When we talk of food at an upscale restaurant, we invariably talk of the chef behind it. But despite most of us finding the array of food available in Delhi’s lip-smacking old quarters, few of us remember the ‘bawarchis’, or the traditional cooks, behind the culinary magic. Purani Dilli, as the area is known, is still home to some of the indigenous Mughal-era bawarchis and many dishes’ origins can be traced to this place.
Despite that, the Old Delhi cooks remain anonymous to food lovers as their toque and apron-wearing counterparts in five-star hotels and expensive fine dining restaurants hog all the limelight. No fancy oven, no proper kitchen, the bawarchis of Old Delhi are seemingly caught in a time warp and usually cook on the roadside using the traditional wood fuel.
Although some of them have started using gas stoves, paucity of LPG cylinders makes them use firewood often. They cook only on order. Mohalla Qabristan, near Turkman Gate is house to some of the oldest bawarchi families of Old Delhi. However, it is not easy to trace their origin as even the oldest among the cooks can’t recall as to how many generations have already gone in the profession of cooking food. But they have been around for a few centuries.
“I learnt this art from my father, and he had inherited it from his father. That is all I know,” says Mohammed Yameen, 70. Yameen never cared to send his sons (five of them) to school and they all help in the kitchen. The thing that these bawarchis care most about is their recipes and spices. They guard their recipes staunchly — one of the reasons they seldom keep people from outside their family as apprentices.
“I don’t know who invented these dishes but they are popular now. We prepare these items only on order. But please don’t ask me about their recipes. I won’t tell you,” says Mohamed Saleem, 60, another bawarchi.