Clad in clean, white kurta-pyjamas, white beard flowing down to his chest, 90-year-old Baboo Shahi is a familiar sight to regulars at his Matka Peer biryani shop — a ramshackle open shed, really, with degchis (pots) of various sizes simmering on coal fires, giving off of mouth-watering smells.
The old man sits straight, his sharp eyes on shagirds (apprentices) stirring the pots; their helpers scurrying around with mounds of rice, marinated meat, packets of masala; and on customers.
Dry and delicately flavoured, Baboo Shahi’s biryani is well-known. There’s a steady stream of patrons coming in to place orders for one kg, two kg, 5 kg.
“I cook about 80 kg in a day, along with other Mughlai dishes such as qorma, pasinda, kofta curry,” Shahi says.
You can supply him with rice and meat and Shahi will cook it for you, giving it back in a dented old vessel, charred black.
“My ancestor was a chef in emperor Shah Jahan’s kitchen. Our family goes back even earlier. One of my ancestors was a bawarchi (cook) for Qutubuddin Aibak and he was so happy that he gave him 1,000 gaj (yards) in Mehrauli and some silver coins to build a mosque —Pankhewala Mosque — which for a long time was the mosque for all bawarchis.”
It’s an interesting bit of history, but you’ll have to take Shahi’s word for its veracity. You also have to take Shahi’s word for the authenticity of his recipes.
“No there are no books. It’s all Allah’s blessings. Besides I am jaahil (illiterate). These are all part of our family lore.”
Most of old Delhi’s bawarchis have similar tales to tell. There’s Mohammed Yasin, Shahi’s nephew who operates out of a small shop near Chitli Kabar chowk near Jama Masjid, who claims Elahi Baksh, an ancestor “cooked for many English sahibs. My grandfathers also cooked for everyone from Abdul Kalam Azad to Asaf Ali and Fakruddin Ali Ahmed.”
Many of the bawarchis are clustered around the Jama Masjid area, a short walk down the road from the famed Karims. There’s Kallan bawarchi’s little store in Bazar Matia Mahal, now run by his brothers and sons. Kallan, who died a few years ago, is a legendary chef — certainly his charges are the highest, as much as Rs 700 for one maund (40 kg), going up to Rs 1,500 if it’s outside Delhi.
“We cook for 15,000-20,000 people every year at the Jama Masjid on Id. Chefs from 5 star hotels have come and interacted with him,” says Mohammed Ashad, 27, Kallan’s grandson.
But few old-timers remain. On a back street is Khalil Ahmad Bawarchi, one of Kallan’s shagirds who branched out on his own. Some distance off in Gali Thelewali near Bara Hindu Rao is Haji Yamin, and there is Hakim Bawarchi in Rodgran in the Lal Kuan area of Chandni Chowk.
“There’s no certainty about this job — marriages, parties, are seasonal affairs. The entire family is into the business and the takings are divided,” says Ashad. So why hasn’t he thought of starting a restaurant?
“Arrey, no, madam,” the young man smiles. “We aren’t too educated.” Prod him a little and he will tell you of cooks like Allahwallah Bawarchi in Kasabpura locality, whose sons have forsaken their khandaani (traditional) work, or opened spice shops in nearby Suiwalan.