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Reviving Delhi’s long lost and forgotten home recipes

Sadia Dehlvi has donned the chef’s cap to bring to the table a spread that celebrates the rich cuisine of an insular community

brunch Updated: Jan 06, 2018 23:48 IST
Lubna Salim
Sadia Dehlvi has turned chef to dish out a cuisine that’s on the verge of being fast forgotten
Sadia Dehlvi has turned chef to dish out a cuisine that’s on the verge of being fast forgotten

Wafts of freshly-browned onions and possibly a mean haleem - boiling away in some cauldron – interpolated by the aroma from freshly squeezed lemons guide my nostrils to the home of Sadia Dehlvi. A familiar face in the media and social circuits, Sadia’s now added a new feather to her cap – that’s heavy with titles ranging from author, writer, columnist and activist - and turned chef!

It’s not hard for me to spot her lovely home in the upscale Nizamuddin East locality of New Delhi where on the second floor curtains at the entrance bear life-size block prints of Islamic greetings as well as the smell of sumptuous spreads from the homes of Old Delhi. These, however, must not be mistaken for the rich Mughlai dishes doused in dollops of spices and ghee, but what Sadia is bringing to the table are authentic and some forgotten recipes from the Muslim households of North India.

“At 60, I’ve found a new career and I’m having a lot of fun as a chef. I feel food is as much about memories as it is about spices, festivity, culture as well as love and compassion,” says Sadia who recently tied up with ITC to celebrate the Capital’s authentic cuisine over a six-day dinner buffet festival - Delhi Tablespread.

It was in the hotel kitchen that she was referred to as chef by the helpers and though initially she was a little take aback, now she revels in the new designation she has earned.

Thought for food

“After finishing my cookbook (Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of my Delhi) I felt the need to share recipes that are cooked in our homes and some things in particular to the community that I belong to, which is the Punjabi Saudagaran and they are a very isolated and insular community. These recipes need to be enjoyed and documented and a lot of youngsters in the community are not cooking these,” says a concerned Sadia, taking breaks and to keep an eye on her signature alu ka saalan that she’s cooking today.

Haleem is one of Sadia’s many signature dishes

“Take for instance the kela (unripe banana) and sangri (beans from Khejri tree) saalan or the kachnar (Butterfly ash) ka bharta, I haven’t had these since my grandmother and Apa Sayeeda (their family retainer and governess) taught me how to cook before I moved to New York. I had made these after 20 years when I was working on my book!” says Sadia, quickly adding goolar ka bharta to the list of forgotten recipes and reading my amusement shows me the goolar tree touching her balcony and explaining that it’s called country or cluster fig tree in English.

She adds: “ Goolar ki sabzi is my son’s favourite and I learnt the recipe from my aunt because nobody is cooking it anymore. But like a lot of the food we eat, goolar and kachnar have medicinal value. You see our community’s hub was Ballimaran – the residential area of the hakims of the city and what they advised came into our cuisine.”

Wondering how cooking has taken centre-stage in her life at the moment, I ask Sadia how the cookbook and then the food festival figured in the scheme of things. She laughs and readily tells me the stories of her “fairytale-like childhood” days at Shama Kothi, her ancestral home studded with ponds and lilies and fountains on Sardar Patel Marg.

Sadia prepares nehari - winter favourite garnished with lemon, coriander and ginger

Sadia takes great pride in growing up in a culturally-rich household that impacted her very deeply. So, now she wants to share stories of her childhood through her cooking and food as “it played a central role our lives and culture”.

“I was born in 1957 in Shama Kothi where very glamorous and lavish banquets were thrown by my grandfather. We grew up entertaining film stars and literary figures because of Shama, our literary and film magazine,” says Sadia and adds how their home was a stopover for film stars like Meena Kumari, Nargis, Raj Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Rakhi Gulzar, Dharmendra and Dimple Kapadia to literary greats like Ismat Chughtai and Ainee Apa (or Qurratulain Hyder) and poets like Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and the like who would attend mehfils, mushairas and qawwalis at Shama Kothi. “Now events have shifted to the auditoriums but in those days in Delhi mehfils were in people’s homes,” explains Sadia.

“Whoever would get married would come to seek blessings of my abba (father) who’d give them an asharfi and there would be a huge dinner. There was a grand reception for Nargis when she became MP,” she says and I listen with child-like amusement only to be interrupted by a whiff of alu saalan and corriander leaves from the kitchen.

Alu ka saalan is a favourite of Sadia’s guests

She goes to share memories of their monsoon picnics in Mehrauli and how all kids would look forward to eating hari mirch keema, besan ki roti and aam ki chutney and her longing to write about these memories and how food was an integral part of them.

Hari mirch keema was part of the menu during the monsoon picnics at Mehrauli

“I worked on Jamine and Jinns for about two years and it’s the easiest book I’ve written as it was always in my head. My other books are research-oriented and deal with Sufiism and dargahs. This was light writing but the most difficult part was to writing the measurements for the recipes because I cook with andaaz or a sense of proportion and never measure the ingredients. But when you are writing a recipe it has to be accurate,” she says.

And how did she learn cooking? “By observing my Apa Sayeeda and chaachis (paternal aunts) in the kitchen. My mother is a disaster when it comes to cooking. She never cooked in her life and she doesn’t like me cooking and thinks I waste my time. She always tells me ‘I haven’t educated you to work in the kitchen, only women with oppressive husbands cook well’,” she says.

Sadia’s smoked kachri keema is a huge hit among family and friends

A spiritual edge

However, Sadia herself is not a foodie. Her everyday home cooking comprises light salads, soups and fish or chicken prepared using Turkish and continental recipes passed on to her by her friends around the globe.

But she enjoys cooking and feeding people. “I’m often told that I must reserve some recipes and not share everything, but I’m a great follower of the Sufi path and frankly I think if God’s given me a skill or knowledge I must share it and bring joy to people’s lives. And the more I share the more I get, whether it’s food or recipes,” says Sadia.

In fact the festival came along because of her desire to feed people. Says Sadia: “I approached ITC and expressed my desire to showcase Delhi cuisine. They said I could start with Delhi Pavilion and do a food festival there. But what I didn’t realise was the hard work it involved.”

Shahi tukra was among the desserts that shone bright at the eight-day food festival at ITC in New Delhi

She was allotted a station in the kitchen and got some help with cutting and chopping but was physically cooking from 11am to 6.30pm every day only taking namaz and coffee breaks in between. The eight-day festival featured starters like keema golis, chicken pasanda and kalmi vada and desserts ranging from regular shahi tukra to off beat shakarkandi ki kheer and gajar bharta, all prepared by Sadia.

She made a menu for four days and then repeated it. It had six vegetarian dishes, so she tried out new recipes like paneer stew, paneer korma, shalgam bharta, ghotwa saag, diwani handiya, safed maash ki daal with laal pyaaz, pudina and dhania and bhuni moong dal tempered with masalas used for pulao.

Bhuni maash ki dal was among the vegetarian dishes featured at the food festival

The quantities never rattle her as Sadia has earlier manned the kitchen for food festivals with IIC and can easily cook for up to 100 people who she hosts for mehfils and during eid and bakra-eid dinners at home.

“What was challenging was the number of dishes that had to be prepared in a certain time, like six vegetarian, two mutton and one chicken-based dish along with things which are usually stand-alone like shabdeg, nehari, haleem and smoked kachri keema, which was the biggest hit,” she says.

Shabdeg, a dish typically cooked in Muslim households of North India, found favour with the guests at ITC

She worked with her late brother’s wife and was happy to have a co-chef from the family, and considers the experience to be a very rewarding one. This, of course was a winter spread but going forward Sadia plans to don the chef’s cap yet again and is hoping to do these food festivals seasonally on a long term now.

As for me, I was happy to taste the now ready alu saalan with hot chapatis off the tawa!

Follow @lubnasalim1234 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018

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