Shahjahanabad: a slice of living history

Shahjahanabad: a slice of living history

by Alfred Prasad 31 August 2016

Alfred Prasad heads to the old town in Delhi to discover a maze of backstreets and markets selling food with centuries of history behind it.

Alfred Prasad grew up in Chennai, his father and mother both influencing his future career in their individual ways. His travels have exposed him to the incredible breadth of Indian regional cuisine, something he explored further in his training and career.

Alfred Prasad is credited with elevating the reputation of British Indian food with his delicate treatment of fresh, seasonal produce. Becoming the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at the age of twenty-nine, he retained this accolade at Tamarind for twelve years. He is now pursuing his own restaurant empire, which he hopes will showcase the variety, as well as the quality, of Indian food.

My personal journey with Old Delhi began in the mid 1990s. My advanced chef training after hotel school was at the ITC Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi, which is also home to the iconic Bukhara restaurant. On the few days we were off work (and not too tired), we would venture into Old Delhi. The first few trips were out of a sense of adventure, getting on our bikes and heading for a food binge.

I still remember our old haunts from those times, many of which continue to thrive on, especially my first sight of the Gali Paranthe Wali in Chandni Chowk – a whole lane dotted with vendors preparing and selling parathas – with its mad maze of electricity wires and cables hovering perilously close to our heads. There was the Sohan halwa from Ghantewala Sweets which unfortunately shut down in 2015 after a whopping 225 years in business and Dahi bhalla (a popular street food snack made of fried flour, potato and chickpeas) at Natraj. I loved watching the cooks at the famous Jalebi Wala with their giant kadhai (wok) and jalebis sizzling in ghee or buying kitchen equipment from the wholesalers at Lal Kuan.

My first gastronomic experience at Karim’s was unforgettable. Winter climes brought us the warmth of delicious treats: Daulat ki chaat (aerated milk custard), Shakarkandi (roasted sweet potato chaat) and piping hot Gajar halwa (carrot fudge). On a side note, I must say I love the misty look that veils Delhi in the winter. I have mentioned a lot of food spots but believe me when I say there is so much more to explore, discover and talk about.

Khari Baoli
Khari Baoli: Asia’s largest spice market and is full of fragrant aromas, vivid colours and ingredients every cook would love to get their hands on
Alfred has fond memories of Old Delhi, when he used to travel there in the 1990s while training as a chef to taste as many dishes as he could

Every trip to Delhi since has always included a day in the old city. This time though, I took a short metro ride from downtown New Delhi that transported me into another world. From Ajmeri Gate, one of the few surviving gates of Delhi, I stepped into Shahjahanabad, popularly called ‘Purani Dilli’, or Old Delhi. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 1640s, it still bears rich influences in art, architecture and cuisine.

Khari Baoli
Mechanical shop
An ancient mechanical shop in Lal Kuan, an area in the heart of Old Delhi

The first institution I passed was the erstwhile Ghaziuddin’s Madarasa, renamed the Anglo-Arabic School. There are several such institutions, bearing humble façades with rich legacies. I walked through the narrowest of lanes and alleyways, sighting gorgeous but crumbling Havelis (mansions) knowing that each street had plenty of stories to tell. If the old city had the blue plaque system that Britain has, every other building would have its story on display.

I stopped for a typical Delhi breakfast of Bedmi aloo: wholegrain pooris (puffed, deep fried bread) stuffed with pitthi (lentil paste) along with a potato curry and a side of seriously hot marinated green chillies.

A tiny teashop opposite Tara Devi Happy School serves a perfect masala chai in a kulhar (unglazed terracotta cup). The street here is barely four feet wide and I was ushered into a doorway of a neighbor’s home to enjoy my cuppa. I stood there, on a little elevation from the street, taking in the sights, smells, crowds and buzz of this land, completely disconnected from normal life.

Bedmi aloo
A typical Delhi breakfast of Bedmi aloo, consisting of pooris stuffed with lentil paste and a potato curry
The paneer cheese from Garwahal Paneer Bhandar is flavoured with coriander and cumin

I could smell the spices long before arriving at Khari Baoli, founded around four centuries ago and considered Asia’s largest spice market. Some of the traders proudly boast of being the tenth generation in their family business. I was fascinated by the heady fragrance in the air and the amazing array and quality of dried fruit, nuts, herbs and spices. Each time I visit, I am overwhelmed by what I see.

After going a bit overboard with my stash of spices, I moved on to more stalls for some wondrous eats: Garwahal Paneer Bhandar for super-fresh paneer (who also do a great coriander and cumin version); Chaina Ram Sindhi Confectioners, more than 100 years old, to sample their Karachi Halwa; Pandit’sfor a Nimboo (lemon) soda with masala; Rabri falooda (a rich dessert with vermicelli noodles) at an urban legend, Giani’s di Hatti; Brijwasi for a Malai (cream)lassi and Bade Mian for kheer (rice pudding).

Once I’d had my fill, I walked past the historic Namak Haram ki Haveli (Mansion of the Traitor), which bears a beautiful frontage but awful history. I can’t help but duck into the museum of Urdu and Persian poet extraordinaire Mirza Ghalib. Urdu poetry is second to none and a lot of it has to do with the beauty of the language itself and the genteel tone in which it is spoken. I could feel the palpable connect to this heritage in my interaction with the locals, who spoke with a heightened sense of decorum and exuded a certain character and ethos that was pure vintage. They talked using beautiful dialects and their stories brought the land to life. I wonder how much of this information is documented or just human-archived, which may not stand the test of time.

Jama Masjid
The Jama Masjid is India's largest mosque
You can always find someone cooking something delicious to eat at the roadside in Shahjahanabad

Shahjahanabad is also home to majestic monuments like the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, and the Lal Gila (Red Fort), built along the banks of the Yamuna River. The incredible culinary gems behind the Jama Masjid offer a heady feast for the senses: Karim’s for a mouth-watering range of kebabs, or Bundu Haleem Wala, where the Haleem (slow-cooked meat and broken wheat porridge) sells out in two hours. Kallu Mian’s Nalli-nihari (slow-cooked mutton stew) with Khamiri roti is again stuff of the legends.

The old city has a magical relationship with food dating back to Mughal times. Food here is made with culinary secrets passed down through generations and made all the more special with lashings of history. Over the years, I have understood its different nuances, peeling each layer back to discover a greater depth and richness. Many of the institutions I mention are several centuries old, and to have so many still thriving is extremely rare and unique. While some see the dust, chaos and crowds of Shahjahanabad, I see a bustling and precious living heritage.