Every year, during Ramzan, traditional bread-makers set up shop in the lanes and by-lanes of many Delhi neighbourhoods. These naanbais create a variety of fermented loaves, and if there is anything that connects them apart from flour, water, yeast, ghee and tandoor, it is the love of feeding people. I ventured out to hear their stories before the Capital locked down again, and found them as welcoming as ever despite the pandemic taking its toll on the usual festive mood.
I met a few naanbais from the lanes of Delhi-6 (Old Delhi), Lajpat Nagar, Mehrauli and Khirkee Extension—lanes I call the “roti galis”. Here’s something of the history of these areas: Small parcels of land became de facto settlements of refugees and migrants after Partition. Delhi absorbed everyone who came to earn their bread (literally and figuratively), and to this day you can see and smell the diversity when you take a walk in these lanes.
Although the original naanbais belonged to a community from Uttar Pradesh, many of the bread-makers today are actually from Bihar. What surprised me is that even though these naanbais have perfected the art of making sheermal, khamiri, Afghani naan and similar rotis in Delhi, they didn’t grow up doing so and have learnt the skill on the job.
Also read: How kulchas from India and Pakistan act as a great unifier
“Who will buy such expensive roti in our villages?” one of them tells me. In the villages they come from, people don’t buy bread from the market, though Bihar has a couple of its own varieties of sheermal. My personal favourite is the baqarkhani you get in Sabzibagh in Patna. It is flaky, sweet and semi-dry and goes best with spicy mutton qorma or Bihari kebab. I have never had such delicious bread.
Most naanbais have small shops, with just enough space for a tandoor, a table for raw materials and a few benches for three-four people to sit and continuously roll and bake plain naan, the one that is most in demand—it’s also the cheapest of the lot.
The first stop on our bread trail is Mehrauli, in south Delhi. We meet Mohd Taufeeq Aalam, originally from Kishanganj, Bihar. Twenty-five years ago, he packed his bags and came to Delhi looking for work—and ended up learning the craft from a naanbai. In 2012, he rented a small shop in Mehrauli and started his own business. Surrounded by small houses and meat shops, he does brisk business, ensuring the fire in his tandoor never dies out and the dough does not dry up.
The fastest-moving products at his shop are the regular khamiri naan ( ₹5) and “double roti” ( ₹7), which is essentially the khamiri naan but double the size and softer. In a glass-covered box, Aalam keeps the more expensive sheermal ( ₹20).
His shop has a good assembly line, with one man to make small balls of the dough and another to roll, with Aalam on the tandoor baking all the rotis, and a fourth man packing the rotis and collecting the cash. They do make a few other special rotis on pre-order, like anda roti, keema paratha, doodh roti, palak paratha, besani, masala roti and tandoori paratha—all of them cooked in one tandoor.
Also read: Is Lucknow's ‘roghni roti’ vanishing in the age of sourdough?
One bread I found interesting was the “German-quality sheermal”, which in all probability has nothing to do with Germany but has been branded as such to indicate a high-quality product. Loaded with nuts and dry fruits, these breads cost upwards of ₹40 each. Aalam says these usually go to the farmhouses of Mehrauli and Chhattarpur.
My friend Abu Sufiyan guided me to some of the popular naanbais of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi). We started our journey from Matia Mahal, the always bustling hub of streets flanking the Jama Masjid. Walk for a minute or two past the famous Karim’s and Al Jawahar to reach Rehmatullah Hotel, one of the oldest naanbais (also a restaurant) in the area, established in 1940. The current owner is Adam Rehman Qureshi, a third-generation naanbai. He offers sheermal, laal roti, masala wali roti, zaafran roti, paratha, tawa roti and khamiri naan, a stupendous range that can cost between ₹5 and ₹2,000 (with gold varq) for a roti.
A famous roti at Qureshi’s shop is the shahi sheermal, also known as the Meerut sheermal, full of dry fruits inside and outside. Qureshi tells me this bread is neither shahi (royal) nor from Meerut. “Sheermal originated in the royal kitchens but in today’s era, if we load anything with dry fruits, it becomes shahi. This is true of qormas, ice cream and many other dishes,” he adds. The bread is flaky and too sweet for my liking. You can have it by itself, with chai, qorma or other spicy dishes, or even as dessert.
The sale of bread usually goes up during the Ramzan month, says Qureshi, because visitors and locals pick up khamiri or tawa roti when they return home after maghrib or isha namaz (evening prayers). Since its inception, he says, Rehmatullah Hotel has been known to never disappoint a diner. Pay if you can, else the same food will be served for free—whether you are a faqir or well-off, nobody goes away hungry.
Sufiyan and I move on to another popular but small shop in Baradari, just a few metres away from Mirza Ghalib’s haveli in Ballimaran. Naeem Roti Waley, a 70-year-old establishment, is run by Mohd Salman and his brother, who inherited the business from their father and grandfather. The brothers run two shops, one that makes only nihari and the other only rotis—a winning combination. Salman is popular as a supplier of breads for weddings in the locality. In 2019, when Sufiyan and I were celebrating the Heritage Cuisines of Purani Dilli, all our bread—like masala roti, besani and sheermal—came from this shop.
Also read: The complex and beautiful science of mixing dough
I then headed back to south Delhi—Lajpat Nagar 2, Block 1 Market, where most of the bread-makers are of Afghan origin. Many of them, who have fled their troubled country individually or in groups since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, are from the Hazara community, a Shia ethnic minority.
Mohd Ghiasuddin and Mohd Sakhi have been living in Delhi for eight years; both brothers learnt the art of bread-making in Kabul, Afghanistan. They make two kinds of Afghani naan, a whole-wheat variety and a refined-flour one. Afghani bread is soft and delicious when it’s fresh out of the tandoor, but as it gets exposed to air, it starts toughening and is best paired with evening tea. I noticed Sakhi was sprinkling water on the bread while it was baked in the tandoor. He told me this is important to soften it.
The last naanbai on my trail is in Khirkee Extension in Malviya Nagar, run by another Afghan who works with his father and brother and took over the shop from a fellow Afghan who left for Canada after a seven-year stay in India. He did not disclose his name, nor did he allow me to take photographs, but his story moved me. His family is from Jowzjan province, 500km from Kabul, and after escaping bomb blasts in 2013, they flew to Delhi, staying with relatives in Bhogal and Jangpura, and eventually moving to Khirkee Extension because they were getting the bread shop. It may not be wise for them to return to Kabul but they do want to visit their country and meet their family before finally settling in Canada. They are saving up for their visas.
The 14th century Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta considered Delhi the metropolis of India, a magnificent city. He was right. Delhi folds everyone into its gigantic wings, while its famous breads break barriers of religion, region, caste and creed.
Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan.