneeze from Asia’s largest mosque, have little if any relevance to the Mughal Empire. Punjab, Marwar, Madhya Pradesh and UP influences dominate here, and people trace their roots back to Moradabad or Jallandhar rather than Agra or Lucknow. The street food reflects this – its entirely vegetarian. Rabdi, chaat, dahi bhalla, aloo tikki, chole kulche, samosa, kachori, nankhatai - that's what was on sale to feed these thronging throngs. But take a small detour, poke your head down a random galli and suddenly you’re in meat heaven – that’s the fun of wandering these streets.
Though a walk through this area should never be allowed to come close to words like salubrious, there is much here to reward the adventurer who can avoid being run over every thirty three seconds. I’ve realised – what is indeed great here is the chaat masala. Every vendor here makes his own, and this chaat masala is pretty much the key to the taste of everything savoury here - the chole, the aloo tikki, the shakkarkhand, the gujia. To back things up with some moisture and zing is tamarind water or chutney, usually loaded with chillies. Everywhere I was offered two choices – light or medium masala? More or less? Sometimes more can be too much; the native ingredient of the chaat quietly murdered in a sea of chaat masala (as in the case of the roasted sweet potato).
I find the food here very satisfying, though you can’t call it gourmet – more Beatles than Bach methinks. Generations of experimentation have perfected some amazing taste-texture balances and some great ingredient quality makes for deeply satisfying bites all spiced up, of course, with the adrenalin rush of dodging suicidebomber rickshaws, frenetic commuters and mad motorbikers. Would it be equally satisfying in the tame environment of a living room?