Old Delhi overflows with recent – and not so recent – migrants who have left a rural farming life. Over 55 percent of India’s workforce, in fact, is engaged in some aspect of agriculture. And 80 percent of the farm holdings nationwide are below 2 hectares. Many migrant laborers, former farmers, hail from the surrounding north Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and the country of Nepal. New to the city, migrants turn to making and selling low-overhead-cost street foods. The daily street fare is as diverse as the individuals serving it and varies from season to season. Behind the streets’ succulent delights lie many stories of migration and dislocation. In countless instances, often invisible, a type of slow sadness tears at the individual and at the fabric of families and cultures left behind.
A warm crumble, a welcome grainy mouth sensation, delicate and infused with cardamom: the nankhatai biskoots (nan, Persian for a type of bread, and khatai probably deriving from Cathay, the ancient word for China) are perfection. Every Delhi local brightens at the mention of these biscuits because of the ingredients, the well-designed sancha mold used to create the biscuits, their appearance before they’re cooked, the elegant, economical oven created for street baking, the few minutes they take to cook, their appearance once out of the oven and, finally, how they crumble and tumble, warmly, on the tongue.
Whose hands created these delicate entities that you find all over Delhi? Dayal Singh Yadav, a former farmer from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, who arrived in the city a year ago. Like so many others, he used to farm. He, along with his brother who remained behind, grew several types of lentils, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, fenugreek greens and more. “But,” laments the young Dayal, “we, my wife and three kids, just could not live off of what we made from farming anymore.”
The nearby vegetable seller joins in, as he warms his cold hands at the fire, as do many passers-by, and reiterates the same reason for his migration. Dayal continues, “I have to pay for school fees, clothing and food. Farming just does not pay, so I came to the city. Others came, so I came too.” He purchases his ingredients in Khari Baoli, the Spice Market area of Old Delhi. “And I live with a few men, store my ingredients in our room,” Dayal explains, “and make about 300 rupees [US$5] a day, sometimes 400 on a good day. I send the money home.”
Dayal chose to sell nankhatai because the moving street oven assembles easily from two kadais, and requires a minimum amount of coal per day. His setup is simple, the ingredients easy to locate and he delivers the hot snacks in handmade newspaper bags. From a life of uncertainty and dislocation, Dayal has created a bit of warmth and a dose of sweetness for city dwellers. We watch him as he nonchalantly hands a slightly charred nankhatai biskoot to a begging child.
(photos by Sarah Khan)