Hot, humid, dusty, and congested, the lanes of Old Delhi can overwhelm the most experienced, but, if one can look beyond the heat and dust, the narrow labyrinths of Shahjahan’s capital reward with treasures unlike any other. While most of us see the food of the walled city through a handful of restaurants – and dishes – it is the lesser known stalls, and unnamed shacks that serve the best food here. We take you for a walk along some of the busiest lanes in the country to sample some of the best food the city has to offer.
Seekh Kebab, Lal Kuan.
While there are as many Kebab shops in Old Delhi as there are people, there is one tiny shack at that is unanimously loved.
Ustaad Moinuddin’s tiny stall, Sangam Kebab, has fans all over the world. Author and journalist Pamela Timms believes they are the best kababs in Delhi and has dedicated many a column to this humble shop. The tiny kebabs made on iron skewers come at just Rs.12 apiece, getting your share however is not easy – you have to battle jostling crowds and eager customers while Moinuddin packs the tender meat and lets it sear on smoky charcoal flame. It helps if you are a lady though, for then he would hand over a plate to you out of turn. Succulent, tender, juicy and crisp, these kebabs are best eaten fresh with sliced onions and Moinuddin’s special green chutney.
Nihari, Korma, and Kofta, Balli Maran.
“If you have not tasted the nihari, korma and koftas in Balli Maran, you have tasted nothing”. Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walks chides while introducing me to Manzoor Hotel, a humble shop that sits in a corner of Mirza Ghalib’s neighbourhood.
A bunch of men work on the tandoor outside; boys scurry with plates of curries and bowls of koftas inside. Served with special Khamiri Rotis, the Nihari is rich, oily, and bursting with flavour, the meat falls off the bone and the curry sticks to your fingertips. The Korma is layered in flavours and textures; the koftas are tender and mild. To say that it is some of the best food in the neighbourhood will not be an exaggeration. It is a pity though that we have to stop after just one roti – it is a long evening of eating planned.
Passing by the Old Kheer Shop on the Hauz Kazi Chowk towards means one has to step in and have a portion of the 130 year old dessert.
“My grandmother started making Kheer with the extra milk produced by the family cattle,” Jamaluddin, whose grandfather set up the shop in 1880, tells us. The Kheer, stored in a large aluminum vessel in front of him, is thick and covered in a layer of cream. Most of it has been already been sold out, luckily there is enough for us to sample. “My brother makes the kheer every morning and I carry it to the shop,” adds Jamaluddin while handing over our portions in small steel bowls. The kheer turns out to be mildly sweet, and unusually creamy, and even without expensive additives like dried fruit or nuts, it is gratifying. The secret, I assume, is not only the smokiness of the wood fire, but also the grandmother’s recipe that is still followed to the T.
Butter Chicken, Matia Mahal.
The mere mention of Butter Chicken conjures up images of thick creamy gravy, but in the lanes of Matia Mahal, butter chicken is synonymous with only one thing – Aslam’s Chicken. “The butter chicken here is basic, but delicious,” says Rahul Verma, noted food critic with The Hindu. “The chicken is marinated with with red chillies, yellow chillies, salt and yoghurt, and is grilled on charcoal. It is then finished with a sauce made with melted butter, cream and seasoning,” he explains.
Served in a large steel bowl, the chicken comes doused in butter. With a crunchy outer layer and tender flesh, it oozes flavours of the marinade. The chunky pieces are best eaten as they are; the sauce, of butter, cream, and seasoning, meanwhile is perfect to dunk pieces of Roomali Roti accompanied with onions.
Pyar, Mohabbat, Maza
If the smoke, spice, meat, and butter get too much, as they sometimes do, you have Pyar Mohabbat Maza right across the street. Made with watermelon, ice, milk and Rooh Afza, this concoction is not only a coolant for the stomach, but also reenergizes you for another round of eating. While there isn’t a dedicated shop, the congenial Nawab Qureshi, or Nawab Bhai as he is called, is not hard to find. Standing by the stack of Amul milk cartons and bottles of Rooh Afza, he smiles as he sees you walking from afar and has a glass ready before you even reach him.
Rooh Afza, watermelon and milk may seem like a strange combination, but it works really well, especially after a plate of Butter Chicken and Roomali Roti. The bite of the fruit, the scent of the sherbet and the chill of the ice makes it is as refreshing as it is tasty.
Sutli Kabab, Gali Sui walan, Chitli Qabar
You can never have enough Kabas in the shadows of Jama Masjid, where dozens of kebabchis dole out plates of shami, seekh, boti, and sutli kebabs day in and day out.
We are now at Kale Baba Ke Kebab, popular for their sutli, or dori kebabs. “Imagine kebabs so soft that they have to be held together with a thread,” quips food writer, and recipe developer Monika Manchanda, who grew up in the capital. Some kababchis however claim that only novices who do not know how to pack kebabs use a string. But Babu Bhai differs, “our meat is so tender that nothing can hold it together, ” he declares while packing the mushy mix on thick skewer and twirling a thread around it. Served with grated radish and green chutney, the kebabs have multiple elements that unfold beautifully in your mouth. The tenderness of the meat, spice of the seasoning, crunch of the radish and punch of the chutney – together it is a match made in food heaven.
Shahi Tukda & Rabri, Matia Mahal.
Ending on a sweet note is always a good idea – especially in the lanes of Shajahan’s Delhi, and what better way call it a night than indulging in some royal dessert.
“Fried in ghee, soaked in sugar syrup, topped with rabri, embellished with silver varq and jelly, Shahi Tukda can give anyone sleepless nights – literally. The trick is to eat small portion and relish every bite,” advises Anubhav, a veteran in the lanes of Old Delhi. The sugar-laden pieces are crunchy and soft in parts; the rabri balances the sweetness while the jelly pieces, although synthetic, gives it a delightful tartness. To say the dessert with its contrasts perfectly sums up the experience of eating on the streets of Old Delhi would not be wrong.