It’s early in the day, but the date merchants are already in position with their pushcarts. Meanwhile, the spice traders are still only beginning to roll up shutters and dust their shelves of pickle jars. Counters are being filled with trays of turmeric roots, nutmeg and dried chillies, and sacks of peppercorn are opened by the roadside. Strangely, the air appears quite dusty despite the morning hour’s freshness, but it takes a while before I realise that my eyes are watering from the dense fog of chilli powder in the air.
This is Khari Baoli, said to be Asia’s largest spice market, so it is the optimal starting point for our quest for spicy snacks in Old Delhi. Here, photographer Jonas and I find everything from local masala mixes for our own cooking experiments, to explosive pickles that make our hair stand on end and BPs shoot through the ceiling. One has just got to love how a place like this, where one first inhales the spices and then buys them loose, thrives in an era of malls and online shopping.
The cycle rickshaws drag themselves past me, laden with cartons going from wholesalers to retailers; hawkers yell, peddling their wares off pavements. It feels like stepping into a medieval saga, a travel documentary on TV, a Salman Rushdie novel with pop-out characters, a…
…Gigantic pat of cow dung. I glance down at the steaming chocolate-coloured mousse that envelopes my trekking boot and pull my foot out of the sticky goo.
A second later, I realise that it could be worse. The cow, acting like the queen of the bazaars, tries to gore my photographer colleague, but he makes a stylish matador move to get out of its way, so it instead uses its back end to projectile-poop over his bare legs. Considering that the cow is such a holy, auspicious creature, we convince ourselves that this is the best welcome one could possibly wish for in Old Delhi.
After scouring Khari Baoli’s condiment shops, we turn round the corner to Chandni Chowk where, adjacent to the 17th-century Fatehpur Mosque’s gateway, sits Chainaram’s—a practically prehistoric sweet shop founded in 1901. A potent vapour of aromas draws us in. Local aunties in burkas are stuffing themselves silly on puri sabzi. The hot ballooning breads look divine and the curry smells heavenly (besides, extra sabzi is only Rs20.) But I know that it would totally fill us up and we need to preserve our appetites for a day’s worth of snacking. Instead we nibble on delicate sweetmeats that taste like boiled candy fluff: balushahi, a crunchy, deep-fried sweet made of maida and soaked in sugar syrup. I, of course, buy a kilo of spicy kachoris to take home.
The “silver square” or Chandni Chowk extends all the way up to the Red Fort, the Lal Qila of the Mughal emperors. It was, once upon a time, Asia’s premier shopping centre ages before Singapore was invented. Shopaholics rode on camels from China and Turkey to lay their hands on spices, jewellery and cloth. Even today the street is lined with cheap garment stores, but also cut-rate electronic markets and, most importantly, India’s best junk food makers. We walk less than half-a-kilometre to our next destination, Tewari Brothers, where we are offered piping hot stuffed kachoris. These yummy pockets of dough are filled with piquant lentil mixture and served alongside tangy sauce—the ultimate breakfast for chilli champions.
It is striking how, until a couple of decades ago, the modern world chose to ignore Old Delhi as a place where tourists went to see the sights, but not much more. However, since getting themselves a bunch of metro stations the bazaars have suddenly turned hot again. This is what I begin to notice when we go further down Chandni Chowk to the city’s original outlet of Haldiram’s—started in the 1920s—and meet a Delhi lady who exclaims, “It’s a fully different life we’re living! We just had errands to do around town, me, my daughter and mum, but because the metro makes travel so easy we decided to go to Parathewali Gali and eat greasy parathas!”
At Haldiram’s they’re having fresh kulfis to round off the paratha meal with and pick up big bags of those world-famous hygienically packaged snacks for a party on the weekend. Since we’ve just had a fiery breakfast, we sample the over-sweet kulfis that balance out the kachoris simmering in our tummies.
Then, after walking past the town hall built in 1863 when the colonising Brits had deposed the last Mughal, we turn right into the twisting alley of paratha-makers. Parathewali Gali is mentioned in most travel guides so flocking to the first paratha shop are a bunch of white tourists in cowboy hats on a food tour. The next is crowded with students who have taken the metro from the university area. The third is empty, so I sit down at Gaya Prasad Shivcharan’s, which appears to be the oldest of the lot, founded in 1872. Their parathas are thin, crispy and available with 25 different fillings from cauliflower to bananas, but I choose the classic peas paratha that is served with five scrumptious vegetable side items including lip-smacking chutney and pungent carrot pickle.
After a lassi (flavoured with rock salt and presumably good for digestion) from the tiny corner kiosk, we carry on towards the eastern end of Chandni Chowk and the Old Famous Jalebi Wala. I’ve been told that one can buy confectionery of a thousand varieties along the chowk, but the topmost have always been the syrupy jalebis that are cooked over charcoal here. This legendary shop was opened in 1884 by a gentleman named Nemchand and today, his descendant sits behind the counter, and looks unsettlingly like a younger Vin Diesel. He insists, “Eating jalebi is the perfect antidote to the heat, so buy at least one hundred grams.”
Delhi’s ace lifestyle blogger Mayank Austen Soofi told me, when I asked about the must-eats in town, “I try not to miss Old Famous Jalebi Wala in Chandni Chowk.” On his food blog he elaborates thus: “Thick and juicy, it is food porn at its best. Jalebis, the golden-coloured rings of deep-fried maida batter, soaked in sugar syrup, fill the mouth with a warm liquid of such excessive sweetness that modesty blushes in shame. The diabetic may find joy in just looking at its preparation.”
After having boosted our energy levels with this sugar shock, we debate which way to go next. From here, one may carry on up along Chandni Chowk to sightsee among Delhi’s divine buildings: a sanctuary of Jainism where sick birds find refuge, a prominent Sikh gurdwara and even a Baptist church erected in 1814, which would suggest that Mughals were traditionally very tolerant of other religions. A wee bit further away is the main tourist attraction, the Mughal fort.
But we opt to head south on Dariba Kalan which leads off from the corner of the jalebi shop. It has traditionally been the street of jewellers and one still finds glimmering ornaments and giftware along the winding bazaar, though above all it is fun to observe what short eats punters pick from the pushcarts that stand here and there. It seems that Dilliwallas are snacking everywhere and all the time.
Although these bustling parts may appear a trifle difficult to find one’s bearings in, Old Delhi has a clearly planned nature: the palatial fort of the Mughals symbolises its brain, Chandni Chowk its spine, its side streets are the ribs, the spice market its tummy, and the Friday mosque, the Jama Masjid, is the city’s beating heart that has a capacity to hold an astonishing 25,000 devotees at a time. The jewellers’ bazaar leads straight to the great mosque.
While Chandni Chowk is a 100 per cent vegetarian street, here outside the masjid one gets to feast on the most succulent kebabs in the city. Tourists flock to Karim’s, which is listed in all guidebooks, but my personal favourite since decades is Yaseen Hotel (on the corner immediately south of the mosque) where they don’t charge tourist rates and the rich meat stew with fresh tandoori breads costs next to nothing. Their signboard— “Good taste, cheap and best, hygienic environment”—says it all. However, as today is a snacking day, we focus on the gentlemen who set up nameless stalls outside the mosque’s east gate to sell haleem, that sublime wheat porridge with shredded mutton and lots of chilli that is boiled until it has a smooth and creamy texture. One plate is Rs20 only.
Behind the mosque, we enter Chawri Bazar, which is another artery of the old town and where hardware wholesalers have been running shops since the 19th century. Jonas, who plans to build a guest house after he goes back to Thailand, picks up a box of brass taps for its bathrooms. But hardware is not all there is to Chawri Bazaar, there’s also interesting “software”—at the only genuine outlet of Shyam Sweets.
It is a bigger kiosk with one or two stainless steel tables abutting the street, making it the perfect place to hang and people-watch (until other foodies come and claim one’s table). The jolly proprietor, Anil Aggarwal, proudly informs me, “My grand-father’s grandpa’s grandfather started this business in 1910.”
Their bedmi aloo, puffed lentil-flour breads with potato curry, goes perfectly with a lassi that has a mild scent of roses. Potato and roses, spicy and sweet. Before leaving, I buy vacuum-packaged Rajasthani curries, something that Anil is understandably proud of. These come in many varieties including chickpeas and mustard leaves, and the shelf life is a year—so no need to refrigerate, one can just bring them home and with their help return to the flavours of Old Delhi. (Alas, I finished my supplies within a week of coming home!)
From here we find our way up Ballimaran, a meandering alley that eventually leads us to a memorial erected in honour of the Mughal era court poet Mirza Ghalib—in fact, this was once his house (entry is free). There’s a collection of memorabilia and objects that give an idea what life in Delhi may have looked like two centuries ago. After having snapped our selfies, we carry on down the even narrower alley until we suddenly emerge in a major square right next to our final stop for the day: the 70-year-old, barely nine-square-foot Ashok Chaat Corner. Their yogurt-based snacks, such as dahi vada, are the best way imaginable to round off a day-long junk food orgy.
As I wolf down the last cooling vada, it occurs to me that although it is said that chaat is the Indian equivalent to Mediterranean meze or Spanish tapas, there’s a great difference. While the short eats of southern Europe are something you dig into over a leisurely evening of nice wines or cold beers, chaat can only be eaten methodically and in moderation. After you take one hit to refresh and speed up the mind, you need a break to walk off the side effects. This is because chaat is usually deep-fried and very spicy, so it will take its toll on the gastric system as well as cause unwanted cardiovascular problems, which differentiates it from the generally wholesome Mediterranean snacks that can be eaten in abundance.
But an occasional trip to Old Delhi feels great for the mind, tummy and the wallet. What was the final damage? Less than Rs500. Did we get Delhi belly? No worries—because right next to Ashok Chaat Corner are the steps down into the Chawri Bazar metro station that takes us back to our hotel for next to nothing and in a jiffy, since we anyway need antacids and a bit of a nap now.
Even if New Delhi is full of places to stay, including luxury and boutique hotels, it is fun to live near Old Delhi for an immersive experience of the historic city.
Nothing beats 114-year-old Maidens in terms of elegance. Their regular rooms are not exorbitantly expensive, but for a splurge book the Lutyens’ suite where the architect who built modern Delhi lived (4 km north of Chandni Chowk; www.maidenshotel.com; doubles from Rs8,500).
Broadway is an old favourite hangout for its remarkable dining hall that serves up awesome Kashmiri wazwaan meals, not to mention the relaxed pub—something quite rare in Old Delhi (2 km south of Chandni Chowk; www.hotelbroadwaydelhi.com; doubles from Rs2,400).
For a budget stay in the thick of things, Tara Palace is located right between the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, and as close as you can get to the heart of it all. They’ve recently opened a branch in another nice part of the old town (www.tarapalace.com; doubles from Rs2,399).
Bloomrooms offers clean and neat tiny rooms at good value, housed in a quaint art deco building that used to be known as Hotel Airlines (1 km west of Ajmeri gate, 1 km north of Connaught Place; www.staybloom.com; doubles from Rs2,000).
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).
Jonas Gratzer is a Swedish freelance photojournalist with a focus on Asia. For almost a decade he has travelled through large parts of the Asiatic continent and covered issues of development, environmental, political and human rights.