Life in the cobbled streets of Old Delhi was a parade of culinary delights, from mathi halwa to meltingly tender meat
Memory is a strange thing; it thrills you and it traps you within its confines. As the world languishes in the grip of the pandemic, I often turn to memories of flavours and food from a childhood in the walled city of Shahjahanabad, now called. Old Delhi, to comfort and nourish me.
While the imposing walls and minarets of the Jama Masjid are memorable, what really endures is the recollection of the food that was sold in small halwai shops and street carts, and the kindness of the people there.
Life in the walled city was a treat for all ages, and our food habits intermixed to create what we often refer to as the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb — a cultural melting pot that’s now in decline. Every day was a feast, and empathy and sharing were just as abundant as the food. We all gave because we were taught to share if we could — because no one should go hungry.
Mathi halwa, a blend of sweet and savoury that came from a small shop tucked in an even smaller lane, was a staple breakfast item. Unusual? Perhaps for the straitjacketed palette, but not in Shahjahanabad, where flavours mingled with ease.
We rarely ever ate lunch without matri kulcha, a spicy mix of boiled peas with onions and potato. It was especially fun to have during the summers, when most people avoided hot food. Even today, you’ll see it being sold out of little tin boxes on the backs of bicycles around the city — spicy, tasty, affordable fare feeding the hungry.
Then, there was the evergreen Dilli ki chaat for any time of day. There was a chaat to suit every kind of taste, and different shops boasted of specialities such as pani puri, papri chat and matri chola. A more obscure delicacy was palak ke patte ki chaat, made from spinach leaves — now served in gourmet restaurants as fusion cuisine.
Evening also brought the famous satpura samosas, which were twisted seven times (hence satpura as the halwai explained) around the border, as well as aloo tikki, which was stuffed with potato but also with finely chopped nuts fried crisply to tempt you and give you instant cholesterol. The sauce could be eaten on its own — it was that breathtaking. Was it clean on the dusty, narrow lanes? We weren’t really bothered. Everything delicious on those streets was clean enough for us.
Giani ice cream may be a famous brand today, but in those days it was just a small shop where we went every other day to get our fill of kulfi. And in our Punjabi homes, most celebrations were always accompanied by kebabs from Karim’s — also a household name now, but back then, simply the go-to place for good meat and kebabs. We were voracious mutton-eaters, unlike today’s chicken-obsessed generation. The mutton would be cooked for hours over an angeethi (brazier), with the masala soaking into the meat just so, making it tender beyond compare.
The city and its affluence migrated south and we went with it, and the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb began to dwindle. An occasional lunch or dinner outside might remind us of that taste, yet the air-conditioned malls could never quite reproduce the smells and tastes of the city of our childhood.
During this pandemic, which forces us to turn inwards, I often cook these dishes and street food from memory, in order to refresh that memory for myself and for my children who think everything can be ordered.
I am marginally successful but it heals me and delights them. Together we rediscover the tastes I once knew well. I speak to them of food and hunger. I remind them of gratitude as millions go hungry. Taste is a privilege.
As a feminist, I never thought I would say it, but cooking and feeding is almost a meditation now. Once more, all I desire is to walk down the tiny bylanes of Shahjahanabad and eat the food there.
My children — a set of three ultra-modernists — have no reference to this life. The food I serve them is a watered-down version of what we once ate. I remind them that the streets of Shahjahanabad once resembled the cobbled streets of Rome, that it is the seat of unnumbered saints and that, as the saying goes, no one goes hungry there. They look at me in gratitude but mostly disbelief. To them, I am now a spinner of stories. Memory, indeed, is a dangerous thing.
The Delhi-based feminist from the 1960s is a food enthusiast and historian.