It must be the age.
I can’t think of any other reason it took me a whole fortnight to figure out why I’d been looking at the world with such a jaundiced eye of late. Life had been toodling along quite nicely, until an EOiD plan in mid-September to visit Haji Noora’s had to be cancelled at the last moment — Ramzaan!
Most unfair, if you ask me, this whole business of fasting for a month, especially on us kafir carnivores. Rank deprivation from sun-up to sun-down for a whole month, without even the compensation of heavenly favours. Grrr.
And just like that, there we were, on the platform from where many a foodie train takes off: the Chawri Bazaar metro station.
It was 5:30pm, nearly time for the evening’s namaaz, and as the five of us hurried to reach Matia Mahal, we had to keep leaping out of the way of rickshaws rushing their burqa-clad occupants home in time for the breaking of the fast. At the juncture where the Vishnus and Ashoks and Hirachands abruptly give way to Al Hayats, Al Medinas and Karims, you could overhear friends talking, “Tou aur bhaiya, tumhaara time ho gaya?” “Haan bas ho hi gayaa samjho.” (So, is it time [for your fast to end] yet?.. Yes, just about.)
Just behind the imposing walls of the Jama Masjid, owners of sundry auto mechanic shops were gathering their employees around bowls of fruit chaat; some, having made their peace with God, had already started digging in.
But it was when you came to the bustling lane in front of Jama Masjid that the spirit of festivity truly caught you. Festooned with colourful lanterns, flags and streamers, the shops of Matia Mahal were overflowing with dry fruits, dates and figs. Rusty brown sevaiyaan (vermicelli), piled high and deep, were flying off the shelves, a paao at a time. But it was the halwai shops which proved irresistible for our group. A couple of plates of shahi tukda (a sort of pudding fit for kings, involving bread soaked in sugar syrup, with rabri, ghee, cardamom, saffron, and a garnishing of dry fruits) and another couple of phirni started our adventures in style. Juggling the money the entire group had contributed towards the evening’s ante, I was anxious to settle the bill — only to be told, “Arre janab, aap chayn se kha tou leejiye. Hisaab baad mein hota rahega.“
The sweet had made us thirsty though, and as the street cleared to the sound of the muezzin’s call, we surveyed our options. Fruit juice was doing good business, but the more unusual offering seemed to be doodh sharbat, thinned sweetened milk which our vendor had laced with shreds of apple — all for Rs. 5 a glass! Absolutely delicious stuff, with the apple adding a lovely crispness that elevated the taste from the pedestrian to the poetic.
Our next stop was Haveli Azam Khan, where the aromas wafting from a degh of biryani strategically located right at the square were nothing if not compelling. The buff biryani was selling at Rs. 15 for a paao, and certainly outdid many others I’ve had for three times the price. While the others were busy polishing off the plate, I sauntered off into the gali to see if we could try out some of the much vaunted Shaberati ki Nihari of Haveli Azam Khan. Alas, the chef had gone to the masjid for his namaaz, and we had to defer this attraction to a future trip.
Which is not to say we didn’t get good nihari that day. A walk down the main street towards Turkman Gate, past ancient ovens baking rusks and kababchis setting up for the night, had soon reached us to a nihari shop, as unassuming in its appearance as superlative as its offerings proved to be. The large plate of nihari spiked with melted butter cost us about Rs. 25, and was wolfed down in no time with some delightfully fluffy khameeri rotis. Not a challenge to Haji Noora of Bara Hindu Rao, but it certainly would give the nearby Kallu of Chhatta Lal Mian some healthy competition.
Next on the itinerary came an old favourite — Anmol Chicken Corner in the Urdu Bazaar in front of the Jama Masjid, to which I’d first been introduced by Pankaj Molekhi on an earlier field trip. This time however, the makkhan tikkas proved to be distinctly below par — too buttery and salty, with little else to distinguish them from the average chicken tikkas on offer anywhere in the city. I am inclined to give a little leeway to these shops in the festival season though — the sudden hike in demand seems often to take a toll on quality. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that at Rs. 45 a plate, Anmol’s stuff was the most expensive and the least satisfying of the entire evening’s experiments.
By now Surbhi, the lone vegetarian in the party, had started looking decidedly woebegone, so we hurried to the famous Ashok Chaat Bhandar at Hauz Qazi chowk where an excellent plate of golgappe and another of paapri chaat went a long way in placating said veggie.
Within a few score metres of Hauz Qazi chowk, along the Lal Kuan route lies Bade Mian’s kheer shop, the very mascot of our little EOiD community. I was going to reserve him for the end of our peregrinations, but it was a good thing we decided to stop there and then. An unusually large order earlier in the day meant that even though it was just 7:30 in the evening, Bade Mian was left with only four plates of his kheer. I don’t know if it was because we got the last batch of the day, but I have to say that of the several times I’ve had the luck to be at Bade Mian’s shop, this was the best kheer I’ve ever tasted. The taste of saffron and of sugar caramelized in copper was stronger than usual, while yet retaining the subtlety that sets Bade Mian apart.
Ordinary mortals would have called it quits at this point, knowing full well that nothing else could possibly surpass Bade Mian’s provisions. But we were with Soumya, who’d had a gleam in his eye ever since I’d mentioned Ustad Moinuddin‘s kababs to him earlier in the day. And so off we went to the mouth of Gali Qasim Jaan in front of the old Hamdard dawakhana in Lal Kuan, where the old man was perched as usual on the corner, with his assistants and the predictable crowd of customers. It boggles even my mind to recall that despite all the stuff we’d been feasting on since 5:30 that day, we still found space to mop up three plates of his kababs. Then again, where else would we find such softly melting kababs made from tough buffalo meat, and that too for all of Rs. 3 apiece?!
Incredibly, we were still not done. Having gorged to excess on the kababs, I was all set to roll down the steps into the cavernous Chawri Bazaar metro station, when Surbhi put her foot down. I’d made the mistake of tempting her with descriptions of Duli Chand Naresh Gupta‘s kulfi in Sitaram Bazaar. I shall leave the description of the kulfi for another post, where I can give it the space it deserves. Meanwhile, let the record show that we also managed to down some excellent kesar pista kulfi that night before everyone was satisfied that we could go home.
Ah, Ramzaan. The perfect excuse to hog! 😀
Location: Approximate locations of some of the shops have been marked on our Google map.