Delhi or “Dilli” as we lovingly call it, is a melting pot of a city that never fails to amaze me, a place where cultures converge and contrast in a kaleidoscopic way. I’ve been to Delhi many times, from the age of five to thirty five. Every time I went there, I had a different agenda and a different experience.
This time I arrived in Delhi with a single overriding culinary objective: to explore Old Delhi’s street food. Of course, the other big reason was to meet my brother who helped me to stay motivated. With an upset stomach, I was a little hesitant to start right away. Instead, I kept one day to look around, scanning for things I should or should not eat. There is no better place to explore and gorge on street food than the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi. For foodies who also love history (like me), this unique collection of alleys is truly no less than paradise on earth.
The first day was spent with my friends and brother; the day next was for myself, well most of it. It was a Monday morning and the whole city was busy saying goodbye to Mr. Obama, my US neighbor who had followed me to India being a big fan of my cooking. But I was determined not to let him slow me down. Armed only with my camera and a hungry stomach, I started my culinary journey for the day. The moment I came out of the Chandni Chowk metro station, I was excited, puzzled and anxious at the same time. Anyone with half a brain would have understood that I was not from the city (or even a resident Indian anymore). But I pretended to be a Hindi-speaking local (which, given my Bengali accent must have made me look like a fool) and started bargaining for the rickshaw fare. I was successful; at least I think I was. As soon as the rickshaw-wallah agreed to take me to the Jama Masjid area, I hopped on his rickshaw and my eyes started scanning all around me. It was crowded, well extremely crowded and with utter chaos reigning hand-in-hand with supreme organization as they can do only in India. I loved it. It was a chaos I had looked forward to for three long years. I had the luxury to enjoy it because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I don’t have to push through the carts, hawkers, rickshaws or being deafened by the noise, survive a stampede and then go to work.
With a serpentine motion, the rickshaw-wallah was pedaling through tiny, congested lanes and bi-lanes. And then all of a sudden, I screamed…”roko,roko!” (stop, stop!) and before even he realized what had happened, I jumped off his rickshaw. I had spotted “daulat ki chaat” which I was frantically looking for, being sold by the roadside. I asked him to wait for me and rushed to the chaat-wallah. I was overjoyed and excited. I asked him for one serving, to which he replied “kam mitha ya zyada mitha?” (do I want it to be very sweet or less sweet?) Not being a very sweet toothed person, I said “kam” (less). The vendor very delicately scooped out a few spoons full of foamy cream into a paper bowl, lined with silvery foil, crumbled something (khoya/milk solid mixed with sugar I think) on top of it and stuck a spoon into it.Quickly, using my phone camera, I took a few pictures of him, his cart and the chaat. I was in a hurry as I had kept the rickshaw-wallah waiting on a very busy lane with people honking behind him. Before I ran away, I asked him his name which turned out to be Prabesh Kumar. That’s all I had time to ask. The moment I jumped back in the rickshaw, very apprehensively I took a spoon full of that foam with a little bit of the crumble and put it into my mouth. I was worried –would I be disappointed, let down after this quest which had brought me all the way from Calcutta to Delhi? Well, I should have spared myself the anxiety. It immediately melted in the warmth of my mouth. It was delicate. It was slightly cool, not refrigerated coldness but a naturally cool taste (I know I am not making much sense but you have to experience the chaat to know what I am talking about) and then the occasional bite of the crumble adding the perfect sweetness and crunch. It was literally heaven in my mouth.
‘Daulat’ which is literally translated to wealth and ‘chaat’ is a common word to describe a type of savory street food. So, if translated, it is a street food for the wealthy, but it’s not savory, rather delicately sweet. No one knows why is it called that way and where did it originate? I guess it’s called daulat ki chaat because it is made with an expensive ingredient, milk cream, and requires hours preparing it. So, only the wealthy could afford to make it or eat it. May be during the ancient times, the wealthy people had servants who painstakingly stirred the milk all evening to scoop out the cream and then hand churn it all night to make it frothy and airy? Who knows? But if you are in Delhi during winter, please hunt down a vendor and give it a try. My brother, who was on his own food quest a few lanes away from me, tried it and fell in love with it too. I spotted a few more vendors along my way to the Jama Masjid. So daulat ki chaat might not be as elusive as I thought it was.
While savoring my chaat, I asked my rickshaw-wallah if he had ever tasted daulat ki chaat, but to my surprise, he said no. How can you be in the lanes and bi-lanes everyday pulling rickshaw and not taste the best thing Chandni Chowk can offer? Few months later, Dr. Sen thought about it and his take on it is that the twenty rupees it cost was not a trivial expense to him. But back then, I was on a high and had forgotten that my India and his are probably very different. Forging ahead on my quest food nirvana, I moved on to my next target, which was Ram ladoo (story to be continued in my blog post, so stay tuned).