I’ve been on countless heritage walks around Delhi, and some of them have ended with going off to a Chaina Ram or a Karim’s or a shop in Parathewali Gali to fortify oneself before heading back home. But I’ve never been on a food walk. Therefore, when I was told that Delhi Food Walks was organizing a food walk through Nizamuddin Basti, I jumped at the chance. The walk was held on Sunday, 18th May 2014, beginning at 5.30 PM. We had to register in advance by e-mailing Delhi Food Walks.
When we reached the meeting point—the Dargah of the 20th century Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan (at the western edge of Nizamuddin Basti)—we found one of the walk leaders already there: Asif, who works for the Aga Khan Trust, is a resident of the basti, and has studied history at Jamia. He was joined soon after by Anubhav, the foodie; and Asif’s colleague, Aamer. When the rest of the people coming for the walk had arrived (there were 16 of us in all), Asif began with a brief introduction to the Nizamuddin Basti—which has been continuously inhabited for the past 700 years now—and told us that this would be (happy surprise for my husband and I!) not just a food walk, but a food-and-heritage walk.
The Aga Khan Trust, which has been working to not just restore heritage buildings in the area (Nizamuddin’s baoli and Humayun’s Tomb Complex are examples), has also been working at improving the lot of the local community, and involving its members more in the conservation of the basti’s heritage. Asif, leading us through the basti and to the focal point of the settlement—the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddion Auliya—told us about some of these initiatives, such as daastaangoi performances, heritage walks, and so on.
Our first stop was Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah (and, since this post is basically about the food angle of the walk, I’ll restrict myself on the heritage aspect of it). The dargah receives—and this is measured on a daily basis—an average of 50,000 visitors a day, with the number rising to double that on Thursdays. It was pretty crowded (far too crowded for us to even go up to the gilded and painted shrine of the saint himself).
But we did get to see the tombs of Amir Khusro, Ziauddin Barani, Jahanara, Mohammad Shah ‘Rangeela’, and Mirza Jahangir, before going on to the nearby baoli of Nizamuddin (recently restored and cleaned)…
…and one of my favourite monuments in this part of town, the little-known tomb of Atgah Khan, husband of Jiji Anga, one of Akbar’s wet nurses.
Atgah Khan’s tomb seen, it was time for the food part of the walk to begin. For this, we headed back to our starting point—the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Very close to the dargah (a few metres to your left, if you’re facing the main gate of the dargah) was the first stop on the food walk: a small, rather oddly-named kabab stall, Kit Care Kabab Corner (T-21, Phool Waali Gali). Here, while we seated ourselves on plastic chairs, Anubhav ordered for us Kit Care’s specialties: dahi butter chicken and seekh kababs, along with roomali rotis.
Kit Care’s dahi butter chicken was like nothing I’d ever had before: tandoor-roasted chicken which is drenched in yoghurt, then drizzled over with lots of melted butter. The result is a curry-like dish, but with the chicken with that lovely charry flavour a tandoor imparts to it. That, along with the tartness of the yoghurt and the light spices (this wasn’t a very spicy dish) and the butter, combined to create an unusual and very good dish, perfect with the silken, stretchy roomali rotis it came with.
Equally good (actually, to my palate, even better) were the seekh kababs. Made from ‘bada’ (strictly speaking, beef, though what you actually get here is ‘buff’—buffalo meat), these were melt-in-the-mouth soft, and spiced the way I like them: enough to be flavourful, not enough to mask the flavour of the meat itself.
That was the first course. Our next stop, a couple of minutes’ walk back into the basti, on Dargah Road, was a shop called Moradabad ki Mashhoor Biryani ki Puraani Dukaan. There’s an entire row of shops, all of them with their signs lit up with fairy lights and large aluminium cauldrons of biryani cooking outside; the shop I mean is the first on your right if you’re coming from the Dargah—its address is 58A, Dargah Road.
There are two types of biryani to choose from: chicken and buff. Everybody settled for the chicken, so (even though my husband and I prefer our biryani with red meat), we didn’t protest. And, really, once we dug into the half-plate we were sharing, we had no complaints. I often say that my favourite biryani in Delhi was a certain biryani I once had at a Pujo pandal in CR Park. That just got joined by this Moradabadi one: a very simple one, the basmati rice very long-grained and fragrant, the chicken perfectly tender, the only visible spices cumin seeds and thickly chopped green chillies. Simple, and simply delicious. To add a little tang to the biryani, there was a large salt-shaker of a masala that I couldn’t quite identify: something like chaat masala, but possibly a proprietary concoction of this eatery’s. A little bit sprinkled on the biryani certainly added to its charm.
Served alongside this was a fiery-looking red chutney. I gave this a miss—I’m not a fan of chillies—but my husband tasted some, and said it was spicy but good. One of the ladies in our group liked it so much that she tried to wheedle the recipe out of the chef. Mango pickle, he told her, was one of the ingredients. And red chillies. Tomatoes. I could tell he was being evasive (and why not?), but even if our fellow foodie didn’t get the recipe, she got a free sample to take away, tied up in a little polythene bag.
Next on the menu was nahaari. Nahaari (as I’d once heard the former Chief Election Commissioner, Mr SY Qureshi, mention in a lecture) is named for ‘nahaar’—‘morning’, because it used to traditionally be cooked on a very slow simmer all through the night, leaching every last bit of nutrition out of the sinew and leaving a very tender meat and a highly flavourful, slightly gelatinous gravy. My mother, who grew up in Calcutta, remembers that their servants would buy, for an anna or two, a bowl of nahaari (which used to be available only in the morning) and bring it with them to the house, to eat with rotis and tea—one bowl of nahaari was nutritious enough to keep them going for most of the rest of the day.
I’ve always, therefore, thought of nahaari as a breakfast dish; eating it after dark was an odd experience. This was just a few metres around the corner from the biryani place, a small roadside stall called Manpasand Nahari Roti Waale (on Mirza Ghalib Road). The thing to eat here, of course, is the nahaari: with a thick gravy, dark red oil (a given with nahaari, since the long cooking breaks down all the fat and sinew) and a generous scattering of chopped green chillies sprinkled over the meat. Served alongside were hot, soft and yeasty khameeri rotis, the perfect accompaniment for nahaari.
The sight of those green chillies deterred me a bit, but I had one morsel of nahaari and roti from my husband’s plate. Beautifully tender meat and excellent roti, though the gravy itself was far too high in chillies for my taste. My husband loved it, though, and this was where he had most of his meal.
After nahaari, it was time for more kababs. A few steps down the road, at Shop 57 on Mirza Ghalib Road—near Lal Mahal, opposite the Markazi Masjid—is the Ghalib Kabab Corner, the signboard of which proudly proclaims that it’s won the ‘best kabab’ award at a kabab festival organized by the Maurya Sheraton. Anubhav ordered a selection of three types of kababs: shaami kabab (which he mentioned as being their specialty); chicken tikka; and mutton tikka.
I will admit that my mother’s shaami kababs are the very best I have ever tasted, so I invariably compare all shaami kababs to those. Having said that, Ghalib Kabab Corner’s shaami kababs were good. In fact, far better than those I’ve had at most other commercial eateries: crisp on the outside, soft and velvety on the inside, and well-seasoned.
The chicken tikka was nothing out of the ordinary (to me, it seemed to have a surfeit of garam masala, which immediately turned me off), but the mutton tikka was luscious. Spicy, yes, but not unbearably so; and so perfectly marinated (raw papaya, I wonder?) and cooked, it almost seemed to dissolve in the mouth.
Next up was the last stop on our ‘main course’ round (the sweets were yet to come). This is a restaurant called Al Quresh, at 224 Nizamuddin West (it’s a few shops down from the somewhat better-known Karim’s). Unlike the rest of the places on our itinerary till now, Al Quresh is a proper sit-down restaurant, clean and quite upmarket, what with its hanging lights and smart reception counter (not to mention air-conditioning!).
Here, orders were placed for three specialties: chicken tangdi kabab, chicken qorma, and karahi chicken.
The good thing about the roadside food stalls is that they dish up food really fast: you place your order, and you can depend upon being served within five minutes, probably less. With fancy restaurants like Al Quresh, you wait. We waited for nearly half an hour (despite Anubhav reminding and requesting the restaurant owner/manager a few times) before our food arrived. The tangdi kababs were succulent and with a deliciously smoky char, so good I didn’t even dip the tangdi in the green chutney that came with it (along with some sliced raw onions).
The two curries—the qorma and the karahi chicken—were also good, though the qorma was a little too oily for me. Unlike the more common karahi chicken, which comes tossed with barely-cooked tomato and capsicum and lots of spice, Al Quresh’s version had the vegetables and chicken cooked in a thick gravy that had a lovely flavour of green chillies. Hot, yes, but also with the flavour of the green chilli skins, not seeds. Delicious, though by this time I was feeling so full I could only eat a mouthful of each of the two curries.
Finally, it was time for sweets. We followed Anubhav and Asif back along the road we’d come down, and at the corner, stopped at a halwai’s. The two most visible items on sale here were samosas and imartis: a paper bag full of imartis was bought and passed around. I’m not much of an imarti fan, but these, all virulent orange squiggles, were pretty good. Sugary, of course, but not more than I can bear.
We followed up with yet another sweet: kheer, set in little earthen bowls, from a stall called Nasir, a few steps down from the imartiwallah. Kheer is a favourite of mine (not surprising, considering I like milk sweets, and don’t like my desserts too sugary or ghee-laden). While this was decent kheer (and with a little sliver of chaandi ka varq on it, too), it wasn’t the best I’ve had: it was thick enough to be phirni, really, and could possibly have done with a hint of cardamom in it.
Last up, and bought from the paanwallah next to Nasir, were paans (a sweet one for me, and for most of us). The leaf a little too thick, but with a good dollop of gulkand, and lots of refreshing flavour).
That, therefore, was the walk. Interesting, full of discoveries (the Moradabadi biryani was a revelation), and with some absolutely delicious food. I’ll be going back for the biryani, and for the kababs at Kit Care, certainly. And I’m going to be keeping an eye out for other interesting walks with Delhi Food Walks. This is definitely my cup of tea.