It is not easy to sum up an old city like Delhi, with all the layering, in one post. And I am not planning to attempt it.
In this city of 10 million people there is no getting away from the crowd. There are people everywhere, and they continue to pour in – from smaller cities and the villages. The biggest influx into Delhi was in 1947, during the Partition of the country, when many Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab (now in Pakistan) sought refuge.
It is only natural that a city 3000 years old has imbibed influences from all over the world, and these are reflected in its culture – art and architecture, language, and of course, in its cuisine. The Persian influence is prominent in the Mughlai cuisine, though the Punjabi flavours predominate today. But whosoever came and settled here had to deal with the hot and dusty summers.
Not that that is an entirely bad thing. How else would the mango 🙂 be so sweet? While the temperate world revels in its fall colours, we have a green green spring followed by the vibrant summer. The sun makes our greens shine, the reds brighter, and the yellows sunnier. Who can rival the Gulmohur (Delonix regia) or the Amaltas (Cassia fistula), when it comes to a show of colour?
So, this post is going to be about Dilli ki galiyan (the streets of Delhi) for the Postcard series for Bee who does a jugalbandi with J. This post has been brewing for some time and some delicious flavours are going to dominate, while others have mellowed.
Come spring and the tamarinds lining Tilak Marg, that looked dead all winter, turn green overnight. The avenues in other parts of Lutyens’ Delhi are lined with evergreen Jamun trees. It is interesting that Lutyens chose these non-ornamental productive trees to line the streets. Contracts are given out each year for the fruits of the Jamun. At about the same time as the Jamuns ripen, there is the tart tiny phalsa that makes an appearance.
So what if we don’t have blueberries! Or blackberries. Mere pass phalsa hai ( with apologies to Salim Javed)! Already, our supplier-on-bike has started ringing the door bell to make an assured sale. Sprinkled with some spiced salt, it is another blessing of the Delhi summer. All these small-delights are sold on the streets, near busy shopping areas, and at bus stops.
Delhi is also famous for its own brand of street food. Some of this is prepared in the best known tradition of street food – deep fried. Here you have the samosa – a fried pastry filled with spiced mashed potatoes, and served with khatti-meethi imli chutney; the tikki – fried potato patties stuffed with a spiced mix of lentils, served with the aforementioned tamarind chutney; the absolutely heavenly deep fried moong-dal pakodies made with a batter of moong and chana dal, and served with a hot green chutney and a garnish of grated mooli and mooli leaves. Gol-gappas and papri chaat everybody knows. If you don’t, write in – but really, are there people in this world who haven’t heard about the famous Dilli ki Chaat?
Before you go thinking that all street food here is deep fried, think again. For the health conscious we have the fruit seller who will cut and slice the fruit of choice – mangoes (but of course), pineapples, and the always-in-season banana. The banana is best-packaged for the street since it requires no washing or slicing. The vendor will take out a slim peel, make an incision with a knife, and then use the same knife to get some chaat masala (spiced salt – in Indian, you are never separated from your spice) in, a squeeze of lemon, and you have your meal-on-the-go. Ummm. You could always ask him to mix all the fruit for a delicious spicy no-fat fruit chaat, served in a dona, a bowl made from the dried leaves of the Dhak (Flame of the Forest). Bio-degradable. Let’s talk carbon emissions, greenhouse gases per capita.
There is street food and then there is chaat. And the best and most authentic Dilli ki chaat is to be had on the streets of Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad, its original name. I thought I’ll take you on a trip through the quaint labyrinth of these streets where the different Katras (neighbourhood units) specialize in different products, and offer everything under the sun, from spices to grain, from jewelery to electronics. Lutyen’s New Delhi with its colonial bungalows and tree lined lush avenues is in total contrast to this. But sanity prevailed and I remembered that only mad dogs and English men 🙂 go out in the mid-day sun. Another time…
But I will tell you about an easy-breezy quick healthy chaat you can make at home. I first had this chaat many summers ago while condition-mapping old monuments of Delhi for INTACH as a student trainee. There is no corner of Delhi that I and my friend, Prati, did not get to see. Every obscure monument, every grave stone, we’ve seen it. One day she suggested we have the chaat from the guy on the street with the shining brass handi balanced on a khomcha. I gave her an incredulous look, “That ‘grade’ of street food? Are you crazy?” The heat had definitely gotten to her. But she convinced me that I had missed out on a very edible street-side item. Well, you probably also know how chatora we Dilliwalas are. So there I was watching the guy mix the boiled ‘chole’ with some chopped onions and tomatoes (“OMG, Prati, look, he didn’t even wash the onion or the tomato!”), a dash of this, and a pinch of that. “Kitna taez, madam?” he asked, before adjusting the heat to my taste. “Ekdum teekha,” pat came my reply.
And I was hooked. Every day that summer, through the long training period, we had one dona for afternoon snack.
Those are not really chole (chickpeas). They are matar (peas) which cost a fourth of chickpeas! That’s how the matarwala sells it with two small thin kulchas for Rs 8. If you want just the matar, that will be all of Rs 5! I cannot believe that it is still possible to get any kind of snack in Delhi for that ludicrous an amount leave alone something so tasty! And guilt-free to boot.
Here’s to street food.
(Spicy yellow pea salsa/chaat)
2 C matar (dry yellow peas)
onions, chopped fine
tomatoes, chopped fine
cucumbers, chopped into small cubes (optional)
green chillies, minced
coriander, chopped fine
chaat masala (black-kind preferred)
red chilli (cayenne pepper) powder
thinned tamarind juice (soak tamarind in hot water, mash, and extract the juice)
green chillies to serve on the side
2 pkg kulchas (such as Harvest brand), or bread of choice
Soak peas for 2-3 hours, and pressure cook till soft. Use just enough water so that there is not much liquid left after cooking; about 4 1/2 cups should be enough. The degree of softness is up to you; traditionally they are very soft, almost mushy. Prepare all the other ingredients. The amount of all these fresh ingredients is entirely up to you. I like to add chopped cucumbers, but it is not traditional.
Just before serving, take the peas and their liquid in a mixing bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients. Mix and adjust the spicing and the sourness; you should be able to taste the lemon. The tamarind juice provides additional moisture besides adding to the tang.
Serve on its own, or with pan-toasted kulchas, with additional wedges of lemon, and green chillies if desired. It would make a great dip with pita wedges too!