Delhi ka Zayka: Past, Present and Future

Be it the kings and queens, darvesh, sufi and shayar, corporate employees or a school going kid, Delhi and Delhi’s food have a lot of mureed (fans). There is no one definition of Delhi, everyone who came here and has stayed has defined the city according to their own perspective. Malikzada Manzoor Ahmad says “jo dil ka haal hai wahi dilli ka haal hai”. Delhi is as diverse as the people that make this city.

When we talk about Delhi through its food, we often limit ourselves to talking about Purani Dilli, but for me that is just a narrow and micro view of the rich food culture of this city. If we take Delhi as a big thali, then we cannot just limit it to Purani Dilli kebabs and chaat—the thali must have flavours of the momos from Lajpat Nagar and Green Park, pani puri and samosa from Bengali Market, banta soda from Connaught Place, kulchas and naans from Rajouri Garden and cheese-loaded dishes from North Campus. We are talking about close to 1.9 crore foodies of Delhi with complex palates, they go to Hauz Khas Village, Qutub or Lodhi Colony and take metro trains to Okhla for kebabs and doodh.

I grew up in Ranchi and when I moved here, for me Delhi was like an uptown and aristocratic city—in fact, it still is. I moved to this city in the summer of 2011 and since then I have been living here as a tourist because this city never stops surprising me. I have been exploring the city every day and yet the stories fascinate me every time. Delhi has not just been the city established by Mughals, it also belongs equally to Punjabis, Jaats and Gujjars, Kayasths, Jains and Baniyas; and it is also equally about their food as well.

Husseini Hotel, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
Husseini Hotel, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

Delhi is a cosmopolitan hub, and being the political centre, has been one of the most rapidly growing and expanding cities. The city offers a range of dishes including Korean, Japanese, Afghan, African, Persian—and that’s just to name a few. We have expensive places like Qutub, Khan Market or Lodhi serving exotic dishes to the diner, and right outside these markets you will find equally exotic dishes being served from small carts and kiosks. The city caters to wallets and palates across the spectrum.

I had relatives in Purani Dilli, and when we visited, we always ate nehari and naan from a compact and tiny store at Chandni Chowk, Haji Shabrati Nihariwale. My family’s favourite topic on dastarkhwan would be food, and not politics or any other worldly problems. We’d talk about Ghante Wala mithai shop, bedmi poori aloo, the Old Famous Jalebiwala and Daghe Wale kebab. More than traveling and exploring monuments in Delhi, I think I have explored food joints and tucked away kebabs shops. If I have to divide Delhi two ways, I’d say shab and seher (morning and evening). The dishes that you get in the morning are not something which you can expect to find in the evening as well. Delhi food has evolved constantly and endlessly—it has a history of almost 5000 years. The food herehas been influenced by traders, travelers, invaders, colonizers, and now, by rapid globalisation. The evolved palates of Delhiites can be credited to The Mauryans, the Guptas, the Turks, the Mughals, and the British. Their techniques can be easily traced in to our modern dishes.

Seekh Kebab in Old Delhi
Seekh Kebab in Old Delhi | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

People have often asked me why food in Delhi is spicy and full of fat? There is an interesting story behind this narrated by Dr. Sohail Hashmi in Raja Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniya. When Shahjahan building Delhi as the new capital, “Shahjahanabad”, he had architects from all over the world come in to accomplish this mammoth task. He set up the famous Chandni Chowk as the centre, and invited baniyas, jains, other traders to set up their shops to make the city prosperous. Every community and profession were given dedicated space (that is how we now so many narrow lanes which specialise in selling only one kind of product in Purani Dilli, be it jewelry, masalas or clothes). Unfortunately, when he set up the city, people started falling sick and the shahi hakeems pointed out the reason could be the Yamuna water which was polluted and not fit for people drink or use it any form. The hakeems suggested eating spicy food to cut the toxic water. Now, eating spicy food is also not too good for health, so they further suggested that the food be fried and fatty to cut the effects of spices. This gave birth to the new age kebabs and greasy non-vegetarian delicacies, and the vegetarians came up with dishes like chaat. I believe this could be one of the reason which influenced Delhi food.

Another question I get asked is whether Indian food can be plated beautifully considering our food largely consists of curries. I point them to restaurants like Indian Accent, Social, Farzi Café, Café Lota, Prankster, Too Indian and others that have honed and mastered the art of beautiful plating. While across the world the purpose of food remains to fill people’s bellies, new age chefs and new cooking techniques have made eating as must a visual as a gastronomic experience. We talk about colours and textures, the look and smell of the dish. Cooking has always been a science, but now we are literally using chemicals and molecular techniques, which was something which perhaps the Mughal khansamas would never have dreamt of.

Dry fruit seller in Old Delhi
Dry fruit seller in Old Delhi | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

In my life in Delhi, I have seen flavours changing, restaurants changing, the way food is plated, changing, and people’s purchasing power changing. While a few years ago, the most consumed meat of Delhi was chicken. It probably still is, but now we have options of other birds like duck, quail and emu. Delhi is no longer limited to rohu and katla fish—we have varieties of prawns, octopus, squid. Red meat is not just limited to Indian breeds, but meat from Australia and New Zealand can be bought quite easily. The easy availability has helped Delhi evolve its palate. According to Vir Sanghvi “Fine dining in India has become part of the international label culture”. We now have the option of spending Rs 20 on a plate of panipuri in Bengali Market or spending Rs 750 for a more complex panipuri flavour at Pullman, Aerocity. I do not remember seeing Afghanis selling breads and having restaurants in Delhi when I first moved here, but now it is not hard to spot one in places like Lajpat Nagar or Malviya Nagar. The restaurants are crowded and often you’ll have to wait for your turn to get a table.

Another thing that has changed Delhi’s food scene entirely is the food tech and aggregator apps. Not even in our wildest dreams would we have thought of an app delivering our food. Up until a few years ago, I remember maintaining a file of restaurant menus at our house. Depending on the kind of food we wanted to order, we’d search for the menu and order in. This process usually took almost an hour or more. Now, it’s as simple as playing video games. Of course, there are apps like Zomato and Swiggy but restaurants and cafes also have started their own apps to take the order directly. These online apps also brought in the culture of discount coupons, you don’t need to say “main owner ko jaanta hu” but just apply the coupon code and you’ll get a hefty discount.

Delhi can be easily termed as a cat with nine lives, (or maybe some another animal with a lot more lives). It has been destroyed and established a lot of times, people came and went, but the food they brought with them stayed. The way they influenced the food has stayed and has continued evolving since then. With ever-changing nuances and complexities which we are seeing now, one cannot really imagine where the food will go in future. Delhi truly is a home of food lovers and explorers.

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