The beautiful Jama Masjid in Purani Dilli is a sacred monument that is like a beacon of devotion and spirituality for Muslims in India. Built in the time of Shah Jahaan, it stands serene, like a grand old lady, weathered gracefully through turbulent times but with its life force unscathed and still charismatic.
We were ten food bloggers and writers, invited by the JW Marriot Aerocity Hotel in New Delhi on a three-day showcase of Dehlvi Cuisine, which is basically the cuisine of Old Delhi. The vibrant cuisine of our national capital we were told, has evolved through the centuries, peppered with umpteen influences, from the rich traditions of the Persians and Mughals, from the Hindus who stuck strong to their vegetarian roots, from the Punjabis who poured into Delhi in droves, bringing their love for parathas and desi ghee, and from so many other cultures.
One of the main hotbeds of food that Delhi is known for is the predominantly Muslim area around the Jama Masjid. This is not really a tourist-friendly market that the faint hearted should venture into without adequate preparation. And since it was my first visit to this locality it was good to have the competent guidance of the JWM chefs and staff, who took the group around the crowded streets and maniacal traffic that is pretty much typical of these bylanes at most times of the day and night.
Our first stop was the Masjid itself. With the evening prayers having just gotten over at sunset, it was a beautiful time to visit, the gathering dusk adding to the hush of reverence and devoutness in the atmosphere. Having a guide to take you around the monument is highly recommended, as is true with most historical places, but especially here since it is a place of worship. We were guided around the Masjid gates, courtyards and corridors by a knowledgeable and articulate lady from India City Walks. She briefed us on the history of the area and related some interesting anecdotes, beautifully setting the scene for the evening ahead.
The streets and lanes around the Masjid are brimming and pulsating with life. There are stalls selling everything from flashy jewelry and clothes in psychedelic colours, to utensils and utilities. Rows of carts hawking food of all descriptions, scores of pedestrians intent on going their way with single-minded purpose, and through all this, the crazy traffic and stray animals rounding off the pandemonium.
A cart selling dates, Petha (candied white pumpkin), a balloon vendor, specialised Kulfi cart
Since there are umpteen food hawkers and restaurants in this area, it is quite difficult to know where and what to eat. Some prior research or an experienced companion will be of great help, or else you might just have to let your nose guide you from stall to stall. It also helps to pace yourself, perhaps share the plates of goodies with some pals, so that you can taste a whole lot more variety. The instinct is to eat simply everything but sadly, practical tummy-related constraints make that quite impossible.
There is something to gawk at at every turn, this is a veritable Mecca of food, with the choicest of grilled and fried meats, refreshing sherbets to counter the heat, syrupy, slow-cooked desserts and exotic savouries. You could feast on the robust, savoury meat porridge that is Nihari, sample kewra-scented biriyanis cooked in signature styles, taste rich, lush curries flavoured with mace, cardamom and saffron, and then, as a seasoned traveler suggested, buy thick slabs of breads to bring a taste of the cuisine back home to your table.
Kababs at Qureshi’s are a must-have, we were told, and these were truly sensational. Moist, juicy with the ends deliciously crisped up from the hot flames, a perfect marriage of spices and minced meat, these seekh kababs may not look fancy but they were definitely finger-licking good. So good that the chutney and onions were pretty much ignored for the most part. You can watch the swift and nimble hands of the kababchi make up the seekhs and grill your meat, and then carefully cross the road to a tiny eating area or just munch on them by the side of the street like we did.
Fried chicken kababs are another popular dish in this area, and the Haji Mohd. Hussain stall, with great vats brimming with smoky hot oil outside is the go-to place for these. Probably created with an eye towards the Hindu population that descends in hordes to feast here, the fried chicken is spicy and crunchy on the outside, but perfectly succulent and juicy within. As with most of the food served here, the preparation is quite a process, including marination of the chicken with spices, frying at a lower temperature and then a final couple of minutes in super hot oil to crisp and finish the dish before serving with chutney, lemon wedges and sliced onions.
Dinner was at Al Jawahar, a comfortably air conditioned multi-storied restaurant which seemed like an oasis of peace after the tumult of the streets. Al Jawahar serves Kababs, Biriyani, Nihari and Curry dishes with piles of fresh-baked Tandoori breads. Since the chefs from JWM had already curated the menu for us, all we had to do was sit back, down some ice cold Thums Up and await the feast.
The gravy dishes that were served to us in quick succession included Chicken Ishtoo (Stew), Mutton Qorma, Pasanda and Kaleji. These were mopped up with some excellent Khameeri Rotis, these are made with fermented dough, so the look, taste and texture is quite different from the usual tandoori rotis served at most restaurants.
Though the meat in all these curries was really tender and expertly cooked, the curries themselves seemed to be over-generously doused in oil, making it hard to do more than taste each one. Another specialty – the golden-brown Kashmeeri Sheermal made an appearance, this was pleasantly yeasty and slightly sweet.
The favoured dessert in these parts is the shahi tukda and there were huge platters of it everywhere at the sweet shacks. Slices of bread are deep-fried and then simmered in thickened milk until the consistency is almost jammy, and the whole concoction just glistens with fat. This is then topped with thick layers of khoya and cream, and garnished with bright red cherries or tutti frutti. This dessert looked rich, gooey, decadent and heavy, and each bite tasted exactly like that, but thankfully the serving wasn’t too large and the sweetness was fairly moderate.
A fitting end to the meal was mouthfuls of sweet pan, filled with various digestives and sweeteners and served well-wrapped in multi-coloured foil cones.
The evening at Jama Masjid was truly memorable, an assault on the senses that I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. Some of the pictures you’re seeing may be a bit blurry and most of them are taken with the phone camera, but I hope that they capture the chaos, vitality and colours of the market, and the vibrancy of the food.
This is the first of three posts in the Dehlvi Cuisine series. Don’t miss the next post that’s a trip down the legendary Chandni Chowk area, and the last one tying the whole incredible Delhi experience together, at JW Marriot Aerocity.
Note: This trip was sponsored and curated by JW Marriot New Delhi Aerocity but the thoughts expressed here are our own.