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Review: Jasmine and Jinns by Sadia Dehlvi

Sadia Dehlvi’s book brings alive the saalans, imamdastas and mehmannawazi of Delhi

books Updated: Aug 19, 2017 11:46 IST
Zehra Kazmi
Zehra Kazmi
Hindustan Times
Delhi,Sadia Dehlvi,Jasmine & Jinns
Author Sadia Dehlvi at a market in Delhi.(Shivam Saxena/Hindustan Times)

Cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander seeds. With military precision, I lay out the spices. And immediately run into my first hurdle: I have no clue what javitri looks like and need to Google this before I can begin today’s mission in the kitchen.

It’s a sunny Sunday and I am trying out a recipe from Sadia Dehlvi’s new book, Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi.

I start off with the qorma, the deceptively easy-looking dish that is, in fact, very hard to nail. Since nobody wants to waste good mutton on a novice, I’m trying this recipe out with chicken. My grandmother – one of those people with haath mien lazzat, as Dehlvi’s mother would say – could make a mean qorma. The run-up to the actual dish would involve frying onions till they were crispy golden brown (if it was a burnt dark brown, the whole lot would be binned) and spices ground fine in her marbled imamdasta or mortar and pestle. But while I want to replicate the taste, the temptations to use short-cuts is strong. So my fried onions come out of a packet and a pressure cooker replaces the deghchi.

In equal parts a family history, a recipe book, chronicle of a community and a photo album, Jasmine and Jinns is a rather delicious entry into the world of saalans, mehmannawazi and jinn stories that define Delhi.

Dehlvi closely describes the life and traditions of Punjabi saudagaran, a prosperous business community of Khatri-caste Hindus who embraced Islam at the hands of Sufi cleric Hazrat Shamsuddin. In 1657, after a plague ravaged Shahjahan’s Delhi, a caravan of saudagaran families migrated to the city from Pakistan’s Punjab on the emperor’s invitation.

The writer, whose grandfather Hafiz Yusuf adopted the sobriquet ‘Dehlvi’ to honour his beloved city, locates this part memoir, part cookbook in Delhi’s food history. Early chapters lightly touch upon the spreads at Mughal dastarkhwans as well as current famous eateries such as Chaina Ram and Natraj Dahi Bhalle Wale.

But the book is also an intimate look at Old Delhi’s Muslim culture, much of which can still be found in its gali mohallas. Elders in the house constantly talk of how food affects the body, some things have garam taseer and produce heat while others have thandi taseer and cool it down. The terms badey ka gosht and chotey ka gosht to refer to beef and mutton are common parlance, so is the utter Delhi-bred scorn for bhed ka gosht or lamb meat. Nihari is now standard fare, but even till a few years ago, it was considered a poor man’s food. It was only eaten nahar munh or on an empty stomach for breakfast. Aaloo gosht or saalan, a dish I have only seen in Muslim homes, is still considered a taboo in weddings as it is funeral food.

Dehlvi writes of how marriage invitations were usually accompanied by small engraved silver or copper plates called rakabis – our house in Old Delhi had an entire stash of such plates inscribed with people’s wedding or birth dates. On Thursdays, crows descend on city walls to feast on the cheechdas or the leftover cuts of meat thrown by the superstitious to ward off the evil eye.

Dehlvi’s chronicle is timely. Some of the food and culture she mentions is already on the wane. Sweet, thick milk in earten kulhads is not available at every nukkad, butchers have switched to machines for mincing meat, qalaigars, who polish copper utensils, are a rare sight. And just like the fried onions now available in ready-made sealed packets, there are changes in the heart of the old city. Corner shops sell chicken tikkas with mayonnaise, local joints deliver halal pizzas to your doorstep, and you are likely to find a stall selling (largely inedible) momos right next to a smoke-choked kebab shop.

The jasmine and jinns of the title come from Dehlvi’s account of growing up in Shama Kothi, named after the popular Urdu literary and film magazine founded by her grandfather and edited by her father. Most Urdu-speakers are familiar with Shama, or its sister publications Khilona, a children’s magazine, and Bano, which catered to women readers and was edited by Dehlvi’s mother. Shama was wildly popular, and hosted the glittering, star-studded Shama Film Awards, which was attended by big names like Rajesh Khanna, Dimple Kapadia, Nargis, Rakhee and Gulzar.

Read more: Excerpt: Jasmine & Jinns by Sadia Dehlvi

Shama Kothi at 11, Sardar Patel Marg, comes alive in the pages as a rambunctious open house, always teeming with guests and Dehlvi’s large brood of cousins. Sunday brunches mean an assortment of nihari and Nagpuri oranges, while vacations are packed with ice cream sojourns to India Gate.

This was a time when every household had its own stories. In Shama Kothi, these are recounted by Amma, Dehlvi’s grandmother and Apa Saeeda, the fiercely protective family retainer, who brought up the writer and her siblings. Amma placed small bunches of jasmine on the charpai of elders. “These were taboo for us young girls. She warned that jinns are attracted to the fragrance of jasmine and if they smelled it on an unmarried girl, they could become her aashiq, possessive lover,” writes Dehlvi.

Watch more: FB Live conversation with Sadia Dehlvi, author of Jasmine and Jinns

The writer’s close bond with Apa Saeeda, to whom the book is dedicated, reverberates through the book. Apa Saeeda wears many hats, teaching Dehlvi to cook, shielding the children from their parents’ anger, turning shadows on the walls into bedtime stories with a consummate storyteller’s ability, and becoming so indispensable that a threat that she would go to her native Baghpat would bring the house to a standstill.

The decline in Urdu readership spelled a decline in Shama’s fortunes. One by one, the magazines closed down. Shama Kothi was sold off in 2002. Jinns seemed to have packed up their bags and left for less crowded spaces. The city is changing, and Dehlvi’s book will be of interest to anyone who is fascinated by Delhi’s culture, history or food. It’s an engaging record of how things were and how things have changed. The writing is simple, and the typical Urdu words or phrases are explained. But if you are looking for a detailed recipe book for beginners, this is not a step-by-step manual. What it does do is share jealously-guarded family recipes freely, but your haath ki lazzat will determine if the qorma you make smells of Purani Dilli.

First Published: Aug 18, 2017 19:48 IST