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Take a Culinary Journey Through Mouthwatering Chandni Chowk
chillibreeze writer — Avanija Sundaramurti
A culinary cruise down Chandni Chowk
To most people Chandni Chowk is a tacky and down market wholesale bazaar in Old Delhi. However, Chandni Chowk is more than just a relic of the Mughal era. A heady mixture of history, modernity, tradition, religion, food, chaos and commerce, it is quintessentially Delhi. Chandni Chowk was built in 1650 AD as an accompaniment to the majestic Red Fort or Lal Qila by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan and was designed by Jahanara, the Emperor's favorite daughter. It is said that the moonlight reflecting off its main neher (canal) earned it the name Chandni Chowk or Avenue of Moonlight.
Chandni Chowk is considered the ultimate shopper’s delight because of its wide variety of shops and its unbelievable prices. But what makes the shopping a delight is the incidence of great snack destinations every few meters. The eateries in Chandni Chowk are famous in their own right. Most of these date from the last century, some even earlier than that. Mute witnesses to time-induced changes in Chandni Chowk, they have managed to retain their core and yet move ahead with the times. Here, with every bite, one samples not only a delicacy but also a piece of history. Handed down from father to son, many of these businesses are now being managed by the fourth or fifth generations. They include halwais (confectioners), namkeenwalahs (sellers of spicy savouries), chaatwalahs (sellers of chaat – a unique dish that originated in Delhi) and many others. More often than not, each shop has its own recipes, which are treated like family heirlooms, so that even though two shops may provide the same product, the flavor differs.
Natraj’s Dahi Balle
To begin my journey in to the tastes and aromas of Chandni Chowk’s delicacies I started with Natraj’s Dahi Bhalle. Dating back to 1940, the shop is patronized by powerful politicians and famous film stars. Here, one plate of Dahi Bhalla costs Rs.15. Dahi Bhalla is a concoction of yoghurt, masalas or spices and fried dumplings soaked in water (to soften them). The dish lived up to its reputation and was a real treat. Natraj’s Aloo Tikki’s are also famous in Chandni Chowk. Tikkis are like burger patties made of mashed and seasoned potatoes and stuffed with either dry fruits or ground seasoned dals. These tikkis were stuffed with moong dal and were spicy. Not only were they delicious they also made my eyes water with the strong spices!! A definite no-no for people with sensitive taste buds.
Paranthe Wali Gali
Opposite Natraj’s Café is the entrance to Paranthe Wali gali. The gali in the past had over ten to twelve shops but today there are only five left. Chandni Chowks Paranthewali Gali is a bylane in the market devoted to only parantha sellers. Paranthas are a type of unleavened bread that are stuffed and then shallow fried in clarified butter. Kanwarji Bhagirathmal Dalbhajiwallah’s 150 years old confectionary shop graces the entrance to the gali. This shop is well known for its namkeens like dal bhuji (fried pulses), aalu ka lachha (spicy fried potato sticks) and sweets like barfi and imarti. The riots in 1984 started right outside Kanwarji’s,10 feet away from the gali and the gali was completely burnt down. The shops present today in the gali were the only ones to be rebuilt, post the riots.
The first parantha shop in the gali is Pandit Devi Dayal’s. Babu Ram, the seventy-year old owner of the shop sits at the entrance, overseeing the making of the paranthas. A direct descendant of the original owners, Babu Ram said that the variety that is present today is a totally new phenomenon. He says, “that 50 years back the paranthas were just of 3-4 types of the usual aloo gobi and matar (potato, cauliflower and peas respectively). But today we can boast of almost 20 varieties of paranthas.” Babu Ram talks of a time when the paranthas were served to patrons seated on the floor, on leaf plates with water in clay pots called khullars but today he says the benches and tables are mandatory. Babu Ram also confided that all the parantha shops in the gali were owned by people of the same family, who because of family feuds had separated and set up their own shops.
The Kaju, Badam, Matar and Mix Paranthas at Pandit Devi Dayal’s were especially fantastic. The special parantha’s like kaju badam are 25 rupees each while the normal paranthas like aloo gobi and matar are for Rs.8 to Rs.10. The Mix parantha is something to look out for. It is stuffed with a little bit of everything, from aloo, gobi, matar, tomato and paneer to cashew, almonds, pista, radish and papad – a fried accompaniment to traditional meals a little like chips. The paranthas are fried in pure ghee in cast iron pans and are served to the patrons steaming hot accompanied by a mind boggling variety of chutneys, vegetable pickles and raitas.
From there we moved on to Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad’s Parantha Shop. The shop is the oldest of all the parantha shops in Chandni Chowk and was established in 1875. This shop boast of over 25 varieties of Paranthas with variants like rabri parantha for those with a sweet tooth and papad parantha for the adventurous. The photographs on the wall showed Nehru and his sister dining in the shop as well as pictures of Indira Gandhi. Mounds of colorful carrot and radish pickles decorate the shop front. The cook who has been working here for over 30 years is quietly going about his work. The paranthas are rolled out on a large marble slab and are filled with the chosen stuffing. He then fries the parantha in ghee in an anghiti, (a coal stove) that he says is just the way it used to be when the shop started. The cook flicks the fried parantha into a plate kept three feet away with nonchalance. The owner informed us that his shop was a shudh Brahmin bhojanalay and did not serve any onions or garlic. He was also quick to tell us that all the parantha shops were owned by Brahmins and were vegetarian. This reference to caste purity in cooking is a true vestige of a bygone era as very few eateries in Delhi would care about the caste of the cook. The garlic and onion ban are also indicative of the clientele of these shops as staunchly religious upper caste Hindus do not believe that onion and garlic are suitably ‘pure’ ingredients due to their aphrodisiacal qualities. Amidst all this a board on the walls of all the shops heralded the present – a sign of changing times- it said “Bisleri Mineral Water available here”. But that is not the only change says the owner. They are even willing to pack for takeaways.
After the hot melt in the mouth paranthas we made our way to Nai Sarak to Jaypee Snack and Kamdhenu Family corner for white chocolate milk shake and kesar pista kulfi and falooda. The Kulfi is a sort of ice cram made from condensed milk, saffron and dry fruits that is set in moulds and is served with a type of glass noodles and syrup. The reasonably priced kulfi’s and milk shakes are a welcome change from the savoury delights of Paranthe Wali Gali. The shop also offers litchi milkshakes made with real fruit. Most definitely worth the walk through crowded Nai Sarak on a Sunday! Jaypee Snacks’ Kachoris and Bhaji are also a favourite with Chandni Chowk regulars.
No trip to Chandni Chowk is complete without a visit to The Ghantewala Halwai, the oldest sweet shop in Chandni Chowk. More than two hundred years old, the Ghantewala is a landmark in itself. The shop has always prided itself for the quality of the sweets available, the one most in demand being Sohanhalwa, made from dry fruits, sprouts and sugar. ‘Ghanta’ in Hindi means a huge bell. Legend goes that when the royal procession used to move down the road, the emperor would stop and be offered the delicacies from the sweet shop. The emperor’s elephant would also be offered sweets. In a short time the animal came to know the shop so well that, procession or no procession, it would refuse to pass through the road and shake its head until the compulsory offering of sweets was made! The bells hanging from the elephant’s neck would tinkle melodiously in the process, and from there the shop acquired its name. An interesting fact- at present the shop is owned by the 11th generation! I ordered some of Ghantewala’s famous Sohan Halwa to take home as I was too full to taste any over there.
The culinary cruise down Chandni Chowk is not for those who are calorie conscious because almost everything is fried in ghee. But the food is made hygienically and is worth the discomfort of the chaotic streets and non-existent parking and is a definite change from the run of the mill Chinese or American fast food dining experiences one is exposed to in the rest of Delhi. The food tastes heavenly and takes one back into bygone eras…………………….
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