As the summer flexes its muscles over the subcontinent, the mind harkens back to a “field trip” to the Fatehpuri Masjid area of old Delhi in early February. On a cold winter Sunday, four of us intrepid foodies found ourselves at the Chandni Chowk metro station, with an appetite braced by the early morning drizzle.
I was sure we were in for a treat the moment Shashank led us into an obscure little back lane leading away from the station, with the confidence of a sherpa on the road to the Everest. Here was a man who knew his puraani dilli.
The main Chandni Chowk road has two of Delhi’s greatest landmarks at its opposite ends. The wide-eyed tourist predictably goes to the Red Fort. The sagacious local, however walks the other way, to Chaina Ram, winner of the Times of India’s award for the best sweet shop in Delhi for the last four years running. Unfortunately, we weren’t yet in the mood to have dessert, so we settled for some poori aloo for our breakfast, and packed masala cashew nuts to have at home. Given how good these non-award winning offerings of Chaina Ram are, I have every intention to return for the sweetmeats later! With pious intentions of walking off our sumptuous breakfast, we now trudged down the increasingly slushy Church Mission Road, perpedicular and to the right of the Chandni Chowk road. But we had barely passed Fatehpuri Masjid when the most amazing sight beckoned our senses — scores and scores of paneer and khoya blocks stacked on the pavement and in the adjoining shops. For here was the milk product capital of Delhi, the wholesalers from whom Delhi’s halwais source their stuff. And indeed, the adjoining dhabas and shops have made good use of their proximity to the lactose fountainhead. One such is Giani’s, where we had what was indubitably the absolute, by far, out-and-out best rabri falooda of our lives. And right next to his shop, we sampled some sweet lassi served up in a kullarh, which certainly gives stiff competition to the one we’ve written about before, at Bille di Hatti in Kamla Nagar.
Steps away from here is a tiny little lane that calls itself Kucha Ghasi Ram, a pit stop for the marwari traders that frequent the area. Asmita’s mother had recommended trying out the shuddha shakahaari (marwari) bhojan on offer at the Soni Bhojanalaya. However, with our stomachs packed to the brim, and with a contrary review of the place from our guide Shashank, we decided to give the place a miss and settle for some lovely hot adrak waali chai at a little shop in the same kucha.
But we must have offended the marwari gods, for no sooner had we settled down with our tea that they began raining bricks at us. Thankfully, it was just a warning shot, and the bricks fell just inches away from where Asmita was sitting. No harm having been done to us, we promptly took up cudgels on behalf of the tea-shop owner, who claimed that construction at an errant Bank of Rajasthan upstairs was loosening bricks from the walls. With indignant words, much clicking of cameras like consciencious crime-scene photographers, and sundry other theatrics, we hopefully pursuaded the bank manager to do something about it.
With thoughts of death and destruction on our minds, it was perhaps unsurprising that our feet turned to Ghalib’s haveli in nearby Ballimaran. Having showed off our knowledge of his qalaam to each other and to a bunch of schoolkids who couldn’t have cared less, we returned to Church Mission road for lunch.
By now the stacks of paneer at the wholesalers’ had visibly diminished, and the uncluttered pavement soon reached us to Kake di Hatti, a little dhaba just a few shops away on the same road (where the food, Shashank assures us, is better than at the more well-known Gol Dukaan nearby). ‘Little’ however, is not an adjective that you can use on any of the culinary offerings of the place. The naans (or paraanthas, as the shop calls them) are simply massive — they’re served in quarters, each of which can fill a plate. They come with your choice of stuffing (mooli, gobhi, matar, pyaaz, etc.) and can be combined with their wonderfully zesty cucumber raita and vegetables. We ordered two vegetables: gobhi-aloo, which was lip-smackingly good, and kadhai paneer, which was literally sublime — so soft, it seemed to just vaporize in your mouth!
The walk back from Church Mission Road to the metro station gave us a much-needed chance to digest the day’s intake, as well as to pick up those forgotten little sweetmeats of our childhood, which seem to have disappeared from all the Westernized “posh” parts of the city — the little orange-shaped sweets, colourful jujubes, anaardana ki goli…
All in all, a day that couldn’t have been better spent. Also, I have to confess, a bit of an eye-opener for me — I have always tended to associate puraani dilli with the best non-vegetarian food you can get; I didn’t know that such a variety of incomparable veggie food was also on offer!
(compiled with help from Shashank Khandelwal and Asmita Kabra. Photo courtesy Shilpa Swamy.)