Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Old Delhi Food tour - North India Food Discovery (1)
Old Delhi is far removed from the newer parts of India’s Capital. Seemingly stuck in a time warp, it is a teeming warren of narrow lanes populated by shadowy ghosts of history shimmering amongst ordinary citizens of today. And to add to the unreality factor, everything is overhung by an ancient dust spangled tangle of live cables! But it is easy to see the evidence that centuries ago, this is where royalty shopped for exotica from all over the world in the ancient shops and establishments it is home to.
Post a slight detour to purchase a takeaway pack of freshly baked Sheermal we were on our quest for Noori Masaleywaley, an eighty year old shop, run by Mohammed Azam and Akif Azam. Not much of a quest however, we quickly learned that locating anything in Old Delhi is a no brainer, just ask! And Noori, source of spices for any chef worth his Mughlai food in Delhi, is iconic. There are lots of spice mixes available but can also customise blends to specification. I chose korma masala, kofta masala, nahari masala and a rather intriguing stew masala from a handy menu. But for now lets cut to the meat of the matter.
Because that is what Karims is - meat heaven! Vegetarians are... welcomed if they must be....
Found at the aromatic end of a tiny little alley of a street appropriately named Gali Kababian (Street of Kababs!) Karims is an Old Delhi institution rooted in history and easily missed if you don’t know where to look. A haphazard collection of ground floor rooms of adjoining building that have obviously been stitched together by commerce over the years Karims was bustling. A compact menu of about 30 odd dishes also conveniently serving in half portions, allows wide sampling.
We began with kebabs (of course), picking Chicken Tikka (as a bench mark, it being the kebab I am most familiar with), Mutton Seekh and the Mutton Burra. And my trip to Karims was validated. They were unlike anything I had ever eaten before! (I don’t say this easily, neither do I claim to have tasted too many kebabs). The Chicken tikka were gently spiced slightly tangy succulent chunks distinctly different from the siren red versions I had eaten before and far, far superior. The seekh kebabs were unpretntios to look at, flecked with green chillies and gently spiced but so very moist and showing no evidence of denseness from excessive binding agents. But it was the Burra that I confess I lost a little of my foodie heart to. An indescribable chunk of meat and bone, that was cooked so perfectly that the meat almost seemed eager to part ways with the bone!
It seemed appropriate to pause at this point to just savour the fact that this is probably the sort of food that Mughal Royaly ate in a bygone era.
Our main course arrived. We ordered Mutton Korma, Mutton Stew and some more Sheermal to sop up the deliciousness with. Evidence that food is cooked the traditional way here (no holds barred) shows in the thick layer of melted fat that was poured off before our curries were served.
Like the stew masalla earlier the stew on the menu caught my attention because stew is not indigenous to Indian cuisine, (it was a legacy of the British Raj). And while we have that delicious coconut based version spiced with pepper in Kerela cuisineit was interesting to find a version of stew in this bastion of Mughlai cuisine in Delhi.
And it was the discovery of the day in terms of taste as well. A pale greenish white, flecked with bits of chilli and delicately spiced with coriander seed it was deliciously tangy. My palate picked up the spices but I was flummoxed by the source of the tanginess. I had to ask how it was made. But Karims do not share recipes. My server mumbled something about telling us later. He kept his promise coming back to furtively whisper that the base of the stew was fresh yoghurt, cooked slowly untill it let all its fat forth. But of the spices he had no knowledge because they were combined and prepared by one of the family and delivered to the kitchen daily.
Paying the princely sum of Rs. 650 (only) we moved on to dessert at Gyani's rabri falooda shop on Church Mission Road. More than 5 decades old, famous for its rabri falooda, milk shakes, ice creams and such seasonal desserts as Urad dal halwa, the Rabri Falooda was all it promised to be but it was the lassiwalla nearby that caught my attention. I got myself a serving in a clay kullad and continued on past shops selling jaggery, tooth cleaners and spice shops to Khari Baoli.
Khari Baoli houses Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. Announcing its proximity by attacking your eyes and throat long before you enter, because there are chillies everywhere! Spilling from sacks and being ground underfoot, exacting their revenge by releasing their vapours into the air in their dying throes. Serious business is transacted here and tourists are aggravating to the volatile atmosphere. Like seaweed caught on a tide we were jostled about by carts weighed down with spices and men carrying sacks of chillies but I love chillies, and I can be persistent. Significant persuasion later one trader deigned to talk to me and reluctantly gave me a few samples before shooing me off! But I had what I wanted and hugging my booty close I gleefully made my way home.