By Samhita Ayaluri of the Student Initiative of Asia (SIA)
On one of the last days of my undergraduate course, my classmates and I knew that we had to go to Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) and enjoy the street food before we left this city to conquer the world. Old Delhi stands out for the culture it exhibits but for me, it stands out for the enchanting spirit that it skilfully flaunts.
As I entered the narrow streets of Old Delhi, the first thing I found myself doing was walking in between the parked motorbikes while avoiding crashing into rickshaws that were decorated with colours, film posters, and mirrors. My sneakers came in handy, I must say. Our agenda was simple: walk around and eat as much as we could that night, or even more – after all, we did have a record of skipping breakfast as we raced to class. As I walked down street after street, I noticed each of them had the same backdrop – bikes and more bikes, lots of people, and coloured decorations strung across the street – placed above the level of my height but below the height of a rickshaw-puller which meant that he had to bend each time he approached one of the dangling gold-coloured pieces. Contrary to being the same setting, each of these streets had a different speciality, the first one had the Jama Masjid, the city’s oldest mosque.
It was towards the end of Maghrib, communal prayer, and many men – tough and timid, young and old – walked out of the Masjid hurrying to their restaurants down the street or casually approaching their bikes and bicycles. The area became more crowded but with people who looked calm and rested. I shifted my gaze to the little children who firmly held their parents’ hands, who waited patiently while their mothers quickly traded money, who demanded cotton candy, and the one who tried to offer biscuits to a stray dog.
My fellow Dora-the-explorers and I took a left turn and slipped into another street. Just as we manoeuvred, passing by the massive architectural spectacle – Jama Masjid, we smelt it. The food.
This street’s conversations had halwais (sweet makers) taking orders from their customers who stood patiently for their turn to devour a mouth-full of kulfis and jalebis served with rabdi, and managers seated in front of noisy billing machines taking orders for dinners and screaming across the hall, informing the servers to in-turn scream the orders out to the cooks. Truly, the words Old Delhi and food are almost synonymous. The restaurants flash their boards with slogans such as “best restaurant” or rather have it in their names itself – “old famous jalebi wala (person).” Did they make a name first or their shop hoarding – we will never know. Some of these restaurants and confectioneries have a history or rather, a legacy of making delicious food and fine sweets from the 19th century, if not earlier. These very restaurants in those cramped streets of Old Delhi once prepared royal meals for the kings and rulers of Delhi. Many of them have “est. 1913 or est. 1875” written in bold letters outside their shops. If only there was a time machine that took us back a century.
Talking about streets filled with lots of food options, did I mention that there is a street named after a type of food? This is the Paranthe wali galli (the street of paranthas or flatbreads); est.1650. Based on common knowledge, this street has been serving paranthas in 20 different tiny restaurants since 1875 – so, choosing which one to dine at is a head-scratching moment. But somehow, they make it easy. One restaurant may feature photos of their establishment being graced by the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, while another might feature a photo of Amitabh Bachchan, a famous actor, doing the same at another. The choice between Politics or Bollywood is yours to make!
Speaking of Bollywood, as I walked down that street admiring my surroundings while two of my friends were using Google Maps to find that one particular restaurant that they believed served the best Biryani, I heard two fruit vendors intensely debating about Bollywood actors and their kids, who are also Bollywood actors. One of them argued that this generation’s actors could never be as good as their parents’. He gave an example of how the legendary actress Madhuri Dixit could still perform classical dance so gracefully at the age of 50-something with all the right expressions in her latest film while the other, who I think preferred the action genre, spoke passionately about how well yesteryear’s actor Bhagyashree’s son acted and performed stunts in his very first movie. Allow me to clarify – I was not eavesdropping. When the streets are so busy and crowded, two people have to talk loud enough to be heard in the first place, especially while indulging in such an important debate.
Very close to the fruit vendors was a shop with beautiful fabric on display. “Cotton, Silk, Chiffon, Brocade, Banarasi”, read the standee next to the shop. It was filled with beautiful colours, almost as if they had a pot of gold hidden underneath one of the shelves that threw them out at once, like a rainbow arc. A young boy and girl stood in front of that shop looking at the mirrored dupattas. A girl, possibly the girl’s friend was standing just about 2 feet away from them. The boy and the girl were shy, and couldn’t control how much they were smiling. In a few seconds of time, they stepped aside and then, I saw the boy bring out a rose from his pocket and half-bend on his knees; maybe his jeans were too tight? “Found it!!”, screamed my friend. Google Maps could do wonders even in these small streets. We found the place which apparently served the best Biryani and trotted back into the street.
We were seated next to a window with a wooden frame; it looked quite old. Although it was night time, I couldn’t help myself but notice a massive house nearby. House would be an understatement – it was a haveli (a mansion). The paint and the grandeur were fading and the architecture seemed simple, but it was the doors of the haveli that caught my gaze. The main door had paintings on it, probably something from mythology along with flowers, but I could not make much of it except that it was in blue, green, red and yellow.
After a delicious dinner, we decided to split up into groups because we all wanted to try different sweets that were available outside this restaurant and down other streets. Walking with a smaller group, I saw the two girls – the friend and the one to whom the boy offered a rose. The second was holding the flower, slyly arranging it back into its shape, disallowing petals to fall off. She looked happy, blushing, even. And now, I knew her answer. We walked and walked as we tried to find sweets. The street was narrow, yet we still had to cross from one side to the other, walking in between some bikes and avoiding crashing into rickshaws. At one point, my small group ran across the street to a stand when a gap in the crowds finally appeared, while one friend stayed back on the other side to her footwear. When I turned first to the menu and back to my friend to ask her for her order, I was ready to scream across the street. As I turned, holy sh…cow! Sorry, I just saw a cow.
Samhita Ayaluri is from India and is currently pursuing her second year of Masters in Development Studies.