Meet Shubho Sengupta.
Former adman and now a digital media consultant. Originally from Kolkata, in Delhi for more than a decade now.
I knew him first through facebook. He has one of the most wry and irreverent senses of humour that I have come across. His facebook page is the perfect virtual example of the Bengali paarar rock’er adda. Shubho raises a variety of topics there where the comments often go into three figures.
I met him once before at Bandra when he was in town and then recently at Delhi.
I had just just landed at Delhi last week, tweeted about it and gone to attend a focus group when I got a call from Shubho.
“Hey Kalyan (pronounced in the Bengali manner, Kollyan) till when are you here? Let’s meet tomorrow when you are done. There is the interesting place I want to take you to eat. Jamia”.
Shubho often says that he is not much of a eater but his offer did interest me. I have seen Shubho put up pictures of Nepali restaurants, Chittaranjan Park Pujo stalls, Muslim hole in the walls and I have read the anecdotes that accompany these pictures. I knew that his definition of ‘interesting’ would be mine too.
So we met the next day after we were both done with work. This was at about 5 pm on a suddenly rainy evening at GK2.
It was time for lunch!
We got into the car and Shubho began juggling calls, his cigarette and having to give directions to the driver. On the one hand he was trying to explain on phone the concept of social media to prospective clients who weren’t sure what they were getting into and on the other trying to figure out where he wanted to go that evening.
He called up a friend.
“Hello …, listen that place we went to at Jamia…what was it called…will it be open now…can I get you something from there?”
As Shubho called up his friend I began to feel nervous. I am used to food obsessed folks who would not set off on a food safari without knowing where they were going to eat and what they were going to eat. This man seemed a bit lost. I had had breakfast at 10 am and this was 5.30 pm. Was I wise to have left my lunch in his hands?
The roads around us began to change. From the grand manicured asphalt trails of Lutyen’s Delhi we were now onto a dirt track. The sort of road which would be very acceptable at Mumbai but hidden at Delhi. We passed what Shubho told me was a university area and then with a wry smile he said ‘some call this the Harvard of Delhi.
We passed the Jamia Milia Islamia University which brought back memories of UGC classes on TV from my growing up days and then we reached our destination.
A very crowded roundabout which was more small town Uttar Pradesh as shown In Anurag Kashyap films than New Delhi.
We got off the car and began to walk through the drizzle. It was a crowded lane with folks selling utensils, fruits, fish including rui, clothes, bangles…everything…some on handheld carts…other at makeshift shops. The lane was packed with people and it was only possible to walk there. A sort of larger version of Mumbai’s Gazdar Bandh area.
“This is Zakir Nagar. An area in New Delhi. Nowhere as famous as Old Delhi or Dilli 6 when it comes to food options.Noone come here to eat” said Shubho except those who live here.
This according to Shubho gives it a sense of peace and quiet which appealed to him.
“Have you noticed…no one talks loudly here or shouts here…none of the Delhi attitude…there is a certain innocence and no-nonsense touch to the place that I like…I come here once in a while…usually by myself to eat... my wife won’t come here and she froke when I got my daughter here…most of my friends would not come here”
We walked down winding lanes till we came across a restaurant on the mezzanine area of a building. Well ‘mezzanine’ and ‘restaurant’ both seem very grand words in the context of the place but it’s enough to say that it was best smelling eatery around.
“This is Javed’s and you get excellent nihari here”.
We walked in and it was evident that Shubho was a known face here. The place was packed at 6 pm but we eventually got ourselves a bench and a table to share with someone else who was eating there.
“Notice the young boys from the Madrasa eating at the next table. I just love the atmosphere here” said Shubho as he placed our order and we sat down.
Soon a pump gentleman with a big mooch and a bigger smile got two bowls on nihari and fluffy white rotis to our tables.
We both fell on the food as if we were in a relief camp in a war ravaged area. We dipped the soft rotis into the searing hot curry and then broke a piece of the very soft meat, the nihari or meat from the marrow bone.
The first bite told me that I was in good hands as I revelled in the robust flavours of the curry, the soft delicate meat…the produce of the slow cooking perfected over two decades and a result of around six hours of cooking that day…and the rotis…oh so soft, cuddly and cherubic.
This was food in its pristine glory with a great lineage.
More rotis came our way, more of that luscious meat and then the smiling gentleman added some ghee too “taqat aayega’ (‘make you strong’ though I suspect not in the Oriental sense of the phrase). The ghee added a slight dairy’ish tinge to the taste and we felt that the dish was better balanced without it.
Still, Javed’s was as good an opening ceremony as one could ask for.
Kebabs in a nameless shop
We then walked past a few roti and shirmal shops (no colour here unlike in Lucknow), ubiquitous chicken fry shops, till Shubho suddenly stopped in front of a tiny shop with no name and a puddle of muck in front of it.
We went and sat down and I looked at the price list on the wall. Kebabs at Rs 8 with a paratha & Rs 4 without, egg roll at 11!, ‘aamlet’ and ‘gem butter’ too. The prices a throwback to those in the kebab shops outside what was then Jamuna Cinema in Kolkata in the 90s.
Here they had the kabab mince mixed in the shape of huge balls placed on a table. When we placed our order they placed a bit of the mince on the iron girdle, tossed it around and then packed it on a plate. Tasted deliciously with finely chopped onions and a chilli sauce making the plate complete. A very different meat experience from the earlier Nihari. Colour, texture, spices…all quite different.
Buffalo cooked with great brilliance at each spot. This was poor man’s food. Made with the cuts that are discarded and culinary ingenuity. The result…a taste experience that was simply sublime.
We walked a bit more as dusk set in. Past a roadside shop selling fried mithais and then to our food last stop. A gentleman who was selling Moradabad (a small town in UP) pulao. We went in and sat down. The beef biryani was over so got ourselves some chicken biryani.
Did I say ‘biryani’?
Well they call it ‘pulao’ here though it was quite similar to the biryani at Lucknow. Except lighter, the flavours more delicate, the meat more tender…if the biryani at Lucknow was epic…this was more on the poetic side. The shop did remind me of Lallaji’s shop at Lucknow as, like Javed’s, this too was just a one dish place. There were some very interesting kebabs with a very crunchy crust and soft moist interior to go with the biryani.
This is the sort of food that is finest of dining but will never be found in a five star. It’s the sort of food born from lots of soul and passion. Food that makes itself available only to those who love it back.
Desserts by the wall
“Some desserts now?”
We stopped at building where there was a man selling sweets from behind an iron grill between the road and the building. A firni which I really liked because of its very subtle flavour and milk pudding texture brought alive with grated coconut. I am not too fond of firni but this I loved. There was quite a nice shahi tukda too. As Shubho and I chatted the sweet seller suddenly broke into Bengali with us. he said he was Raniganj and had moved in a decade and a half back.
I was full but there was no stopping Shubho he had a faluda when he heard there was one. Very different from that in Mumbai with no sabza seeds in them.
And then on the way out this man who is ‘not into food’ wanted boti kebabs too.
“I thought you are not into food”
“Well I don’t eat too much”, said Shubho, “but when I do I eat a lot.”
Well, on the one hand Shubho doesn’t drink. He cycles and runs. On the other hand he smokes quite a bit. Has a swagger in his voice and is continuously thinking of new ways of doing things and is questioning everything around. Has no patience for those he calls ‘morons’.
Yes, Shubho is clearly the quintessentially Bengali bhadrolok as depicted in the Calcutta based films of the 70s by Satyajit Ray…even though we wears linen and jeans and not a three piece suit with a tie and a pipe.
As we bid goodbye Shubho pointed out to a phuchka guy on the way at CR Park and 'said “next time”.
Well, that’s an offer I can’t refuse.