Old Delhi is a seething cauldron of culinary adventures. Lesley A. Esteves lists her favourites.
Photographs by Rajesh Thakur
There is no place to eat like old Delhi, where the ustads of its kitchens practise their craft just as their forefathers have for eons. Where the meatwallas advertise how many hours they grind their meat. Where the pure veg hotels advertise which bhandar they get their paneer from. Where Gianiji can be as curt as he likes and there’ll still be a long line for his ambrosial rabri.
This is the biggest bazaar of them all, home to some of the biggest wholesale trades in Asia. Lakhs throng its streets every day. This once grand Mughal capital remains studded with royal buildings and noble havelis, and thousands of tourists too come visiting every day. All of these people are fed very well. You cannot turn in Old Delhi without bumping into a thela of something tasty. It could hold anything from soft shami kababs to tart pineapple slices, bhujia to masala boiled eggs, chunks of shakarkandi or fatter chunks of petha.
But there are those ustads who rise high above the crowded table that old Delhi offers. Every Dilliwalla has his or her own list of favourites. This one is mine. I swear by all of them. Only one of these was new to me. His name is Lotan. The chef Ritu Dalmia told me he makes the best kulche chhole in the old city. “Just go to Fatehpuri and ask anyone,” she said. It took me four days to find him. Now you can find him and all these jewels of Dilli’s galis. If you love your meat, head to the lanes around the Jama Masjid. If you are vegetarian, begin at the very head of Chandni Chowk and follow it down to Fatehpuri. And drop the defences. You’re in the politer side of Delhi, where hospitality is extended on the flimsiest of connections.
Old and Famous Jalebiwala: Best Jalebis
1795 Dariba Corner, Chandni Chowk; 23256973; 8am-10pm
First up on Chandni Chowk is the best jalebi in the world—plump and made with khoya. A bag of these (Rs 200/kg) is a sure-shot for winning friends and influencing bosses. If you can eat more than two, you’re a champion. But do leave room for Jalebiwala’s teekha samosas. You can’t miss him. Look for the fancy new orange-and-black electronic signboard.
Balaji Chaat Bhandar: Best Gol Gappas
Channu Mal Chandu Lal, 1462 Chandni Chowk, Fuvvara; 9350138508; 11am-10pm
Diagonally opposite Gurudwara Sheeshganj, a couple of shops down from Annapurna Sweets towards Haldiram’s, is this hole-in-the-wall chaat shop. It’s so small, it just about holds two brothers and the huge pot of gol gappa paani between them. Everybody else has to stand on the pavement and the closer you get to the brothers, the quicker you get served. So elbow your way forward politely for the crispest gol gappa with just the right amount of stuffing and saunth, dunked in water which is just the right temperature and infused with the awesome taste of jeera. It doesn’t get better than this (Rs 20 for 5).
Tewari Brothers: Best Mithai
862 Chandni Chowk, opp. Allahabad Bank; 23918326, www.tewaribrothers.com
Across Chandni Chowk from Balaji is Ghantewala (1862 Chandni Chowk; 23280490; 8am-9pm) who makes the best sohan halwa (Rs 340-370 per kg). A short walk from here is the best badam ke louz and dalbiji at Kanwarji Dalbiji Corner Wale (1972 Corner, Parathewali Gali, Chandni Chowk; 22374913; 9am-9pm). But the master of sweetmeat in the old city is surely Ravi Tewari, who is a living encyclopaedia of all (vegetarian) things good to eat in old Delhi. His family hails from Uttar Pradesh and he will tell you that their speciality—the motichur laddu—originated in Motichur in UP’s sugarcane belt. He will also tell you that besan laddu was originally designed to give long-lasting sustenance to traders crossing the Thar desert, and that kaju barfi was first made in Maharashtra from Goan cashews. Every mithai you can think of is produced perfectly in his shop. And if you ask him what’s a good place to get a bite in these parts he’ll say, “Lotan ke kulche chhole.” And where will I find Lotan? “Just go to Gole Hatti Chowk in Fatehpuri and ask anyone.” Now that Tewari saab says so, I have to find this Lotan.