A lyrical old Delhi dinner with Chowder Singh




There is nothing like eating your way through the lanes of old Delhi on a wintry night.

The colour, the life, the vibrancy, the character and history around light up your senses. The food is always great but tastes even better in the winter.

I had been to Old Delhi with Anurag one before on  monsoon evening and had a wonderful time. (You can read about that magical evening here.)

Chowder Singh


I went back recently. This time with Mohit AKA Chowder Singh. Mohit is a chef by training and a hotelier by vocation who works on hip urban restaurant brands such as Olive and Sodabottleopenerwala. He is also obsessed with Indian street food, a world very different from where his work takes him. His blog, Chowder Singh, is where he chronicles his hunt for Indian food. A hunt which sees him go to the outskirts of Hyderabad chasing Arabic influenced local feasts and to red light areas in Pune to try a drink called Mastani. In the last fortnight we have met in Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi and Old Delhi. Yes, it is fun to catch up with him to talk food and to eat.



After three nights of rarified five star dining in Delhi I was dying to go out and hit the streets. Mohit agreed to help me out and picked me up at New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar at around 9.30 pm when I was done with my work for the day. We drove down the deserted wintry streets of New Delhi till the Sablok sexual health clinic and chicken fry shops of Daryaganj signalled that we were entering old Delhi. Soon we were near Jama Masjid and Mohit found a parking lot manned by local youngsters to give his car to park.

Jama Masjid by night


We got down and walked past gate no 1 of Jama Masjid. I immediately felt like I was transported into a world so different from dark and deserted New Delhi. We were in a lane full of little food stops. Some selling keababs, some fish fry, some offering what I was told was dubious Kashmiri fare. There were loads of people around. Even women. Some by themselves. As an outsider I was under the impression women do not venture out alone at night in Delhi for safety reasons. Not here. The street was lit up by the bright lights of the shops. There was so much life around. It was past 10 pm. Very different from the broad empty roads of New Delhi that we had driven down to reach here.



Our first and possibly the best stop of the night was at Anmol's in Urdu Bazar. You get butter cream chicken here. Mohit placed our order. 'Boneless, original recipe'. I was a bit wary as I normally find boneless chicken to be too chewy as most shops use the breast cut.

Mohit told me that back story as the man at the counter got our chicken ready on a grill, melted a pot of butter and then applied the same to the chicken.






Apparently the owner's grandfather was the first to sell beef kebabs in old Delhi. The gentleman then packed up his business and moved on. Now his grandson is back and sells chicken rather than beef and has picked up a Hindu sounding name for his shop to tap a larger market.

There is another butter cream chicken shop which is famous too here and is called Aslam's. Later we saw more chicken fry shops. 

'Trends spread here' observed Mohit.

butter cream chicken, boneless, original recipe


Our plate of butter cream chicken (Rs 100) was ready and we hungrily dug into it. I was held in its spell from the first bite. The chicken was amazingly juicy and the hit of butter was melodious. Reminded me of the Amritsari butter baked fish at Indian Accent the previous night. The corner stall of Anmol's was of course light years away from the much acclaimed fine dine restaurant of celebrity chef Manish Mehrotra. Yet, the chicken we had at Anmol's could match up with the best of what Delhi has to offer in terms of intricacy of taste and texture. I basked in the warm, buttery glow of the brilliant chicken in the cold wintry night. 

We then walked past the various fish fry shops at Urdu Bazar, which Mohit told me spring up in winter and are not the stuff to set the night on fire, and went into Matiya Mahal.

We saw a bespectacled gentleman make crisp thin pancake like biscuits on what looked like two ancient waffle makers (4 Rs each). The tasted pretty nice. We stopped for hot sweet halva (not red unlike what you get in Mumbai's Mahim) with savoury parathas. A sweet salt carb combo which tasted wonderful especially in the cold.

biscuit wala


We walked past Pehelwan's, a big white bearded gent with twinkling eyes, famous for his biryani which he dished out from a corner of the streets. The biryani that he served us from his cauldron like pot was of the greasy Lucknowi street food variety.




The Matia Mahal lane was the one most full of life. We saw people huddle up by kebab stalls seeking comfort by the coal fires. This is where there were folks who seeing my camera posed wanting to get photographed. This is where a young boy got himself photographed, then with his friend whom he called to show his photograph. He then called out to me and said 'uncle whatsapp karna '(pl whatsapp it to me).

Please photograph us

uncle whatsapp karna


We stopped at a sixty year old bakery set up by the current owner's grandfather. I picked up cookies and nankhatais and macaroons for my family back in Mumbai who loved them. The genial owner chatted with us and told us about his favourite food shops in the area.




We then walked to Chitli Qabar where we had kebabs straight off a flat griddle which cost all of 3 Rs. Mohit and I decided that it was best not to mull over what meat went into its making. The kebab was soft like a shammi and went well with the flat parathas.




We then traced our way back towards Urdu Bazar wondering what to do for 'dinner'. I requested Mohit to come with me to the 100 year old branch of the original Kareem's here. I had always wanted to eat at Kareem's. Yet I was a bit hesitant as most Delhi food nerds tend to look down on Kareem's. At least go to Al Jawahar's next door, they say. Apparently Kareem's is 'no longer the same'.

Thankfully Mohit had no such problem. His verdict was that the food at Kareem's was 'good but not memorable'.

This sort of summed up our experience at Kareem's. We had the mutton burra kebab which was well spiced and tender though not a patch on Anmol's chicken in terms of brilliance. 

burra


Remembering the title of Pamela Timm's book based on Old Delhi, 'Kebab, Korma and Kismet' I decided to order a mutton korma. The mutton pieces were fairly nondescript but the oil redolent gravy was quite sinfully tasty.

mutton korma


Our last order were beef sheeks which didn't really match up in terms of the juiciness and flavour that I remembered of the kebabs that I had had in Moinuddin ustad's stall last time in Old Delhi.

The dinner at Kareem's was indeed not spectacular but I was still happy that we ate there. I think it cost about Rs 600 with water and rotis.

The seating in Kareem's is distributed into a number of rooms and they were all pretty packed though it was close to midnight. A far cry from New Delhi and Gurgaon restaurants where last orders are taken by 10.30 pm. There is no air conditioning but given the cold outside it was the perfect setting for oily, red meat binge. 







I noticed that both Kareem's and the quieter Al Jawahar had 'no beef' signs displayed like the biryani Moghlai shops of Kolkata. 

'That's how they can draw in a larger crowd from all communities' explained Mohit.

Dinner done it was time for desserts. Mohit insisted that we go to a man who had set up stall opposite Al Jawahar's. He was selling freshly cooked shahi tukda (fried bread dipped in cream) with ice cream and was surrounded at well past midnight by a crowd of hungry eaters in the open who didn't seem to mind the chill.


shahi tukda with mango ice cream


One bite of the decadent, crunch meets cream, sugary hot shahi tukda and I knew why. This was sheer elixir in a plate. I couldn't imagine handling its richness in the Delhi heat though but on that cold night it was just what the doctor ordered.

This seemed like a perfect ending to the night but I requested Mohit to drive my down to Chawri Bazar in search of the daulat ke chaat sellers of whom I had got to know through Pamela Timm's blog and book. Our search came to nought though. Folks on Facebook later told me that this winter dessert is prepared by the moonlight and sold early in the mornings and that I would not get it at night.

So we headed back as Mohit drove past the phantom walls of the Red Fort, down the deserted streets of New Delhi to drop me at my hotel.

I bid him goodbye and stepped into the hotel lobby with a happy smile. 

I had, after all, experienced magic in the streets of Old Delhi that night.





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