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A walk in old Delhi with chef Vineet Bhatia

Celebrated chef Vineet Bhatia, who spent his childhood savouring the food of Old Delhi, is still inspired by its flavours

As the restaurant, Dhilli, helmed by Vineet Bhatia as the mentor chef, completes a year, he embarks on a nostalgic tour through this mediaeval city. Photo: courtesy The Oberoi, New Delhi
As the restaurant, Dhilli, helmed by Vineet Bhatia as the mentor chef, completes a year, he embarks on a nostalgic tour through this mediaeval city. Photo: courtesy The Oberoi, New Delhi

As winter bids adieu, a walk through the old city of Shahjahanabad allows us the last chance to soak in the sunshine, before it gets too hot for such sojourns. I have always felt that purani Dilli is like a phantasm. During every visit, it changes its character, giving you a glimpse of something new. This time around, I am viewing the area, spanning the Red Fort to Khari Baoli, through the lens of different personal memories—my own and those of Vineet Bhatia,—the first chef of Indian origin to be awarded a Michelin star in the UK—who spent his childhood savouring the iconic chaats here during visits to his maternal grandmother’s house.

As the restaurant, Dhilli—which pays homage to the rich culinary diversity of the Capital city—helmed by Bhatia as the mentor chef at The Oberoi, New Delhi, completes a year, he embarks on a nostalgic tour through this mediaeval city to reflect on the rich culinary heritage of the area and to find inspiration in unexpected places. While this walk, and an accompanying special menu featuring dishes like Nawabi lamb chop, chocolate rose halwa and the Dhilli jalebi chaat, are part of the anniversary celebrations, sous chef Shivang Narula and his team conduct a similar tour through the spice market, followed by a cookout using those ingredients for long-staying guests

The drive to old Delhi always offers visuals of organised chaos. You come across perfumiers, musical emporiums, dozens of small restaurants and houses with enmeshed wires dangling precariously, which soon turn into swings for monkeys. We have custom rickshaws waiting at the parking near Sunehri Masjid, organised by the walks company, India City Walks. The site of rickshaws brings back some rather traumatic childhood memories, when my grandparents had brought my mother and me to the family jeweller in old Delhi to get my ears pierced. Four of us, perched uncomfortably on a rickshaw, navigated the bylanes, crammed with people, cattle and vehicular traffic. There was this one heart-stopping moment, when our ride threatened to turn upside down as another rickshaw scraped against it.

Back then, I had vowed never to return to this overwhelming maze of alleys, and yet I have come back year after year—mostly drawn by the food and the people of the place. Bhatia concurs, and feels that the history of the place lies in the people here. “You can spend an entire day just watching people go by. It has a different energy altogether. You just get drawn in,” he says.

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Red Fort and Jama Masjid are the two focal points in old Delhi. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Red Fort and Jama Masjid are the two focal points in old Delhi. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Shahjahanabad, as the name goes, was established by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan as the seventh city of Delhi. He was forced to shift the capital from Agra due to scarcity of water. This site was chosen due to its proximity to the river Yamuna. “Red Fort and Jama Masjid are the two focal points here. The former symbolises the head, where the statecraft takes place, and the latter is said to represent the heart, where the deen or faith resides,” explains the India City Walks tour leader, Srushti. “The lanes of Shahjahanabad are the veins that connect the head with the heart.”

Since we are here to savour some of Bhatia’s favourite chaats, our first stop is Old Famous Jalebi Wala at Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk. The robust, thick golden jalebis, fried in desi ghee over coal fire since 1884, are believed be dunked in syrup made from traditional khand and not the regular sugar. Over plates of jalebis, Bhatia and the group discuss the rather fascinating history of the sweetmeat, which is known as zalabiyeh in the Middle East. There are many stories of origin—the most popular one states that this popular dish wound its way through Turkey and Tunisia to the subcontinent.

“It is not just jalebis that this shop is famous for but its samosas as well. You must try its matar samosa,” urges Bhatia. The thin crisp pastry encases a stuffing of matar and spices, and is surprisingly light on the palate. In Old Delhi, there is history in every bite. Every dish has made a journey across the world over time, soaking in influences to finally arrive here in its present form. The samosa, for instance, like the jalebi, has its origins in the Middle East. Arab cookbooks from the 10th-13th centuries call it by a myriad names such as the sanbusak, sanbusaq and sanbusaj. The dish arrived in India in the 13th-14th century and was stuffed with minced meat and nuts back then. Bhatia suggests having samosas from yet another iconic shop, Shyam Chaat Wala in Chawri Bazaar— here the ubiquitous potato filling is replaced by a spicy shredded cauliflower one. This has served as an inspiration for a samosa platter at Dhilli, where Bhatia creates a light pastry stuffed with cauliflower, which is served with chilli oil, onion jam and chickpeas.

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The next pitstop is the famous Parathe Wali Gali. It feels like one has walked into this alleyway as part of a celebrity entourage, with Bhatia being hailed and stopped for selfies at nearly every shop. Srushti informs the group that before 1870, there were a lot more eateries selling parathas, all belonging to the same family lineage. The number has reduced from five-four now. You have to believe it when the shops in the Gali announce that they can do just about any kind of paratha—there are some that proudly display a momo paratha on the menu as well. We skip the parathas and opt for the lassi—not the heavy kind laden with nuts, but light and frothy—at one of the shops in the lane, which specialises in khurchan, or leftover scraps of milk cream, and milk cake. “It’s a very time-consuming process to make khurchan. After the milk is reduced, you take two thin sticks to lift the malai or the cream and then place it on ice blocks. That’s how you get these sheets,” explains Bhatia. This khurchan goes into a very special paratha in this famous Gali.

As one moves out of the Parathe Wali Gali and enters Naughara, or literally meaning nine houses, a sudden hush descends. The lane is nearly empty. It was once home to Jain merchants, also known as the joharis, and today features havelis with beautiful doorways in various shades of blue, embellished in floral patterns. Srushti tells us that doorways were not an initial feature in these havelis, but came about only with the first war of Independence in 1857 when the lanes of Old Delhi turned politically volatile. To ensure the safety of residents, doors were installed. “These doors are extremely gendered in nature. A strong knock three times tells the female residents that the visitor is a man and that it’s time to shift to the private quarter. One soft knock means it’s a woman and they can carry on with their activities,” she adds.

After this insightful session, it’s time for some kachoris at the Jung Bahadur Kachori Wala. Bhatia’s father hailed from Rajasthan, and the pyaaz kachori from Jodhpur was a huge favourite of the family. So, he is very particular about the kind of kachori that he eats, and the dal one at this shop passes the test. Two large kachoris are served, smashed together and laden with chutney and sabzi.

Khari Baoli is home to Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Khari Baoli is home to Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Finally, it is time for the final stop—Khari Baoli, which spans from Fatehpuri Masjid to Gadodia Market. The market was known as Khari Baoli due to a saline water stepwell, which was used to wash the animals in the area. There is no evidence of such a well any longer, but an array of shops have populated what has come to be known as Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. Bhatia enters his regular favourite, Mehar Chand and Sons, which contains all sorts of spices and teas possible. The air in the area is redolent with the aroma of heeng or asafoetida, pepper and cardamom. The architecture of Gadodia Market is very different from the rest of the area as it has been made in an early colonial style with numerous galleries and use of pastel colours. Here, shops rarely have names. Rather they are known by numbers—11 number ke chawal, 12 number shop ki haldi. Meanwhile, I feel like a child in a toy shop—there are sabudana “fryums” in all possible shapes and colours, pale tesu flowers to suggest the onset of spring and the coming of Holi, patthar ke phool, dates, aam papad, and sacks full of different kinds of dried chillies.

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We return to the rickshaws with an assortment of purchases and make our way back to The Oberoi, where Bhatia is serving a smorgasbord of memories from Old Delhi. It’s fascinating to see all the sights, sounds and flavours that we have just witnessed being interpreted by the chef. For instance, he has created Chatak Chhena Chaat inspired by the iconic Natraj Dahi Bhalle. “At the bottom is a chhena rasgulla, but it is a savoury version and not a sweet one. You have whipped yogurt parfait, a brown scoop of dahi bhalla ice cream, and yogurt barks with roasted cumin, chilli and pomegranate. We make a syrup out of mint, which mimics the flavour of chutney,” explains Bhatia. While the form of the dish might be contemporary, when you scoop all the textures on to your spoon, it evokes a strong memory of the classic dahi bhallas at Natraj.

Bhatia has also presented a vegetarian take on two of Old Delhi’s kebabs—the galouti and the kakori. The former is made with rajma and served with a chutney of roasted pistachios and mint. “It is somewhat of a cross between a pesto and a chutney. On the base, we have a chaat made of barley or jau, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts. The kakori is an unusual one, made with wild mushroom khichdi, and served with two sauces—maa ki dal and tomato,” he explains. Bhatia has also presented his take on the classic butter chicken, but his is a smoked white version and not the usual red one. “Everything on the menu has an emotional connect, which I share with this historic neighbourhood,” he signs off.

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