Caveat: Long post
Meet Anurag Mehrotra.
He is a foodie and I mean this in the best sense of the word.
It is fashionable to snort at the term ‘foodie’ these days as it is seen to signify folks who are obsessed with food. Gluttons, photographing their every meal and inflicting it on others, talking only of restaurants and nothing else, watching Masterchef on Television as if it is Mahabharat in the 80s. It is almost as if anyone one meets these days who doesn’t read tarot cards is a foodie. Often both at the same time.
Anurag is different from this in your face image of a foodie.
He is the sort of guy who loves the world of food and all aspects of it…not just the eating bit. He reads up on the net on food, asks people questions, is curious to know more. He doesn’t sit on a high horse passing judgment on all and sundry. When he finds out about something in the world of food he is happy to share it and makes it a point to tell people about his sources. He believes in the community of food lovers and likes connecting with them in both the virtual and the real world. He is open to views but takes a stand on what he likes. You will catch him swilling vintage malts at a Gourmet Club dinner one evening and trudging the streets of Old Delhi the next evening. In both cases making it a point to go and meet the people around him, to connect with them and to learn from them. He belongs to the tribe of folks who believe that there is more to Old Delhi than Kareem’s. Most of all, he is the sort of guy, who when I asked him about Old Delhi eats offered to pick me up from Gurgaon, where we both were, and take me on an Old Delhi food safari. Something I wanted to do for years.
We met last Saturday, for the first time out of the virtual world, and headed off down empty roads.
Our first stop the Delite Cinema which was after Janpath and Chandni Chowk and all. Like all gadget loving Delhi’ites, Anurag took out a GPS, put it on the dashboard, and referred to this map from Eating Out In Delhi to plan our route. All the while making it clear that he had got to know about Old Delhi by reading the map, following folks like Pamela Timms who is writing a book on Old Delhi, Sudhanshu Rao and Himanshu, a Delhi food urban legend, who as everyone says went AWOL after he got married.
Anurag had shared his plan for the walk with me the previous day and I showed it to Pamela when we met at Nathu’s for breakfast. Pamela blessed the plan too.
Anurag and I walked in down the lane by Delite. The rest of the journey would be on foot with the car waiting for us at a Metro Station at the end.
This lane is the start of the ‘Dilli 6’. Named after a the postal code of the area and later the name of a Hindi film too.
Our first spot was a tiny shop which literally had tons of people thronging it.
A shop which doles out nihari from 5.30 pm and whose stocks get over latest by 6.30 pm. It was madness out there like possibly the opening of an Amitabh Bachchan film in the 70s and 80s would have been at Delite. If you thought Candies on a Saturday evening was manic then Kallu’s is the ultimate challenge.
Anurag, who knows the owners and has chatted with them in the past, introduced me as someone who had come to eat there from Mumbai. A few smiles appeared in the crowd on hearing this and I was able to part the Red Sea and go inside the shop.
The heat hit you as if it was a furnace with folks putting the nihari together (shank meat, marrow bones and fat…put together from 3 pots) and some guys sitting on the edges of a tandoor (yes!) and baking bread. I tried to click photographs from inside as the heat seared me, fogged the camera lenses and the spices made my eyes smart.
Now imagine sitting inside and cooking day in and day out. There were a couple of folks sitting on the floor and eating there. One was Sajir, a MNC exec who goes to work at Gurgaon, and comes to Old Delhi to eat when free. Kallu is his favourite. Later we got him to take some of our photos.
I finally stepped out of the heat to where the smiling Anurag was standing. He knew from the look on my face that I was in a happy place. He introduced me to Kallu Miya and his son. Kallu Miya has been running this place for about 20 years after moving from his earlier location.
“Main Kallu ke naam se mashoor hoon” he told me.
“Mere naam Kalyan hain” I replied “aur school main main bhi Kallu ke naam se mashoor that”.
The problem is my Hindi sounded like French to him.
Well it was our lucky day. Unlike many others who made elusive journeys to Kallu, Anurag and I both got plates of Nihari with soft, plump rotis to eat them with.
I hurriedly dipped my finger into the Nihari and almost got scalded. Then I took a piece of roti and mopped up the curry. The meat, which was cooked over 6 hours, gave in lovingly to the caress of my fingers. It was sooo soft and tender.
I took my bite and whoosh and whoa!!! The intense of heat of chillies and the robust meaty flavours combined with the soft affection of the roti to create one memorable mouthful.
I asked Kallu Miya if nihari referred to just the cut of meat or a way of preparation. He said that it is essentially the marrow bone with the tough meat around it. Hours of cooking tamed it. In this case, it was buffalo or bade ke nihari.
Our Dilli 6 journey had begun with some serious fireworks and fanfare.
One felt like an emissary from far off at Emperor Shah Jahan’s court getting the full royal treatment.
Koolfi at Dulichand Naresh Gupta
Meat fest done we headed for our next stop which Anurag said would help us cool down the passions raised by the nihari and prime us for the trip.
Dusk had begun to set in and the setting was lyrical.
We crossed the Turkman Gate, one of the many gates at Old Delhi, past carts selling the tiniest potatoes in the world and others selling grape fruits, past a hardware shop with a goat frolicking in it, past dark lanes with a magical white mare standing alone gracefully, past buildings and gates with intricate architecture…the setting sun shrouding the grime and crowd around it.
This is the Delhi of the Mughals.
We reached our destination with the slight drizzle not putting us off.
The coolfi shop that we wanted was shut but there was another next door. Shri Doolichand Naresh Gupta at Sita Ram Bazar. A quiet shop with the owner sitting in the corner. The owner was a gentleman of few words who seemed to tell us that this shop is more than forty years old.
Anurag took charge of the ordering and what I experienced is the sort of stuff which the guys who conduct Masterclasses in MasterChef Australia would feel blessed to experience.
First on the plate was mango kulfi.
I made a face expecting them to take out a disc of kulfi like we get at Mumbai. Except that the guy in the shop fished in the fridge and took out a mango. A whole mango. A frozen mango.
He meticulously peeled the mango, put it on a plate and sliced it. There it lay, looking like the Sydney Opera House, with a filling of kulfi inside the mango!
They apparently use a machine to take out the seed and pump in the kulfi mix and freeze it. Beat this Adriano!
The initial bites sent shivers through your gums as the mango is too cold and you can’t taste anything.
As the dish warmed the magic begun to come out. The sheer genius of combining chilled raw (ripe) mango with the creamy kheer of kulfi was as molecular as gastronomy could get.
“How about a sorbet to cleanse your palate?” said Anurag.
Next up was the phalsa koolfi.
As they took it out of the mould I saw that it was nothing like the fruit kulfis I was used to. This was a fruit one which they crushed and served. One bite and I was taken back to a recent lunch at the at the Botticino in The Trident. This was the very same casis sorbet or at least something as refreshing and rejuvenating. The same five star taste experience in this very humble lane. Mind blowing.
I tried to tell this to the owner. I don’t know what he made out of my Hindi but replied saying that there’s was original!
The anar (pomegranate) one was sweeter though and lacked the tangy zest of phalsa.
We were primed up to begin our trek again.
Chaats and Chillas…Ashok, Hiralal Chaat Corners, Ram Chaat Bhandar
A short walk down dark yet lively lanes and we were at a sort of junction. There was a huge space ship like orb there under the grime. Chawri Bazar Metro Station.
Beside that, Ashok Chaat Corner.
A tiny shop which reminded me of the chaat shops near Vile Parle Station at Mumbai. Once again, thronged by people. Business was roaring with folks waiting for their chaats or munching golgappas with 3 or 4 guys mechanically churning out the dishes with precision in a tiny space.
I used the remains of a bottle of iced water to drench my face and head in the manner of football players and was primed to jump back into action.
I couldn’t come to Delhi and not have a papdi chaat, and asked for a dahi chaat on Anurag’s reco.
And what a melange of tastes and flavours…cold, crunch, sour, salt (tad too much as seemed to be typical of Delhi), heat, soft, tang, starch…papdi, masala, curd, bhallas, sliced potatoes…all bringing in their unique flavours and characters to this symphony. There is a reason why Delhi’ites get all parochial and obsessive about their chaats.
The brilliance of the papdi chaat at Ashok explained why.
This is when Anurag quietly said, “you know, Ashok is still common. The real thing is down at Hiralal down the road. They make an alu chaat which is my fav and they are famous for a chaat where they scoop holes in the alu and add fruits.’
“Is it too far away? I don’t want to over eat. Need some space for the kebabs you spoke of. Can’t lose followers by tweeting about so many veg things”.
“It’s 200 m. If you don’t give me a deadline I will take you there. Anyway how often do you come here?’
Couldn’t fault the logic and we headed towards Hiralal.
This was a much quieter shop than Ashok. 120 years old with the grandson and sons of the founder sitting there and wielding their magic on the flat iron griddle
Cubed boiled potatoes went on to the hot oil on the griddle, tossed in chaat masala and our plate was ready with some toothpicks as forks.
“The beats wedges and fries any day. Just love the crunch outside and the soft texture inside and the masala” said Anurag like a child who had just discovered money left below his pillow by the tooth fairy.
Yes, the alu tikki was everything Anurag said though once again a tad salty. Gosh this must be a high pressure city but leave the salt bit aside and this was truly another royal dish.
Anurag said he wasn’t too fond of the fruit potato chaat and by this time I knew enough to back this man’s judgment.
For all my overeating worries, I did stop Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar for chillas. Something they were making in the shop while 2 other guys sold rabdis and alu tikkis on the pavement.
They were making chillas as well as bhatoores & pao bhaaji with paneer (!) but I wanted to try the former. Looked and tasted light and enticing. It was made with a moong daal dough and topped with some grated vegetables and the inevitable paneer. They had chillas stacked up but wielding a DSLR got me a freshly made one.
Next stop before kebabs I was told was dessert!
Bademiya Kheerwalla. Pamela told me that they often started their walks with kheer there as his stock gets over soon. Anurag assured me that this would not be a problem in non Ramzan times.
A walk down muddy roads with the occasional drizzle on our back, a stop to click an old school movie theatre and then a tempo that bore the name of warring camps of the Hindi film industry and we had reached our destination.
Across the road was Bademiya Kheerwallah. Brightly lit. Tables and chairs inside. An inn for weary travellers of the sort they might have had at the Grand Trunk Road,
Bademiya with his twinkling eyes and long white beard looked as if he might have been here since Sher Shah’s time and had been making this kheer (rice pudding for decades).
The kheer was layered out over a huge flat pan in which it had been cooked for more than six hours and then set and chilled. On top was a thick layer of cream or malai with soft, sweet and yet not overtly so, kheer below the skin.
Took my first bite and felt completely the warmth and glow of the owner. The love and goodwill that had gone into the dish. Milk of human kindness as Shakespeare would have said. I was not surprised that Anurag packed some for home.
Moinuddin Qureshi’s Sheekh kebabs
We set off again through the intermittent rain. There was a sweet shop where we stopped. Run by the third and fourth generation. I picked up some sweets for work which folks loved.
They saw my camera was getting wet outside the shop and gave me a plastic bag for it.
Then we went past another kebab guy who had once given Anurag kebabs because he was hungry and didn’t charge him for them. That’s the sort of warmth that characterises Delhi 6. Over there we met young Mohammed, Salman Khan fan. I hope someday he realises his dream of coming to Mumbai and meeting his hero.
Then finally at Moinuddin’s elusive shop. The ustaad was said to be moody and often didn’t set shop. Today he and his son, Imran Qureshi were there working out there magic on the skewers of meat. Beef sheekh kebabs that were, juicy, flavourful and everything that the dry sheekhs at Mumbai’s do tanki weren’t.
Like Kallu’s and Bademiya Kheerwallah’s, Moinuddin’s too was a one dish shop.
I sat hunched on the street watching the ustaad weave his magic meat. The night disappearing into the flaming embers of his open grill. The aromas of meat making the experience mystical.
What an end to my Dilli 6 odyssey.
I had waited for years for this trip and when I did I felt that I had come on an invite that was centuries old. The hospitality of the folks around. The wondrous sights. The big smiles. The great food. The feeling of inner peace. Of being drenched, muddy and sweaty and yet smiling from the core. And of course being in the good hands of my host for the evening, Anurag.
And this is not the end of the story.
The Nizamuddin tales will follow.