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Talk About Delhi

Kaun jaye Zauq yeh Dilli ki galiyan chhodh kar?


When Delhi was in turmoil in the mid Nineteenth Century, just about every artiste was heading for the greener pastures. Poet Zauq, however, wouldn't give up the charmed streets of Delhi for all the wealth and tranquility of Lucknow, Hyderabad, Rampur, Jaunpur, Faizabad, Calcutta, or wherever his contemporaries sought refuge.

An intrinsic part of the charm of Delhi's streets was its food. Every devastation - and ruination - of the city triggered enforced migrations of its princes and paupers, poets and prostitutes, philosophers and soldiers, artistes and chefs to provincial capitals in search of safety. Some returned to the city when normalcy was restored, others, it is said, stayed on to make invaluable contributions to their adopted homelands. By the same token, those who returned enriched the cultural and culinary traditions of the First City.

The origins of the city are traced to mythological references recorded in the epic Mahabharat. The townships mentioned are Indraprastha and Hastinapur. The name Delhi derives from Dhillika. Scholars trace the city's etymological roots to Dehali - literally, the threshold. Nestling in the lap of the Aravalli, Delhi indeed is the threshold for both, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, on the one side, and the Thar, on the other. We believe that Delhi was also the threshold of the Punjab to the North and Madhya Bharat to the South.

Adjacent to the fertile fields of the Punjab as well as the Gunga-Jamuna Doab, Delhi has always been the land of plenty. Its inhabitants have traditionally enjoyed premium grains, rich dairy produce and a variety of seasonal vegetables and fruits even when there were no refrigeration faclities. It is no accident of history that Delhi has been - and probably still is - the largest mandi - wholesale market - for not just produce but also most other 'ingredients'. The fascination of Delhi's epicureans - with purity and quality of ingredients and the variety available seasonally can be traced to this.

Food and feasting are mentioned repeatedly in Mahabharat. When the Pandava princes completed the construction of their new capital - Indraprastha - they hosted a memorable feast. It was during this feast when the Kaurava brothers were being shown around the palace that Duryodhan tripped and fell in a pool of water, mistaking it for the polished floor, causing Draupadi to laugh. The rest is the long story Mahabharat is all about and bears no repeating.

Delhi's culinary uniqueness lies in the fact that food here cannot be branded as regional or parochial, which is the case with most other Cuisine--Indian or foreign. The seat of Imperial power has for centuries attracted the best maharaj, rikaabdaar, halwai, bawarchi and chefs. The rulers - emperors and the nobles, the viceroys and the sahib--provided generous patronage and contributed the cultivation of fine taste. They also displayed eclectic and sophisticated temprament.

Delhi's cuisine like its monuments, popular idiom and sartorial preferences reflects its distinct character and personality.

To our great surprise, many people believe that Delhi cuisine was exclusively vegetarian before the Sultanate period, overlooking the fact that kshatriya indulged in shikar and the element of game was incorporated in their diet.

It was the Tughlaqs, who made Jahanpanah--north of the famous Qutab Minar their capital--who first put Delhi on the international culinary map. The great traveller, Ibn Batuta, rapturously recounts a Court feast:

Food was eaten from gold and silver crockery, set on carpets. Nobles and other invitees bowed before the Badshah Salamat--the King Emperor--and took their assigned places. The guests sipped Sherbet-e-Labgir--the sherbet of their choice- until meal time, which began with the invocation of God by the hajjab--chamberlain--who called out Bismillah!

The dynasties that followed ruled for very short periods and, in the internecine warfare of the era, food was a major casualty. Delhi's food languished for a while until the Mughals came to power. Once the barbarian hordes decided to make Hindustan their home, they provided patronage to--and became connoisseurs of--our culinary art. The Indian kitchen--particularly the Delhi kitchen - flourished like never before.

When Babar arrived in India, he grumble about the lack of "grapes, musk melon and other first-rate fruit, no ice or cold water, no bread or cooked foods in the bazaar." Babar survived only four-and-a-half years after coming to Hindustan, the bulk of which was spent on the battlefield. Surely this wasn't enough time to discover the joys of Indian cuisine, the best of which, in any case, was cooked in the homes and not on the streets. More about this later in this piece. He grudgingly appreciated chironji--"a thing between the almond and the walnut, not bad."

The Mongol was more generous in his praise of the fish in Indian waters--"the flesh of Hindustan's fish is very savoury, they have no odour or tiresomeness." In his Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Dr K. T. Achaya suggests that the 'tiresomeness' refers to the bother of removing bones while eating fish.

Babar remained an 'alien' in this land and it was only his descendants who became the 'sons of the soil'. Unfortunately, Humayun, too, did not live long enough and it was left to Akbar to not only imbibe the culinary ethos, but also to contribute to the evolution of cuisine on the Sub-continent.

According to Jesuit Priest Montserrate, Akbar's Imperial spread thusly: "His table is very sumptuous, consisting of more than 40 courses, served in great dishes. These are brought into the royal dining hall, covered and wrapped in linen cloths, which are tied up and sealed by the cook, for fear of poison. They are carried by youths to the door of the dining hall, other servants walking ahead, and the Master of the Household (Khan-e-saman) following. Here they are taken over by eunuchs who load them to the serving girls who wait on the royal table..."

Abul Fazal's Ain-e-Akbari provides additional details of the royal dining. Akbar, he says, did not like meat and only ate it occasionally "to conform to the spirit of the age and because he had to shoulder the burden of the world. He abstained from non-vegetarian diet on Fridays, Sundays, the first day of every solar month, the whole of the month of Fawardin (March) and Aban (November), the month of his birth. Akbar preferred simple foods and began his meal with curds and rice."

Akbar's son and successor, Jehangir, gave this city two delicacies: Khichrhi and Falooda. This Khichrhi is not to be confused with what is consumed to overcome gastric indisposition or Kedgree, popularised by Hobson Jobson and what is found on most British breakfast menus. Jehangir's Khichrhi--rice cooked with pulses, clarified butter and aromatic spices, and garnished with dried fruits and exotic nuts--was a gourmet's delight and boasted of a grand name--Lazeezan--to match.

The British Raj brought about a kind of polarisation, if one may take the liberty of using the term, of the city's food. The Muslim, Bania and Kayastha were the dominant communities and their culinary styles became synonymous with the city's cuisine. Each separate stream was distinctive and delicious.

The city, today, has spread far and wide, encompassing all the Delhis--ancient, medieval and modern. It is, more or less, the chefs from this region who, over the millenia, helped in creating Delhi's distinct cuisine.

The Muslim cuisine can trace its origins to the campaigns of Chengis Khan. As the Mongol cut a swath of destruction and mayhem, sweeping through Central Asia and carving an Empire upto the fringe of Europe, he sent some rulers scurrying for refuge across the Hindu Kush. Many of them camped on the outskirts of Delhi. More importantly, their armies included the kitchen brigade. Over a period of time, the culinary interaction amongst people of different lands led to the distillation of a sublime cuisine. Empires rose and fell but the process of distillation continued within the confines of the Walled City.

The Bania could afford expensive ingredients, but had to adhere to all the prescribed taboos. Like the soldier of fortune and the professional, the trader too travelled through the length and breadth of the land. Matrimonial alliances often sealed business partnerships. The Bania was, like the Rajput/Muslim prince and the Kayastha courtier, exposed to influences from different regions. Their food shows distinctive traces of Rajasthan (Marwari), Gujarati (Jain), Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Whilst the variety was limited, the accent in Bania cuisine was on purity of ingredients and richness (ghee, mawa and exotica).

The limited range of dishes was never missed because of the obvious effort which went into preparation of the delicacies. In any event, the 'quorum' was more than made-up by the exquisite quality of the pickles, preserves, chutneys, papad, kachhri and breads. A Bania feast was inevitably an occasion to remember, with sweets usually taking the pride of spread. To their credit, the Bania balanced this penchant for rich foods with the appropriate use of digestives, especially asafoetida, black rock salt, ginger and ajwain. Their favoured spices were fenugreek seeds, Qasoori Methi (dried fenugreek leaves) and aniseed.

While the Muslim were 'obsessed' with meat, the Hindu Bania were 'infatuated' with sweets. Both would play upon words to emphasis their penchant.

Delhi is as famous for its sweets as it is for its kebab, paratha and other delicacies. Lala Sukhlal Ghantewala Shahi Halwaii, was as much a legend as Ghumi Kebabi. And, how did he become famous as Ghantewala? The Lala came to Delhi from Jaipur in 1712, and began hawking his confections on the Chandnee Chowk pavement. One story has it that his roadside stall was adjacent to the imposing gate of Raja Jugal Kishore's haveli, which was adorned with a large ghanta--bell. Sukhlal came to be identified as ghante ke neechewala halwaii. The more colourful account: the mithaiwala could hardly make enough misthan to satisfy the capital's sweet tooth. Soon, he was able to rent a shop, which featured a string of temple bells, which his salespeople would ring the bells to lure passersby. The rest they say is history.The Ghantewala sweets became so famous that his descendants were invited to an exposition in London. Back home, he even transported his magnificent khumcha to provide the piece-de-resistance at society weddings.

The Kayastha were most catholic in their taste. A pan-Indian professional community, the food of the Kayastha was greatly influenced by the region of their domicile. Of the Mathurs--a clan originating from Mathura--those who settled in Rajasthan, remained strictly vegetarian and described themselves as "Brahminon mein Brahmin" The others who moved to Muslim courts became enthusiastic meat eaters and were fond of describing themselves as "Nawabon mein Nawab". They imbibed diverse culinary influences and transported these to the Capital with them.

Surprisingly, while most Kayastha women, accomplished cooks, made meat dishes for their menfolk, they themselves remained shakahaari. They enjoyed vegetarian delicacies as much as they did the non-vegetarian and showed a marked preference for red meat. No feast--major or minor--was complete without pasanda, qorma, Nargisi Sukhe (Nargisi as kebab rather than a kofta in a curry) and Rogan Josh. The piece de resistance in each Kayastha home was a zealously guarded family recipe. For example, the famed Neemar Babu of Partapgarh was renowned for his Kheemeh ke Gulab Jamun. It is said that the most discerning of his guests couldn't tell that the dessert was made with kid mince.

During this period the best food was cooked in the homes. The bazaar specialised in breads, snacks and sweets and foods that were perceived to be difficult to make at home.

Today, it may be only on the culinary itinerary of the cognoscenti, in not so distant past, the Parathewali Galli was the Walled City's favourite "food plaza". The older generation always said: Fakhat daal roti, Aur Sub Baat Khothi. Or, Food should be without frills and there is nothing to match lentils and bread.

It goes without saying that the young, never quite willing to adhere to the adage, were tempted by the aroma of spices tempered in desi ghee wafting from this street. It offered an astonishing variety of griddle—in this case a convex griddle, almost like a shallow kadhai--fried breads: stuffed with aloo or gobhi, parratwale or multi-layered, baldaar, which is creased and folded, khasta or crisp, rava or semolina and saada or plain. The paratha were served with dhaniye (coriander) ki chutney. Who could help but fall prey to such temptation?

The alternative came in the delectable shape of Nihari and Delhi's kebab-makers. The origins of Nihari are disputed. The Lucknawis claim it as their own, as do the Hyderabadis. The Delhiwallahs scoff at this and assert that it is they who 'gifted' this delicacy to the epicureans of the Sub-continent. The kebab, Nihari and other delicacies were considered incomplete without their proper accompaniment of bread. The Muslim naanbai--bakers--who made the most exquisite breads in their lohaa--iron--tandoor: sheermal, baakarkhani, kulchhe, khameeri and roomali. The difference really was that these breads were 'taken away' to enhance the enjoyment of the salan and daal cooked at home.

Delhiwallahs gained notriety as chatorras because couldn't - and still can't--resist achaar, murrabbe. At one time, the city was famed for its mind-boggling choice of pickles and preserves. There was an equally wide range of preserves, including aam (mango), imlee (tamarind), saeb (apple), phalsa (a crimson berry the size of a pea) and aamla (gooseberry). The pride of place was accorded to the aamle ka murrabba, which was wrapped in chaandi ka varq or silver leaf and served with breakfast for its therapeutic properties.

The partition once again ravaged the city and brought an unexpected influx of Punjabi refugees. Out of necessity, dhaaba mushroomed all over the city to feed the unfortunate victime of the greatest forced migration in history. As soon as they were able to find their feet, the 'restaurautization' of the Capital began. Initially, some opened dhaaba to keep the family pot boiling and moved to other enterprises when the chance came. Others saw business opportunities in the dhaaba. For the majority of such entrepreneurs what mattered most was not the quality of food, but the margin of profit.

Though the Punjabi introduced the city to the joys of tandoori cooking and many Punjabi classics, not all were equally concerned about the authenticity of the dishes. With passage of time, the food was reduced to the lowest common denominator and dhaaba cuisine synonymous with a hybrid of the corrupted Moghalia-Punjabi cuisine. Further deterioration set in when the hands-on entrepreneur became the 'respectable' owner-manager. He left the stove to his Pahari masalchi and dishwasher. Sadly, these new 'chefs' were familiar with neither the Moghalia nor the Punjabi foods.

The Partition dramatically altered the demographic profile of Delhi. The refugee not only survived but also thrived. With him came the fourth stream of Delhi cooking. By nature flamboyant, the Punjabi became the arbiter of this city's taste as soon as he had an expendable income. For a while, this stream relegated the other Delhi Cuisine to the back-burner.

Then dawned the Golden Age of Delhi hoteliering. Spanking new Five Star hotels with multiple restaurants changed the skyline and today standalones continue that legacy. The beginning has been made and it is only a matter of time before Delhi's food finds its rightful place among the pantheon of the great Cuisine of the Sub-continent and is recognised as the Mother Cuisine of the North.