There was a time when eating outside was considered ‘tehzeeb ke khilaaf’ (against one’s culture) among the Muslim community in North India. Eateries in Muslim localities were primarily for tourists and migrants. If one of your relatives or acquaintances saw you dining out, chances were that they would ask your family if everything was all right. From then to now when locals in Old Delhi can’t get enough of street food, we have come a long way.
On a Sunday, on the sixth day of fasting in the ongoing holy month of Ramzan, India City Walks, a group of explorers takes us to a food trail in Old Delhi. Ramzan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is observed by Muslims worldwide as the month in which the Quran was revealed. During this month, Muslims fast from dawn till sunset, refraining from eating, drinking any liquids and smoking. Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims end their fast at the time of evening prayers.
Watch: HT on iftar train in Old Delhi
The objective of our food walk is to find out how different (or how similar) Ramzan food is compared to the rest of the year. Also, to experience what it is like to be in this part of Delhi in this holy month. We converge at 6.30pm at Gate No. 3, Jama Masjid. The walk starts with a brief introduction after which Shrawan Chinchwadkar, one of the three explorers on our walk, tells us about the history of Delhi. This is followed by a tour of the mosque in which around 2,000 devotees have gathered for iftar. What happens next is a sight you must not miss: Two mild controlled explosions, the sound of a siren, azaan (call for prayers) and the mosque lighting up – all within 10 seconds – marking iftar.
Iftar in Jama Masjid
Sitting in the mosque courtyard, we break the fast with dates, fruit chat, samosa and pakoda. What you have for iftar is a personal choice. Dates have historical value though. People in Saudi Arab where Islam has its origins break their fast with dates. Fruits are usually added to the plate for nutritious value. And because we must have something spicy, people choose from samosas, pakodas, qeema golis (minced meat balls), or chana murmura. Post iftar, we leave the mosque from Gate No. 1 to go to Matia Mahal, the food street of Old Delhi (opposite the Jama Masjid Gate No. 1).
Haji Mohammad Hussain Chicken Fry
Walk around 150 steps into the Matia Mahal market and you will find Haji Mohamad Hussain’s Fried Chicken shop on your left. Within minutes after iftaar, the eatery gets busy, dealing with bulk orders, mostly by locals who have been fasting through the day. Fried chicken is one of the very few non-vegetarian items which locals source from restaurants. Like many other food joints in this part of the city, the kitchen spills out on to the road. The shop can accommodate around 20 people, which means others have to stand outside and eat. Don’t try the chicken here if you are calorie conscious. It is half fried, marinated in spices with a chickpea batter. The chicken is cut into small pieces and deep fried in oil in a huge pan. The delicious result: chicken that’s crispy outside and tender inside.
Opposite Haji Mohammad Hussain’s chicken fry shop, is Cool Point. Tucked away in a corner, literally outside the staircase of a house, it is popular for its dessert, Shahi Tukda – slices of bread deep fried in ghee and simmered in cream and sugar syrup. It is the high calorie version of a pudding! “Most of our customers prefer one plate of Shahi Tukda weighing 100 gm and costing Rs 30,” said Mohammad Zohaib, owner of the 25-year-old eatery. In recent years, the place has added other delicacies including phirni (a sweet dish made of milk, rice and dry fruits), rabri (thickened sweetened milk with layers of malai or cream), kesar milk and mango-vanilla ice cream.
Residents of Old Delhi get their daily dose of rusks from numerous bakeries in the locality. A glass of tea and two or three of these hard biscuits is a staple breakfast. Before you hit the Matia Mahal crossroad, the first bakery on your left is Golden Bakery. In addition to regular confectionary items, the 50-year-old bakery offers special breads – coconut bread, dry fruit bread, plum cake, butter jam sheermal among others – that are made only during Ramzan. Traditionally, breads are part of sehri, the pre-dawn meal. Soaked in milk with sprinkled sugar, these breads are eaten like cereals. They are a good source of calories and keep devotees going through the day . “Butter jam sheermal is the most sought-after during Ramzan as it is a good combination of taste and nutrition,” said Mohd Aaqil, owner of Golden Bakery. It’s the most expensive bread in his shop – Rs 60 for a loaf.
If you feel dehydrated during the walk (face it, it’s hot!), stop by at Nawab Qureshi’s watermelon shake cart right before the Matia Mahal Chowk. Amidst an array of eateries, this is one of the few places where you only get shakes. There is nothing in Old Delhi or elsewhere in the city which can leave you as refreshed in just Rs 10 as this drink. Chances are that you might miss this cart in the crowded market. There is no sign board. Look out for cartons of Amul milk stacked on a cart. Qureshi’s trump card is Rooh Afza squash, omnipresent in the Walled City during Ramzan. A generation of Muslims in North India and Pakistan has grown up on this wine-red squash, which has withstood the onsalught of soft drinks. Rooh Afza’s sale spike by 20 - 30 per cent during Ramzan as devotees make it part of their iftar. Qureshi mixes Rooh Afza with chilled milk and add pieces of watermelon to make a tempting pink concoction.
Take a left from Matia Mahal crossroad and ask for Haveli Azam Khan. What was once a mansion now resembles one of the many alleys in the Walled City. Housing around 5,000 people, it is a world in itself. Ameer Sweet House, locally known as Ameero, is the oldest sweet shop here. On normal days, the shop is busiest during breakfast. During Ramzan, iftar compensates for the low footfalls in the early hours of the day. Try reaching here before iftar if you want to try qeema samosa, pakodas or paneer jalebi.