A quick word about what puri-aloo actually is. A puri is an Indian bread made of an elastic dough that’s rolled out and deep fried till it’s puffed up, crisp and golden. Aloo is literally potato, but the aloo that’s served with puris is traditionally a somewhat chunky, gravy-laden dish in which boiled potatoes—usually just broken, not chopped—are mixed in with spices.
I first discovered Chaina Ram while on a heritage walk. Tired and hungry (all of us had risen at an unearthly hour), we stopped at Chaina Ram for breakfast: puri-aloo, of course. I was completely bowled over, so I decided to introduce Tarun—who wasn’t on that particular walk with me—to this delicious little find as well.
We reach Chaina Ram after a little tour of the surrounding area (the Fatehpuri Masjid and the nearby St Stephen’s Church—both amazing buildings, especially the church). Chaina Ram is a sort of mix between shop and restaurant. The front has glass cases displaying the wide variety of sweets and savouries they sell: roasted spiced lentils, spicy fried cashew nuts, Karachi halwa (a gaudy, chewy sweet that Chaina Ram claims to have pioneered, but which I frankly speaking don’t care for) and even some unusual sweets made with vegetables such as gourds. Behind the glass cases—and the cashier and manager—are a couple of rows of tables. It’s all very barebones: wooden, Formica-topped tables and chairs, nothing fancy at all. And since there are very few tables, unless you’re lucky, you’ll have to stand around and wait until a table’s vacated. We’re lucky.
We sit down at a table, sharing it with a young family. Tarun places our order—two plates of puri-aloo—and it arrives in about two minutes. The puris, kneaded with a pinch of red chilli powder and salt, are gloriously crisp. The aloo is a wonder. It’s served with chickpeas mixed in, and is very lightly spiced. On the side, we’re given a small serving of sticks of carrot, with some pickling spices. Mixed together, the carrot and spices are a very fresh, crunchy relish. Two glasses of water are placed on our table, and that’s it. They don’t store colas or juices or make tea. But by the time we finish, we’re so sated, we don’t even have room for anything else. This has been a big, thoroughly satisfying breakfast, and that too at just Rs 24 per plate, which includes two puris and limitless helpings of aloo and carrot pickle.
New Delhi, India
March 1, 2011
From journal Delhi: A Culinary Heritage