KHIRKEE- A peek into food from different race and culture

Small tea shops and tucked-away restaurants full of unique flavours are the hidden secrets of Khirkee

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Tomb of Usuf-Quttal, Khirkee | Wikimedia

Khirkee in English means “Window”.  The locality derives its name from the Khirkee Masjid built in the 16th century which is characterized by the presence of windows all over its structure. In my opinion it’s not just the mosque—the entire village is full of these small “khirkees” that offer peeks into lives of individuals each from different race, culture, background and ethnicity. This neighborhood has a dynamic cultural identity along with its historic value. The first immigrants to arrive in here were peasants suffered communal violence during the partition who took refuge here.

It was on 2nd July 2011 that this locality absorbed me as one of their own. This  neighborhood has narrow lanes merging in to each other, houses stacked one on top of each other to make a building, labourers to building owners, migrants and refugees to old residents, different people, and most importantly, their unique food. I decided to take a walk in this ghetto and tap into its soul, and the different kinds of food that Khirkee has to offer. Is it really true that food brings people together or is there more to it? I met people from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—each bringing unique tastes of their place of origin,  while blending in to the flavours of their new life.

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Photo Courtesy: Malini Kochupillai

My first stop was at a small basement shop excelling in lassi, this was actually one of the first few shops I stumbled upon in 2011. Haji Hajib Ahmed, the shopkeeper, is quite a lively character. He is warm and very welcoming, and believes in spirituality. His philosophy is simple: God will be happy and proud of you, if you make people happy.

Haji ji told me that he moved to this locality from Amroha, Uttar Pradesh (UP) to earn more and better support his family. He started with lassi considering Delhi’s summer is quite hot for people to put up with. He says that lassi is the only thing according to him which quenches your thirst as well as fulfills your stomach, and it’s cheap, so people with less money can still easily afford it. His reason to open a food joint was merely because it is “sawab” or a good deed to feed people and see a smile on their face. He believes in spirituality and being true to the nature and hence he serves lassi and not soda to his customers. In winters, his shop will offer samosas and kachoris but it is the summers which attract customers to Haji Ji’s Lassi Shop.

The second store was a humble Afghani Tandoor corner. They were professionals and have worked in the kitchens of the restaurants in Pakistan, Dubai, Saudi, India and few other places as well. They told me that they didn’t think Afghanistan was a safe place to stay for them, their lives were always under threat, and they were scared to step out of their houses. They decided that it was better for them to leave the place and stay somewhere where they could live a peaceful life. Their tandoor store is well managed by six people and serves only Afghani Donuts, Afghani Breads and their version of pickle. Upon asking the reason of why they only serve just one thing, they said it was because this is very unique and not something that can be found everywhere and also because it is cheap to set up shop such as theirs. In total they spent around Rs 20000 to start this shop and have been serving a unique flavour to this locality.

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Photo Courtesy: Malini Kochupillai

I found five of these Afghani food joints in this neighborhood serving their authentic flavours.

Opposite this store, there is one small food joint specialising in Afghani, Tandoori and few other chicken items, owned by a local resident of Khirkee. I asked the shop owner the reason for serving Afghani Chicken, and he mentioned with a big smile on his face that people like this food and it goes very well with the local breads (Afghani Bread, Roomali or Bakarkhani). Small food joints like this are not new to Khirkee, and they have mushroomed all over. I believe it is the demand from the people, and hence people are serving some good flavours in a very economical price.

My walk then led me to another lane where Hafiz Ji has been serving Mughlai food for the last fifteen years. He is also a local resident of Khirkee. He has three small food joints—one where he serves biryani, another one that is only for different kinds of tandoori rotis and the third one is where he serves food like nihari, keema, and other lip smacking, flavourful food. All of his stores run smoothly no matter what season it is. His stores are also among the few from the beginning of food era in Khirkee and hence enjoy the fame that he has built for himself.

I tried hard to find an African food joint but was not successful, but upon my research I found that people from Africa run their small kitchens and call people over to their respective houses and serve food from native places, be it Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria or other places.

On the main street close to Khoj Studios once can easily spot a middle aged man serving samosas and jalebis, and breakfast to the migrant labourers from Bihar and UP. His name is Mohd. Noor Aalam. He has been running his food joint for the past eighteen years. His food is very simple and something which is native to Bihar and UP.

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Photo Courtesy: Malini Kochupillai

In front of him is small snack shop run by Sheikh Shabbir which sells chicken and aloo (potato) pakora and jhalmuri (puffed rice) which is very typical of Bihar. There’s another thela next to him, run by Mohd. Mustakim who serves special food during Ramazan.

My walk ended with a meal at a cart serving biryani and haleem. The cart owner hails from UP and is living on rent in Khirkee. He was previously in Saudi where he used to wash dishes, and learned through observation how to cook biryani and haleem and that is why he only serves these two things. His dreams weren’t too big—he just wanted to sell enough food by night, and sleep peacefully, having made his living. This cart is unique because he is serving meals at your doorstep rather than you having to find a food joint.

A walk through Khirkee is like a walk in a super market where all you see is different flavours, and different food aroma which just invites you to come in and sample the goods. Small tea shops and tucked-away restaurants are the hidden secrets of Khirkee. This definitely is a place where food brings people together and blurs the walls of identity.

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