The skyline is a mix of decrepit windows, ornate marble balconies, and out in the near distance, the Golden Arches. A gurdwara’s liturgy temporarily dampens the cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells, and rickshaw drivers yelling at each other.
Dust rises from the street to mingle with the sweet aroma of attar gulab and oud amiri from Gulabsingh Johrimal’s fragrant ittar shop on Dariba Kalan Road. More expats walk through here than Paranthewali Galli - possibly because perfume can’t upset your digestive system. Still, Hari Krishan Sharma of Babu Ram Devi Dayal Paranthe Wale confirms that tourists frequent his parantha shop more than locals do.
After the broad changes sweeping Delhi’s restaurant scene, particularly in central and south Delhi, thanks to the MCD’s sealing drives, this might all seem more fragile than usual - but the Monitoring Committee’s recent statement that Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazar fall under a "special area" means that there will be no sealing in old Delhi. The dhaba and small restaurant owners here are unperturbed, composed.
Change comes slowly to this capital, which seems unfair: where else in Delhi has the unsavoury twin reputations of tourist trap and guardian of the city’s culinary authenticity? I stopped at one of four paratha shops in the lane, a machine working in perfect rhythm, billowing heat and smoke as the parathas are slapped out: papad, kela, khoya. The unusual fillings have long been indispensable to the galli’s PR, but the real difference, at Babu Ram and their neighbours, is in the texture: it’s only in Paranthewali Galli that parathas come with the texture of stuffed bedmis or bhaturas.
It might be controversial, not to mention deleterious for all those casual food walk guides, to say that old Delhi’s food is, like, ninety percent atmosphere. But it should be uncontroversial to say that it’s maybe fifty percent atmosphere, and that it is post ‘47-Delhi that now pulses with the freshness and energy that food lovers claim they find in these lanes.
That’s not to say the hype isn’t always real. Personally, I think Hira Lal Chaatwala’s kulle live up to expectations even after decades of being in the running: a plate of mixed kulle includes cups of cucumber, potato, papaya, banana, mango, watermelon and pear filled with boiled chickpeas, lime juice and Hira Lal’s signature “masala”. The fruit is fresh and juicy; the filling spiked with an ideal mix of salt and powdered sugar: incredible, especially on a hot day’s stroll along Chawri Bazaar.
But then what of Kuremal Mohanlal Kulfiwale, five minutes down the street? I went in and ordered one jamun and one anaar. Both taste like sorbet and would’ve been great - if not sickly high on sugar and saturated with artificial food colouring. And then there are the complaints that could be dismissed as purely personal, except that any non-nostalgist will agree: what can places like Padam Chaat Corner achieve that Prabhu Chaat Bhandar, better known as ‘UPSC chaat,’ off Mansingh Road, can’t do better?
Much of the cut-price exotification has two targets: expats, many of whom have culturally appropriated it for their own cred - classic Delhi move - and tourists, who look on it as Delhi’s home food. Never mind that anyone who’s eaten a paratha in any Delhi home would never mistake Parathewali Galli’s items as representative.
That doesn’t explain why city kids all help to entrench the nostalgia, instead of respecting the neighbourhood as a place of complex and uneven transformations. Take daulat ki chaat, is only served through the winter, but that winter now stretches across so many months that I almost felt cheated not to be able to find it in May. (Of course, many south Delhiites can bypass season and location entirely and head to Indian Accent to eat their version of daulat ki chaat, garnished with faux money. Who’s giggling? Not us.)
At Tahir Qureshi’s, the belly of the beast that produces kebabs of the most historic reputation is glowing, heated. A server smiles triumphantly as I order, moulds impossibly tender beef mince around thick iron skewers, and grills them over the spit. The kebabs, seekh-style, are so thin they tear apart like chappatis. They’re incredibly tasty; so tasty, in fact, that I feel every bit as happy as I do in the face of Gulati’s galoutis from down on Pandara Road.
That may be the last thing the travel writers want to hear. But for the sake of Delhi’s food history, and for the rest of us living in its iron belly, I think it’s just a good thing to hold purani Dilli food to actual Dilli standards.
Vritti Bansal is the founder-editor of Binge.
Photo credit: Instagram.com/shutterbugtrail
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