Heritage and Street Food: A Walk Through Nizamuddin Basti

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 walk begins: Asif introduces Nizamuddin Basti.

The walk begins: Asif introduces Nizamuddin Basti.

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).

Inside the Jamaat Khaana mosque at the dargah. An unusual mosque, in that it's octagonal rather than the more conventional four-sided building.

Inside the Jamaat Khaana mosque at the dargah. An unusual mosque, in that it’s octagonal rather than the more conventional four-sided building.

Carved marble at one of the tombs in the Dargah complex.

Carved marble at one of the tombs in the Dargah complex.

At the dargah, a small group of qawwals beside the tomb of Zia'uddin Barani.

At the dargah, a small group of qawwals beside the tomb of Zia’uddin Barani.

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)…

The baoli of Nizamuddin Auliya.

The baoli of Nizamuddin Auliya.

…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.

One of Nizamuddin's loveliest monuments, the tomb of Atgah Khan, husband of Akbar's wet nurse, Jiji Anga.

One of Nizamuddin’s loveliest monuments, the tomb of Atgah Khan, husband of Akbar’s wet nurse, Jiji Anga.

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.

The oddly named (but very good) Kit Care Kabab Corner.

The oddly named (but very good) Kit Care Kabab Corner.

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.

An unusual dish of chicken with yoghurt and butter, at Kit Care Kabab Corner.

An unusual dish of chicken with yoghurt and butter, at Kit Care Kabab Corner.

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.

Seekh kababs, Kit Care Kabab Corner.

Seekh kababs, Kit Care Kabab Corner.

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.

Moradabadi Biryani.

Moradabadi Biryani.

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.

Biryani, Moradabadi style.

Biryani, Moradabadi style.

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.

Nahaari, at Manpasand. Too many chillies for my taste. but still a hit.

Nahaari, at Manpasand. Too many chillies for my taste. but still a hit.

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.

At Ghalib Kabab Corner.

At Ghalib Kabab Corner.

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.

Shaami kababs at Ghalib Kabab Corner.

Shaami kababs at Ghalib Kabab Corner.

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.

Chicken tikka.

Chicken tikka.

Mutton tikka at Ghalib Kabab Corner - beautifully tender and delicious.

Mutton tikka at Ghalib Kabab Corner – beautifully tender and delicious.

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!).

Al Quresh, seen from the outside.

Al Quresh, seen from the outside.

Inside Al Quresh.

Inside Al Quresh.

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).

Tangdi kabab at Al Quresh.

Tangdi kabab at Al Quresh.

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.

Chicken qorma, karahi chicken and rotis at Al Quresh.

Chicken qorma, karahi chicken and rotis at Al Quresh.

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.

An imarti and samosa waala in Nizamuddin.

An imarti and samosa waala in Nizamuddin.

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.

Kheer at Nasir.

Kheer at Nasir.

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).

The paanwaala struts his stuff.

The paanwaala struts his stuff.

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.

Nearing the end of our walk: beside a row of food stalls.

Nearing the end of our walk: beside a row of food stalls.

 

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Heritage and Street Food: A Walk Through Nizamuddin Basti

  1. Lovely post, nostalgia-invoking too. Must have been seven years since I visited Nizamuddin, and to think there was a time I used to drop by, and stuff myself silly, every other weekend or so. If I come down to Delhi this winter I think I’ll make it a point to revisit some old haunts.

    Completely agree with the previous comment about Ghalib’s buff seekh kababs, I’ve been having them since I was eight or so. Their mutton ones are not so bad either. The funny thing is, the one time I tried their shami I found it ghastly – very little meat, lots of chana, quite tasteless. About nahari, have you tried Moniskda Hotel? It lies towards the Ring Road end of things, quite close to Zaeqa (a highly overrated joint if you ask me, though regulars go ga-ga over it). Pretty good nahari they dish out, though nowhere near as good as Haji Noora’s at Bara Hindu Rao. Have to try out Manpasand as soon as I can (I’m pretty ok with chillies).

    Lastly, the ‘Nasir’ you had firni at, would it be Nasir Iqbal by any chance? They do serve a killer firni,

    • Since Hirsute Hippo recommended the buff kababs at Ghalib’s to me, I’ve actually ended up eating the mutton ones – I’d told my parents, so the next time I went visiting them, they’d got some seekh kaabs from Ghalib. Sadly, not buff, since they were not available, but mutton. And yes, I did think they were very good too.

      And now you’ve given me an entire list of other fabulous places to try out! I must admit I’d never eaten at either Moniskda or Haji Noora’s, so that I must correct ASAP.

      No, I don’t know if Nasir was Nasir Iqbal. I only recall the shop signboard as bearing the name ‘Nasir’.

      • Do try the buff kababs, they are most worth it.

        A clarification: Haji Noora’s located at a place called Bara Hindu Rao; for good measure it’s more than two kilometres away from the eponymous hospital. The most convenient way to go there is to take the Metro till Pul Bangash, then ask for Bara Hindu Rao, then wade through simply dozens of bakeries, resist the temptation to buy more freshly-baked rusk biscuits than you could finish in a year, then ask around a bit more for Haji Noora’s shop.

        • That’s typical, authentic nahari, no? Cooked all through the night, and available only very early in the morning.

          This is terrible. The day has barely begun and I’m already yearning for nahari. :-(

          • Haji Noora’s Nihari is available in evening as well. Sharp 6pm evening they open their degh. Within 10 mins, Bheja ( Goat brain) & Nalli ( Buffalo bone marrow) gets over. Pulled buff ( nihari) though get over next hour or so. Its at the corner of Gali Thelewali, just ask anyone there.

            • That makes life much easier for me. Yes, evenings are certainly more doable. Thanks for the tip. And for telling me about both the bheja and the nalli – they’re among my favourites.

          • In all honesty I find the naharis of both Haji Noora and Kallu (of Ballimaran) a touch too fiery. My new favourite (and no, it’s not Shabrati) in town for the velvety stuff is Rahmatullah, located about 200 yards in the road towards Chitli Qabr opposite Jama Masjid. The shop i pretty unmissable, on your left with your back to the Masjid. Ask for “bina roghan ke” and they’ll skip that extra ladleful of oil. Pretty good khameeri rotis, dal gosth, and ishtoo as well. Well worth a visit if you love buff meat. Cheers.

  2. Hello DO

    This post was simply delightful, many thanks. I’m left ripe with nostalgia and reminiscing bygone days as during my first trip to India in 1997 I stayed in Basti Nizamuddin. I dearly wish there were more photographs of the lanes and shops which give the district a distinct, unique character. However, I understand and appreciate this was not the purpose of your post. Conversely, the photographs and commentary on the local cuisine provided for ample compensation; I only ate a while ago but honestly I’m salivating!

    Most of my family and friends who’ve visited India return to the UK much slimmer due to a variety of factors such as the heat and Delhi belly. I, on the other hand, returned much more plump and don’t think I’ve ever been as large at any other time in my life. I am a self-confessed foodie and spent most of time lounging in restaurants (for the AC) and gorging to my heart’s content. That the portions were much smaller than what we get here didn’t help my cause. I would gleefully order three to four starters and upto six main dishes whereas in the UK one to two starters and the same number of main dishes would render me satiated.

    I hope I can visit Nizamuddin again in the near future and continue my love affair… Thanks once again for a great post!

    • Thank you, Samir! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I have been on other walks – more specifically, heritage walks – to Nizamuddin – and that is where the nature of the basti really comes into its own. But I thought this was another interesting (and very satisfying!) aspect of the area. :-) The food is so good, just reading your comment reminded me of it all over again – and made me want to go back.

  3. WOW…..beautifully written…. Thumbs up!!!
    I could almost feel the taste, reading it, of all the food items those are so familiar to me (not of Nizamuddin basti though).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s