Shahjahanabad, like the other older cities of pre-Partition India such as Lucknow, Hyderabad, Lahore, etc., was built by the Mughals in the medieval era. The cities had a few common characteristics—the city mosque-fort, a bazaar around it, very distinct socio-economic strata spread out from the centre to the periphery, a city wall and citadel, intra-urban quarters, blind alleys and many other unique features of that era. All of these ‘old’ cities (including Old Lucknow, Old Hyderabad, Old Lahore) are known for the variety of their street food even today. The harmony of architecture and culture existed till the last century and now these ‘old’ cities are crumbling under the pressures of growing population and lack of infrastructure of the modern cities (parking, wide roads for traffic, green spaces, etc.). The pre-industrial, pre-modern cities follow their own time schedule. The markets open late morning and shut down by late night. The producer-patron relationships have been formed over decades (if not centuries) and the grace and charm can still warm the hearts of many old-world culture lovers.
Food has been an important element of every culture and is also a barometer for the changes that a society has gone through. In fact, the recent debate over vegetarian and non-vegetarian food is interesting for Shahjahanabad/‘Old Delhi’walas for whom both have existed in complete harmony since the establishment of the city. Shah Jahan (1627–57) had transferred his capital from Agra to Delhi in 1648, and had built this magnificent city which is considered to be the seventh city of Delhi.
Vegetarian Central Shahjahanabad
At Shahjahanabad, the eateries represent the culture and taste of the inhabitants of different neighbourhoods. The middle part of the city (especially areas around Chandni Chowk markets) is completely vegetarian because of the presence of Jain and Baniya community traders. Even the samosas have either gobi or matar (cauliflower or peas) filling, since some Jains avoid potatoes as well. At Kinari Bazar, outside a mosque one can also spot a board for ‘Syed’s Vegetarian Biryani’.
The famous lemon-bantawalas, the sweet shops, lassi, chaat, cheela, tikki, samosa, chhole bhature, poori-sabzis—the extensive variety of vegetarian food (often minus the onion garlic for the ‘shudh desi’ tastes) found around the Chandni Chowk market cater to a range of vegetarian tastes. With the demographic changes that Shahjahanabad went through in the post-Partition era, when many Muslims shifted to Pakistan and many from Pakistan came, settled and started business here—many changes were reflected in the food scenario as well. Some of the foods like chana-kulcha/chhola bhatoora (chickpeas with flat and fried breads) came with the Punjabis in the post-Partition era.
Kooremal Kulfiwala at Kucha Pati Ram, tucked in-between the facade of beautiful havelis, has been selling fruit-flavoured ice creams for more than a hundred years now (much before ‘Naturals’ brand from Bombay came up). In the middle of the card market at Chawari Bazar, where one can also spot a few buildings with traces of Art Deco style of architecture (Swastika, rising sun and other angular, symmetrical geometric forms [To learn more, watch Shahjahanabad Architecture Walk with Sohail Hashmi), we find ‘Jain Sandwich and Coffee Shop’, a cozy place run by two brothers. The sandwiches have fruits (pineapple, apple, pomegranate, banana, mango, chikoo), paneer, some vegetables (depending on your choice) as filling—served with coffee (hot/cold) and green chutney.
The rabri and gajak at Kinari Bazar and Dariba Kalan are extremely delicious and well known. The Dariba or the gold-silver jewellery market lane was known for its dahi-vade, papri-chaat, etc., and the legend is that women would wait for their jewellery to get made and would indulge their taste buds in the meantime. The ‘Parathe Wali Gali’ known for its deep-fried parathas has become synonymous with Chandni Chowk. All the paratha shops in this street belong to the same family, now run by cousins. After the coming of Delhi Metro to Old Delhi, the business has really picked up for most of these eateries, a fact emphasised by the shop owners as well. The variety of parathas (mixed vegetables, aloo, rabri, dry fruit, khoya, etc.) are served with two kinds of sabzis (cooked vegetables) and lassi (drink made with yogurt). Parathas are actually deep fried in desi ghee. The nankhataiwala selling big nankhatais (sweet Indian cookies) made in desi ghee said that it was his family business, but his children would prefer to go into the service industry as the profit from the business is not much. Sadly, it is a fact for most of the older professions that the modern generation will not carry forward the traditional family occupations.
Nai Sarak, literally the ‘new road’, which was built by the British after 1857, is known for its wholesale book market is and is marked by 20th century architecture. There is a big Gujarati snacks store on this road which further leads towards Ballimaran from Chawari’s card and hardware market before Nai Sarak and is a recent addition to the food diversity of Shahjahanabad. Opposite Nai Sarak, near Shyam Sweets, one can also spot Daulat ki Chaat or ‘milk puff’ vendor; milk is cooked till it turns into foam, and it just melts in your mouth and you can feel the creaminess and the light sweetness on your tongue.
Meat (mostly buffalo, goat, chicken and fish) is fried, baked, cooked in various preparations on the streets around Jama Masjid—dishes like nihari, biryani, fried chicken and fish, seekh and shami kebabs. The lanes around Jama Masjid are known for their variety of non-vegetarian food. Most of the restaurants and eateries are not centuries old (some of them claim to be, but have opened recently). Sohail Hashmi explains that most of the eateries in the Mughal times were for the travellers. Residents of the area ate at home mostly, thus most eateries have been recent additions around Jama Masjid.
Some poets are said to have sat with their admirers on the steps of Jama Masjid, surrounded by the street vendors who were selling kebabs, paans (betel leaves), kheer (rice pudding), sweet milk, sherbets, tea, shahi tukda, etc. (some may now describe those gatherings [baithaks] as ‘adda-baazi’).
The street opposite Jama Masjid (Gate 1) is still known as Urdu Bazaar where many old shops sell Urdu publications. Some rare old Urdu books can be found at some of the shops even now. But mostly it has now become a kebab street with many eateries selling variety of kebabs (seekh, shami, etc.). Urdu Bazar turning into kebab street is also quite symbolic of how times have changed for Urdu, the language losing out to the palate.
The bakeries of Shahjahanabad are famous for a variety of breads, biscuits and rusks. Their numbers are growing every day and recently they have switched from the traditional ovens (wood- or coal-based) to electronic ones which are economical and eco-friendly, but the taste has been compromised on. Their customers complain about missing the authentic taste in biscuits and rusks. The rusks are referred to as ‘Nargisi Papey’ as they have khas-khas sprinkled over them, and resemble the nargis flower, as a bakery owner explained.
Sweets, milk and sherbets
Sweet shops in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian neighbourhoods are divided into two sections—one section is entirely devoted to the traditional sweet stalls on the side. Every morning all the local mithai (sweets) shops serve aloo-chhola (potato and chickpeas) sabzi, puri and halwa. In the afternoons, they make fresh jalebi, imarti (dessert made from Bengal gram-based fried rings, filled with sugar syrup), samosas, pakoras and other snacks and sell those till evening all around Shahjahanabad. Different varieties are added according to different seasons—gajar/lauki (carrot/gourd) halwa during winters, and andarse ki goli (sweet balls sprinkled with sesame seeds), /suvaal (fried sweet) during monsoons. Habshi halwa made from burnt milk (black in color, thus named after the black people or ‘Habshis’ as they were referred to locally) is also quite popular during the cold months.
The milk shops sell not just milk, curd, paneer, rabri during the day but at night they also have a big, open cauldron in which milk is cooked on slow flame for hours and then this milk is served in earthern kulhads (baked clay cups). This is an extremely popular evening drink with most residents of Shahjahanabad, irrespective of religion/caste/community.
The extreme weather of Delhi brings a seasonal change in Shahjahanabad’s street food as well. Summer sherbets like Rooh Afza, bel, sattu and kulfis are replaced by more tea/coffee stalls, gajar ka halwa and egg preparations (fried, boiled, poached, omlette) in winters.
Paan (betel leaf)
Various paanwalas with their variety of paans are found here. It is supposedly a digestive, but is quite addictive for many. Previously, at the time of marriage, women were also given embossed ‘paandaans’ (with small boxes for katha, choona, chhaliya, tobacco) and ‘peekdaans ’or spittoons in their dowry. They had to be perfect at not just cooking, stitching, tehzeeb and tameez (manners and etiquette) but also in making paan—sada (plain), meetha (sweet) or laced with tobacco or qimam. Depending on one’s choice, paans are available all around in all the mohallas of Shahjahanabad.
The residents of the neighbourhoods, especially women, regardless of religion (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian) from ‘traditional families’ are rarely spotted eating at any of these restaurants. Traditional mohallas had unwritten rules and restrictions on women’s movement, clothes, education, etc. But, chaat-papri, golgappawalas always got their loyal patronage from women. Some got it home delivered, while some ‘adventurous women’ were brave enough to even eat at the shops.
The area around Chawari Bazar housed courtesans or tawaifs, with bazaars on the ground floor and their kothas, which were more like centres of music, poetry, literature and etiquette, on the first floor. Near Hauz Qazi, there is a mosque which is still known as ‘Randi ki Masjid’ (prostitute’s mosque) as it was funded by a prostitute, before they shifted to GB Road. This area was known for guest houses for the travellers.
There has been an explosion of ‘international’ fast-food in the past couple of years on the streets of Shahjahanabad where chicken burgers, shawarma (Lebanese rolls), chowmein, and momo have become quite commonly available and popular. Many momo stalls with just a table, stove and the momo container can be spotted all around Shahjahanabad, adding to the diversity in the choice of food. They have started giving serious competition to the besan cheela, pav bhaji, chhole kulche and other popular food sellers. Competition means better choices for the consumers. Near Jama Masjid in the late 2016, The Walled City Café and Lounge opened in an old haveli which boasts of patrons like Arundhati Roy and Ravish Kumar. The neighbourhood has something for everybody, and at affordable prices.
Anybody who enters the city of Shah Jahan cannot leave without getting charmed by the culinary experience offered by this old city.