Delhi: A Culinary Heritage

Delhi is a great city for the foodie—if you’re keen on sampling regional Indian cuisine or even some good international food. But Delhi has an interesting food culture of its own, sharing some dishes with other parts of North India, and harbouring some delicious secret recipes of its own.

A variety of parathas

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 1, 2011

The paratha—a layered, fried bread—is a much-loved Indian food. Across much of North India, the paratha is often served stuffed. Mashed potatoes, grated radish, grated cauliflower, paneer (a sort of Indian cottage cheese), chopped onions—any or all of these are spiced and used to stuff the paratha before it’s fried. The result is a bread that’s almost a complete meal in itself. Sinfully fattening, of course, but delicious too.

Gali Parathewali (`the street of the paratha’) is a worthy tribute to the paratha. This is a fairly short street, now mainly crowded with sari shops, but during the late 1800’s, a sudden paratha rush happened here. A number of entrepreneurs set up paratha shops in Gali Parathewali, and a few still remain. My favourite happens to be the Jai Hind Paratha Bhawan, a restaurant on the second corner of the street.

The Jai Hind Paratha Bhawan was established by a certain Pandit Kanhaiyalal Durga Parshad Dixit in 1875. It’s a barebones eatery, looking out onto the busy Gali Parathewali. The Formica-topped tables are cramped, the narrow wooden benches warped by generations of patrons. Getting to a table consists of dodging waiters, cooks, the manager cum barker, and other patrons—and since there are only about a dozen tables, you may have to wait during busy mealtimes. But once you’ve settled down, the fun starts.

On our latest trip, we’d just about sat down when our waiter arrived and plonked down stainless steel plates with complimentary condiments. Each plate had a large helping of a curry of potatoes and chickpeas; another, sweet-sour dish of spiced pumpkin; a tamarind chutney; pickled carrots and green chillies; and another chutney.

We glanced up at the menu—painted on the wall—and chose our parathas. My husband, conservative as always, ordered tried and tested stuffed parathas: potato, radish, cauliflower. The only paratha he was a bit adventurous with was a green chilly paratha! I love to experiment, so settled for an okra paratha and a dal (lentil) paratha. There were plenty of others available, including some very unusual ones: tomato, bitter gourd, cashew nut, poppadum, even sweet parathas stuffed with thickened milk!

The potato, radish, cauliflower and dal parathas were predictable enough: well spiced, crisp and delicious. The green chilly paratha was enough to take the roof off your mouth, but what I really loved was my okra paratha, with its paper-thin slices of raw okra fried to a crisp. Deliciously different!

To end, we each ordered a serving of khurchan. Khurchan (literally, scrapings) is made by cooking sweetened milk gently till it forms a thick, creamy crust. This is scraped off and stacked into layers, chilled and garnished with shaved pistachios. Very rich but lovely.

By the end of it we were so full, we could barely move. Our bill, however, was modest enough: Rs 255, including three soft drinks. Considering the unlimited helpings of complimentary curries and chutneys, and the excellent parathas, I think that’s great value for money. A must try!

Jai Hind Paratha Bhawan
36, Gali Parathewali, Chandni Chowk
Delhi, India

The most wonderful milk sweet ever

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 1, 2011

Rabri (pronounced more or less ‘rubbery’, though the dish is far from that!) is a North Indian dessert made by boiling milk with sugar. And boiling. And boiling. Until it’s as thick as really rich cream, perhaps a few shades thicker. And that’s it. Occasionally, a few slivers of almond or pistachio may be scattered over the top of the cooled rabri, or (in more fancy establishments), a very thin layer of silver leaf, known as varq, maybe spread across the top—it doesn’t add flavour, just a little jazz. Some cooks add a hint of powdered cardamom. But rabri is invariably left just as is: very thick, creamy, lightly sweetened milk.

In Chandni Chowk, you’ll find a number of sweet shops, all of them selling an array of sweets—and nearly all those sweets are typical of Indian sweets: sugary, syrupy, often ghee-laden, just as often encrusted with nuts. These aren’t the sweets you should try if you’re watching your cholesterol or your blood sugar. They aren’t, either, the sort of sweets I like; I find them too rich and too sweet for my taste.

Where I go, therefore, is Gali Parathewali. It’s known for its sari shops and for the deep-fried parathas its eateries serve; but right next to the landmark sari shops of Ram Chandra Krishan Chandra is a small, hole-in-the-wall rabri stall which simply calls itself Rabri Bhandar, and which sells the best rabri in Chandni Chowk. They also sell a few other milk sweets like kalakand and lassi (a very popular yoghurt-based drink), but my favourite is rabri. Khurchan comes a close second. Khurchan is similar to rabri, except that it’s cooked even longer than rabri, so it’s much more rich, creamy and dry (khurchan literally means ‘scrapings’). It looks like an Indian version of mille-feuille: lots of thin layers, but these are of cooked milk.

On our last visit to Chandni Chowk, we stopped while passing through Gali Parathewali, just long enough to buy a bowlful of rabri and consume it. Three minutes? Four? Certainly no more. My husband paid the amount, Rs. 35 for a bowl (the khurchan costs Rs 40 per bowl), and was handed the rabri in a little bowl made of aluminium foil lined with paper. An icecream spoon, made of thin wood, was given.

The rabri was delicious. Creamy but not greasy; rich, but not heavy, and just with a very little added sugar. On top had been sprinkled a few slivered almonds. We’ve had khurchan on a previous occasion, but the rabri, frankly, wins: the khurchan is too rich and too dry for my liking. But the rabri is so good, I find myself always stopping by to sample some when I’m in Chandni Chowk.

There’s no place to sit here (literally no place, since there’s just about enough space for the owner and his assistant to sit and keep their pots of rabri and khurchan). You stand out in the lane and eat. It’s also a little expensive but then there’s the fact that this is made from full cream milk, and it’s very greatly reduced. The owner/ordertaker/waiter takes orders for large quantities as well: the rates—Rs 350 per kilo of rabri, Rs 400 per kilo of khurchan and so on—are written up on a board beside the stall.

Rabri Bhandar
42-B Gali Parathewali, Chandni Chowk
Delhi, India
011 23289051

Breakfast, vegetarian style

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 1, 2011

Puri-aloo is a North Indian favourite: you’ll find it being served just about everywhere. By far the best I’ve had is at Chaina Ram, a small but very busy restaurant in Fatehpuri Chowk, next to the Fatehpuri Masjid in Chandni Chowk. The place has been around since 1901, and was even attacked by irate (also illiterate?) mobs in 1962, during the Indo-China war, when people thought `Chaina’ had something to do with `China’.

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.

Chaina Ram
Fatehpuri Chowk, Chandni Chowk
Delhi, India
011 23950747

Delhi’s best Muslim cooking

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 1, 2011

You don’t actually need to note down the address of Karim—this particular restaurant is so famous, just about anybody in Old Delhi will be able to guide you there. Karim has been around since 1913, when it was set up by a certain Haji Karimuddin, who traced his descent from the chefs who cooked for the Mughal emperors. Today, Karim has branches in south Delhi too, but the original—next to the Jama Masjid—is still considered the best.

The restaurant lies inside a tiny lane, Gali Kababiyaan (the `lane of kababs’- how appropriate!). Instead of a single large hall, Karim is divided into several separate rooms, each with about a dozen or so tables. It’s clean, but not fancy: Formica-topped tables, wooden chairs, pictures of Medina and the Qa’aba, brass vases with plastic flowers. But nobody goes to Karim for the ambience: everybody goes for the food, which is delicious and priced at a fraction of what you’d pay for similar food in south Delhi’s posh restaurants.

The menu is pretty heavily skewed towards meat and chicken (they do have a handful of vegetarian dishes, but these really aren’t Karim’s forte). Traditional curries cooked the Muslim way, with lots of unusual spices—but generally not chilly-hot—rule the roost. There are dopiazas, with loads and loads of slow-cooked onions; roghanjosh; qormas; gurda-kaleji (liver and kidneys); even the somewhat less common maghaz (brain curry). There are kababs, pulaos, and luscious rotis, ranging from silken roomalis to soft naans.

We usually order a curry—say, a qorma or a mutton stew—with crisp-fried shammi kababs, and a plateful of the sweetish, slightly chewy bread known as sheermal. This time, though, we were on a morning visit to Old Delhi—and Karim was still serving breakfast. Our waiter, a brisk young man in the Karim uniform of brown Pathan suit, asked us whether we’d have nahari or paaya. Nahari is lamb that’s been slow cooked for hours, till it’s falling off the bone and absolutely delicious. Paaya is similar, but made with trotters. Tarun and I don’t care for trotters, so nahari it was. Rich, beautifully flavoured (and with almost no chillies!), the meat succulent and with a garnish of thin juliennes of fresh ginger. On the side came a bread we weren’t able to identify—somewhere between a naan and a roti, crisp on the outside, soft inside, and perfect for mopping up the thick, delicious gravy of the nahari. Tarun had an aerated drink, and both of us decided we wanted dessert too. Karim only offers one dessert: the creamy, custard-like milk and rice pudding known as kheer. So kheer it was. Gorgeous.

Our bill came to only Rs 168; even with a tip, we’d spent less than a hundred bucks apiece. Now that’s what I call value for money!

Karim's Restaurant
Old Delhi, adjacent to jama Masjid
Delhi, India

Daulat ki Chaat: The ultimate culinary foam

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 1, 2011

While rabri, kababs or even puri-aloo are available outside Delhi, Daulat ki Chaat is a very uniquely Delhi delicacy. And both rare as well as unknown even to most Delhiites.

Chaat is the name given to a range of tangy and spicy snacks that are widely available across Northern India, served with everything from tamarind chutney and freshly ground mint or coriander chutney, to whisked yoghurt. Daulat ki Chaat, despite its name, has nothing whatsoever to do with chaat. This, instead, is a dessert, a milk sweet that is made only in Delhi during the winter months. And it’s available only in the morning, mainly in and around Chandni Chowk. Daulat ki Chaat is not sold in shops; instead, men trundle carts from which they sell the Daulat ki Chaat.

We first went searching for the elusive sweet one February morning. We walked a long way—from Jama Masjid, down Dariba Kalan, Kinari Bazaar, through Parathewali Gali, along the main road of Chandni Chowk, through Katra Neel and Bagh Deewar, then all the way through Khari Baoli, past Lal Kuan and to Hauz Qazi—keeping our eyes peeled for Daulat ki Chaat sellers. We didn’t see a single one.

Next winter, we assured our disappointed selves; next winter we’ll begin the quest in December itself. Coincidentally, two weeks later, at the fag end of February, we decided to take visiting relatives for breakfast to Karim. We got out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and had just begun our walk from Hauz Qazi to the Jama Masjid, when we passed a young man pushing a flat-topped cart covered with a sheet of bright red faux leather. On the sheet were arranged piles of little foil-lined bowls, a few large white plastic containers (the type frequently used in India for takeaways)—and a very large metal platter, about 4" deep, containing what looked like paneer, cottage cheese. Paneer is a familiar sight and taste for us, so we walked on—and then the man called out his wares: "Daulat ki chaat!" We were back at his cart before he could call a second time.

The young vendor doled out our orders. A few spoonfuls of the snowy-white sweet (not paneer, but the Daulat ki Chaat itself) were piled into a foil-lined bowl. A decorative scoop of the same creamy stuff, but pale yellow, not white, was added on top. Then, from another bowl beside him, the man sprinkled over it a spoonful of what’s known as mawa: milk cooked till it’s a light golden-brown sold. This mawa had been grated. And hey presto, our Daulat ki Chaat was ready to be savoured.

It was fantastic stuff. Tarun and I quizzed the man while we ate, and though we’d known the rudiments of Daulat ki Chaat, he filled in some gaps for us. The sweet is made by boiling a lightly sweetened mixture of cream and milk (more milk, less cream) again and again. Each time the mixture comes to the boil, the froth that rises to the top is skimmed off and kept aside. It’s this froth, painstakingly collected, that is Daulat ki Chaat. It is, as you can imagine, unbelievably light—I’ve had some light soufflés and mousses, but nothing as light as this. The sweetness is very low, and the grated mawa on top of each helping provides a wonderful contrast of textures.

Our one bowl of Daulat ki Chaat cost us Rs 20, a surprisingly affordable price for something that takes so much effort.

Finding Daulat ki Chaat can be a question of serendipity—for us, it certainly was—but your chances of getting to savour it increase if you go searching for it on a winter morning. The vendors usually vanish by afternoon, and as soon as the weather starts turning warm, they stop making Daulat ki Chaat: the man we’d bought it from told us that another two or three days, and they wouldn’t make it any more this season.

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