Diwali Special: Old Delhi writes sweet notes with ‘desi ghee’
Life in a 116-year-old sweetshop in Chandni Chowk days ahead of the busiest festival, Diwali, and how sweets prepared with ‘desi ghee’ will always be in demand
Those who have spent time in Old Delhi would know that rickshaw-pullers in the area are a better guide to the crowded alleys than a smartphone app. “Fatehpuri Chowk? Haan, pata hai. Sab wahin jaate hain mithai ke liye. Baithiye (Fatehpuri Chowk? Yes, I know it. Everybody goes there for sweets. Come sit)," says a rickshaw-puller as he makes his way through the congested main road of Chandni Chowk. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper, the heat searing and the honking, unending.
For a weekday, Chandni Chowk is unusually packed. As our rickshaw inches closer to its destination, we notice the signboards of famous sweetshops. Once you cross the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, there’s Kanwarji’s Confectioners, famous for its savoury snacks. Annapurna Bhandar and Haldiram’s are the other go-to names in the area.
Our destination, though, is Chaina Ram Sindhi Confectioners. The setting is perfect. Adjoining the Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th century mosque, an old signboard on the shop reads “matchless quality since 1901". It has lost its sheen but this is made up by the modern flashy signage on top of it. The shop moved from Lahore to its current location in Old Delhi after Partition.
There’s a crowd of people outside, waiting to be served. You know you are in the right sweetshop when you are greeted by the aroma of ghee and a stack of bread pakoras fresh out of the kadhai (wok).
Hari Gidwani, 64, part of the family that founded and owns Chaina Ram, introduces us to his nephew, Kunal Balani, 30, who is a fifth-generation partner at the shop and handles its day-to-day functioning. How difficult could it possibly be to carry forward a tradition and family business that has been more than 100 years in the making?
With one of the biggest festivals on the Indian calendar just days away, Balani has his work cut out.
“It’s going fine," he says as we take a seat outside a storeroom behind the main packing and sitting bay. Behind Balani is a stack of blue cardboard boxes containing an order for the next day—mathris—for a customer in west Delhi. Workers keep walking past us, performing a balancing act as they carry more empty boxes from the storeroom to the packing area. These boxes will soon be filled with gulab jamun, kaju katli, meethi mathri and other sweetmeats, ready to be despatched.
“The rush is usual, like it is every year for Diwali," adds Balani.
At most sweetshops, business grows exponentially in the days leading up to Diwali—Balani says their day starts at 6 in the morning and ends at 8 in the night.
As we speak, a customer in the sitting area is gorging on piping hot samosas, dipping them in a sweet red chutney. He’s also eyeing the milk cake, a famous Chaina Ram preparation, covered by mesh on a table nearby. Many loyal customers frequent the shop only for the milk cake, which is available all-year round.
But Chaina Ram has an even more famous delicacy that is loaded with, among other things, pure desi ghee that now finds approval with nutritionists.
‘Ghee’ is good
“Our speciality is the Karachi halwa. There’s also the sev pak, sohan halwa, patisa, pinni. We concentrate on just these sweets throughout the year. The most important thing, however, is to maintain the same quality for all products," says Balani.
The Karachi halwa is a saffron-coloured, chewy dessert, generally made with arrowroot powder or cornflour, dry fruits, sugar and ghee.
This brings us to the debate on the use of desi ghee versus Dalda, or hydrogenated vegetable oil, in mithai.
“Desi ghee makes a world of difference when it comes to the taste and flavour," says Sadia Dehlvi, author of Jasmine And Jinns: Memories And Recipes Of My Delhi. “It’s a natural product. There is nothing in the world to beat it. Dalda, on the other hand, is the worst thing one can have. I am not saying desi-ghee mithai is good for health, but it’s the taste that makes the difference."
Sweetshop owners in the nearby area agree. Adnan Qureshi of Sheeren Bhawan, which is known for its halwas and is a stone’s throw from Jama Masjid, rues the increasing use of Dalda in the area. “This entire area (near Jama Masjid) has lost customers because most sweetshops use Dalda. For pure desi-ghee products, people head to the main Chandni Chowk area instead," he says.
Balani is upbeat. “There will always be people who are concerned about health, but there will always be new customers. People now understand the true value of sweets that are made in desi ghee…. They know that these are ‘healthy’ sweets. That’s why we have more young customers now," he explains.