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Delhiwale: Biryani under the shadow of the Jama Masjid

The stall, which the family says is 50 years old, stands near the eastern gate of Old Delhi’s signature monument

delhi Updated: May 28, 2018 08:35 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Not long after the crack of dawn, stall owner Mohammed Nadeem and his crew light up a fire, fussing over 10kg of aromatic biryani that is cooked every day long before the first tourists arrive at the Mughal-era Jama Masjid.
Not long after the crack of dawn, stall owner Mohammed Nadeem and his crew light up a fire, fussing over 10kg of aromatic biryani that is cooked every day long before the first tourists arrive at the Mughal-era Jama Masjid.(HT photo)

Their chicken biryani is not just a finger-licking monument, but also served by hereditary cooks right under the shadow of the iconic Jama Masjid.

Not long after the crack of dawn, stall owner Mohammed Nadeem and his crew light up a fire, fussing over 10kg of aromatic biryani that is cooked every day long before the first tourists arrive at the Mughal-era mosque.

“We’re pushtaini (hereditary) cooks,” explains Nadeem, perched on a string charpoy feeding his goats in an adjacent park that’s also teeming with ducks and roosters. Nadeem is recovering from a liver ailment, leaving the cooking to the quiet Shankar who is carefully watching over the picturesque brass cauldron.

The family says it first got a licence to make biryani during the ‘reign of Queen Victoria’.

“Victoria ke zamane ka licence,” Nadeem says, although the stall is more recent. It was set up 50-odd years ago by his father, Zarra Mohammed, just outside the eastern gates of Old Delhi’s signature monument.

The biryani is ready by 9am. Served with red chutney, it isn’t as oily as biryani tends to be, and not terribly spicy despite so many green chilies embedded in the mound of rice. Superior to the expensive biryani served in a historic restaurant nearby, Nadeem’s biryani makes for a happy prologue to the historic mosque just behind the humble stall, which stays open till 10pm.

A TOUCH OF LHASA

It isn’t every day that you encounter young women wearing traditional Tibetan dresses, right here in central Delhi, which is otherwise teeming with salwars, saris, skirts and pants.

A conversation inevitably follows on learning that these three women are colleagues at Tibet House, a cultural centre at Lodhi Road for Tibetan and Buddhist studies. “We regard ourselves as independent working women,” says Tenzin Kunsang.

Tenzin Kunsang, Tenzin Dekyong and Tenzing Doma, have been in India all their lives as children of exile. (HT photo)

The colleagues are on their way home to Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan refugee camp north of the city, where much of Delhi folks head to when hit by a craving for authentic momos. Indeed, two of the women will rustle up chicken momos for their meal tonight

“We’re neighbours, you see,” says Kunsang, who was born in Tibet. She came to India as a child and hasn’t seen her parents since then.

“I know they live in Lhasa,” she says in a voice that people use while talking about facts of private life that they have no control over.

Her companions, Tenzin Dekyong and Tenzing Doma, have been in India all their lives as children of exile. Doma, for instance, was born in Darjeeling but, like many young Tibetans, was educated in Dharamshala.

The women now start walking towards Jor Bagh Metro station in their elegant chupa — the dresses that have a centuries-long history in their homeland but are rarely spotted in the city that now is their home.