As with most cities in India, life in Delhi is a dichotomy between the new and old, caught in a cross between timeless traditions and a modern beat.
Having recently visited the capital to celebrate the cultural extravaganza that is India Art Fair, I found my days whizzing by in an endless parade of previews and soirées on the cocktail circuit. Yet it was a transporting morning in Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) that ultimately proved the most memorable highlight from a weekend that quite literally had everything…
The adventure begins just as soon as my cousin and I hop onto the remarkably-clean and well-maintained Metro at Connaught Place in the city centre. Considerably cutting short the travel time by a couple of hours (Delhi traffic is notoriously troublesome), we arrive at our destination – Chandni Chowk – in less than ten minutes, greeted by a cacophony of sights and sounds as we step out into the morning sunshine.
Literally translating to the Moonlight Market or the Silver Crossroad, this pocket of Old Delhi is one of the oldest Indian bazaars in existence today.
Designed by the daughter of the Mughal Emporor Shah Jahan, Princess Jahanara Begum, it was originally divided by canals which reflected the shimmering moonlight and spanned over 1,500 shops, built in a crescent shape. The market is also where Shah Jahan built The Red Fort, with the awe-inspiring Indo-Persian structure serving as the main residence of the royal family for close to 200 years.
Over the centuries, Chandni Chowk became a hub for merchants trading in gold, silver pearls, attar (natural perfumes) and spices. Flashing forward to present day, its clangorous thoroughfare is still a thriving economy of wholesale shops brimming with trinkets, leather goods, sarees set apart by their chikan and zari work, wedding clothes (often fashioned in designer styles!) and all manners of other enterprising retailers.
Shrines and temples lend priceless moments of tranquility to the hodgepodge of activity, while the elegantly-decaying havelis gracing the gullis evoke an enduring sense of beauty, whispering stories of a bygone era. One such heritage structure dating back to 1887 AD, Dharampur Haveli has been enchantingly restored to its former glory and is now a boutique hotel, taking guests and visitors back in time to the royalty and finesse of the Mughal period.
The old-world secrets of Chandni Chowk extend to enthralling culinary traditions that have passed through generations, manifesting in all sorts of sumptuous specialties that are unique to the narrow alleys of The Old City.
Nothing can compare to the sublime joys of Purani Dilli’s famous Daulat ki Chaat during the winter months. The deceivingly-simple dish is a labour of love involving a Herculean process of preparation which – as legend would have it – starts on a moon-lit night.
Creamily-thick milk is churned with the froth separated from the milk and cream and enriched with a foamy touch of saffron-infused milk. Piled high into light-as-air-layers (so light, I’m worried the cottony clouds might fly away from me!), it’s garnished with just of pinch of sugar and grated nuts before serving. The result is as softly-sweet as it looks, best eaten fresh on a winter’s day when the fragile texture is bolstered by the cool weather. You can sample it across street corners through Chandni Chowk, although the time-intensive preparation means that the number of wicker stands bearing this delicate treat have been considerably reduced over the years…
So where to next?
Paranthewali Gali of course. A narrow stretch defined by the historic row of paratha shops bubbling with activity as whole-wheat flour is stuffed with a medley of fresh ingredients (from cauliflower and potatoes, to seasonal methi and hara matar) and then deep-fried in a tawa (iron wok) hissing with ghee (clarified butter.
Rather remarkably, the golden-brown parathas are spotless when finally dished out on a metal tray, not a trace of oil or grease to be seen as the hefty tawa (weighing about 10-12 kilos in itself) prevents the parathas from soaking in the ghee!
There are over thirty varieties to choose from at Baburam Devi Dayal Paranthe Wala, where my cousin and I plonk ourselves down, gladly heeding the rules decreed on the walls: “Do Parantha Lena Zaroori Hai” (it is necessary to have two paranthas).
Of course, a refreshingly tall glass of lassi (sweet buttermilk) isn’t amiss before we carry on to our next stop – Natraj Dahi Bhalla, a pre-independence spot established in 1940 along the main road of Chandni Chowk. We arrive shortly before the opening time, narrowly missing the lengthy lines which are quick to form behind us as locals and visitors alike flock to this street corner for what is arguably the best Dahi Bhalla one can ever hope to find.
Soaked in water and humming with a heady combination of spices, the deep-fried vadas (balls of dough) are a perfect canvas for lashings of thick, generously-sweetened yogurt and tamarind chutney which follow, each mouthful melting in a vivid harmony of sweet, sour, creamy and spicy flavours.
The last stop on our bucket list of places to visit is Kuremal mohanlal kulfiwale for their legendary iterations of kulfi stuffed in all sorts of fruits.
The intricate network of streets ultimately proves a tad overwhelming to navigate (the lesson being to jump on to one of the waiting rickshaws , the next time around!), so on this occasion we settle on “Fruit Cream” from another vendor for a gratifyingly-gluttonous finish. As it transpires, the only thing friendlier than fresh fruits loaded with cream, is one further enlivened with lashings of rabri (sweetened, condensed milk)!
A cultural and culinary adventure to top all others in the capital, our visit to the Delhi of old has been as cheering as transporting. Delhi Diaries to be continued.