Editor’s note: The world’s a big place, and CB’s setting its sights on greater horizons, beginning with this story about fall foodways in Old Delhi, by guest contributor Sarah Khan.
Though the summer intensity has passed in North India, a glimmer of cooler mornings awaits, on the sidelines of Old Delhi. Dust never settles, it just gets redistributed and then the heat lacquers every surface. Each corner of this ancient city is coated with infinite layers: strata of memories, migrants, languages, castes, foods, architectures, monumental and streetside mandirs and masjids. Even sounds and smells alight upon or crash against ears and noses.
Morning birdcalls fuse with the adhan (أَذَان), the Muslim call to prayers, while the temple faithful jangle bells and sing their bhajans (भजन). Birds and prayers call the morning light. Incense burns laced with oil-smoked spices, dhals, kachoris or grilled seekh kebabs. We step out into the city. Then the morning commute begins. Urban horns assault and acrid exhaust fumes invade while street hawkers vie for attention and rivulets of sweat begin to wind their way down the body. As midday climaxes, excess fermented waste of all kinds punctuates the pockets of air. The result? The sensory circuits short.
Organized chaos rules Old Delhi. Locals know their way around. Yet for the newcomer, the area overwhelms. Drop down in the fall during the festival season and disorder doubles. Navaratri rules for nine days from the end of September into October. Nightly Ramlila plays, inspired by the Divine Mother, from Delhi, Gujarat and Bengal all culminate in Dussehra – when Rama slays the malevolent Ravana and good prevails over evil. Neighborhood festivals now compete with the big-box government-sponsored versions that take place in huge squares surrounding the area near the Jama Masjid and the Lal Qila (Red Fort). A mere two days later, the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or Bakra Eid, consumes Old Delhi yet again. The gridlock persists while goats – groomed with autumnal burnt-orange henna and tinkering bells – bleat or sit quietly in meditation awaiting sacrifice. A momentary lull descends, but Diwali, the festival of lights, beams itself in from around the corner, and another feverish celebration with its concomitant rites and rituals ensues.
Spices are the source of all flavor in festive or daily fare. The foundation of much of the subcontinent’s foodways lies, in fact, in its astute use of spices. Khari Baoli, the font for wholesale spices, will throw any worker or visitor into a frenzied sneezing fit. But if spices matter, then a glimpse into the space where spice merchants and spice porters rule is essential.
“We work here all day and we live up above the market,” gestured a porter inside the Gadodia Market Building of Khari Baoli, the spice market of Old Delhi. “I, and my friends here, we are all from Rajasthan, but we have porters from all over India.” The spice porters take a break in the courtyard of the Gadodia, an early 20th-century-style structure, with the center open to the sky.
The porters, who navigate every conceivable type of bag, box or pushcart, reign over the passageways. Many live communally in the Gadodia building above the main market. Men from all regions of India journey to the city to escape poverty, earn a livelihood and send cash home. Many have worked here for 20 years or more.
In autumn, nut sellers line the road in Khari Baoli in their makeshift open-air stalls: pistachios from Iran and Afghanistan, cashews from Goa, walnuts and almonds from California, coconuts from the south, raisin varieties from the north and dates from the northwest, most likely Gujarat. Each nut and dried fruit exists in a shell or is hulled, graded and separated. The nuts and dried fruits complement any biryani or halvai, or they are served on their own. Either way, the nut merchants flood the streets in the fall to provide nutrient-dense foods for the coming cold winter’s dishes and snacks.
Inexpensive savory-eats stalls occupy every corner of Old Delhi. Just beyond the Khari Baoli stands the famed Narayan Das Halvai and Kachori Wala on the corner of Naya Bans.
A constant crowd vies to order, obtain and eat hot kachoris dipped or broken up in spiced potatoes. One of Narayan Das’ staff deftly shapes dough into small balls. Next he stuffs each with a mixture of urad dhal, asafetida and more spices. He creates the morsels in seconds. He then passes the kachoris to another, who sits at the large kadai (steel vessel for frying) with boiling oil. He rolls them out and fries them. Puffed and steaming, with a dollop of chutney, the kachoris stream forward from yet another staff member to the expecting customers.
“This is pure mustard oil,” declared the pakora seller on Fasli Road in Old Delhi. He sits upon his makeshift, semi-permanent stall like a king, cross-legged. The pakora wala dips sliced onions, clusters of spinach and cauliflower pieces in chickpea flour batter. He deep-fries them in pure mustard oil and offers up two types of chutneys, a spicy cilantro and a sweet tamarind one. His colleague tips the crunchy pakoras into a mini handmade bag with a sprinkle of spiced chili powder on top. Desi (of the country) snack bliss.
Where to buy spice and spice mixtures in a smaller quantity? A little spice shop with huge clientele, Shri Niwas and Sons Spice Shop, also known as Sharma Ji’s, is located on Lal Kuan Road not far from the Chawri Bazar Metro stop. It is the place where the elite hotel chef or the everyday home cook descends to buy spice stashes. A reliably high turnover rate and a diverse and committed clientele have kept this shop bustling for generations. It caters to all spice mixture palates: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, veg and non-veg. During business hours a constant stream of customers rallies to place orders large and small. The bright green wooden shutter doors make it a somewhat unique shop in an area secured and locked with metal everything. In the midst of potential communal upheavals, this particular spice shop’s flavors have no borders or boundaries.
On her second Fulbright, living in India for a year, Sarah Khan is telling the story of Indian women farmers in multiple media. In between farms and farmers, she carves out a space for focused wandering. Follow her at www.sarahkkhan.com.
(photos and video by Sarah Khan)