Delhi’s answer to Lahore Food Street
[ed: we are thrilled to present our first guest column, by journalist and fellow foodie Pankaj Molekhi. Hopefully, this is the first of many to come!]
1900 hours: This is a time when shopkeepers in Delhi begin to pull down shutters; treetops get abuzz with homeward-bound birds; and Blueline buses are packed to capacity with sweaty human bodies. A time when nearly everybody is calling it a day. Nearly everybody!
The Jama Masjid area in the Walled City, at this hour, is warming up to the long evening ahead. Mainly, it is the Urdu Bazaar facing Gate No 1 of the Masjid and a side street called Matia Mahal where the activity concentrates. Although most publishers and calligraphers of the Urdu Bazaar have shut shops, myriad makeshift eateries have switched on large 300 watt bulbs to illuminate their wares. The smell of fresh fish, fuming kebabs and fried chicken is in the air. There are sweetmeat experts too, setting up jumbo paraphernalia for jalebi and phirni to meet the onslaught of late evening customers. By eight pm, more vendors have descended on the side street Matia Mahal, and are busy unbundling their sacks of electronic gadgets and fancy toys, decorating them in neat rows on the pavement. There is a long queue of the underprivileged outside Yasin Hotel, looking forward to a free dinner.Pause for a bit and look around: the first thing that strikes you is the sheer numerical strength of human heads all over. Space is sacred. From the rickshaw-puller to the Esteem-wallah, and from a cart-pusher to the pedestrian, everybody is crying for elbow room — truly representative of India’s one billion-strong population. But there is a method in this madness. The traffic momentum never stops even for two minutes.Raise your head from the human sea, and towering domes of Jama Masjid smile at you condescendingly. It is impossible not to feel dwarfed by the three awesome domes of this 17th century mosque — India’s largest. The mosque has a courtyard that can accommodate nearly 25,000 namazis in one go. Broad staircases lead from three sides, through various arched gateways, to the main prayer hall facing west (where Mecca is). The four minarets in each corner are worth visiting till the top, if you are game to steal a bird’s eye view of the Old Delhi. But much more pleasurable would be watching devout Muslims paying obeisance to Allah during namaz. Neat lines of heads would bow in a rhythm and roll sideways in unison. After namaz, as hoards of similar looking men sporting bowl-caps and goatees come out of the masjid, the crowd of beggars sitting outside various restaurants on the main side street (Matia Mahal) facing the Masjid look at them expectantly. A few devout pay for the food of a select number of beggars. In a jiffy, the hotel staff begins folding big tandoori rotis with liberal doles of bada (buffalo’s meat curry) and the first few are served. Allah provides for all.
For the privileged, this is party time. Tempting aromas are wafting from every second shop. Large banners outside the shops boast of chicken changezi, mutton korma, biryani, kebab, tikkas and ishtu. The crowd is swelling by each passing hour and by dinnertime, the business is brisk at all shops. There is food for every taste and pocket. There are several handcarts that have set up a tandoor and a bar-be-que. I tell Bhure Miyan that his kebabs, for Rs 2 apiece, are too spicey. He nods and reveals that they are meant to be so for, this masala will cure any najla (chronic cold). Other vendors with kebabs and tikkas (made of buffalo meat), wrapped in rumali roti (paper thin bread) have competitive prices: Rs 2 for one skewer and Re 1 for the roti. The green chilli chutney and spring onions are complimentary. The fare are slightly chewy and meant to exercise the canines. Meat-eaters can have a ball in Rs 10.
Move further, and you find one meaty leg of fried chicken for Rs 20, while biryani and qorma range between Rs 25-50. Matia Mahal also houses the famous Mughlai restaurant, Karim’s and Al-Jawahar. If you can bear the shoddy service, the food will more than make up for the trouble.
One end of Matia Mahal street leads you to a forked route to Chitli Qabr on one side and Turkman Gate on another, while Jama Masjid end of the street can take you to Chawri Bazaar or Balli Maran. This street also boasts of a few madrasas, where even at this hour, young children come to study Persian/Arabic script and Koranic verses. I take a sneak at one such madarsas, which is slightly off the street. There is a sizeable pond near the entrance, where children wash their hands before touching their books. The method of learning is by rote — a sight made too familiar by post-9/11 documentaries on Taliban and Muslim fundamentalism.
Turning back to the noisy and the boisterous market area, one is pleased to find a good many old men sitting in various groups and exchanging notes of the day. Some of them have earthen glasses of warm milk in hand. Their younger counterparts too have gathered around for a night stroll and eyeing up the burqa-clad womenfolk on the sly. Despite a conservative surrounding, romance has found its way. But it is the middle-aged which is a majority here. Most of them have burly physiques and look tall in pathani suits with skull caps. Banners of all sizes and same colour (green) across the street, have Urdu scribbled all over them. Jumble of wires around shaky buildings have denied the wheels of modernism here. At the balconies of several old houses, Persian window-patterns are all too visible. Easily, one may as well be in Lahore.
It is well past 12 o’clock now. But the hustle-bustle refuses to thin out. I have had a bellyful of beef, mutton and chicken and my sweet tooth is complaining. Bade Miyan who is selling phirni (rice-milk pudding) in earthen bowls for a paltry Rs 8, comes to the rescue. He discloses how long the marketplace will remain abuzz — he makes a victory sign (the mouth is full of paan) to tell me it will be 2 in the morning! Bade Miyan should know, for he has been in business here for donkey’s years. Not a minute passes when he does not wave at one or the other local walking the street. And true to his word, the place remains dotted with men and women of all age groups till 1.30 in the night. From here, the tide begins to ebb down.
The road offers more space now. The shouting of street-users has also reduced. And shopkeepers suddenly look keen on calling it a day. But in a few minutes, the noisy scene will return, with a battery of delivery vehicles carrying fresh stock to the market. And till the crack of dawn, the offloading will continue and the Urdu Bazaar will look like a fish market. This shall be followed by the azaan from the muezzin for early morn namaaz. The wheel will come a full circle. With so much activity under His nose, I wonder if Allah ever gets a restful moment.