It’s Monday evening in the capital city; a game of hide-and-seek is afoot between the summer sun and stormy clouds. Zooming past Humayun’s Tomb, my auto rickshaw stops inside a narrow lane in Bhogal, in the heart of South Delhi.
I am late for my guided food walk but Delhi Food Walks’s owner Anubhav Sapra, who quit his job as an HR professional four years ago to dedicate his life to his first love, food, hardly seems to mind.
Bhogal’s narrow Kashmiri Lane is bustling with activity and we are here to trail the Afghan food this area is known for. India’s proximity to Afghanistan and its position as a British colony meant that the country drew many a migrant worker in the 19th century. Afghan businessmen or Kabuliwallahs, who were moneylenders who doubled as dry fruit and asafoetida sellers, found a home in the then colonial capital of Calcutta. However, in this part of the country, an Afghan settlement grew a century later. Refugees migrated to Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and Bhogal after the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent mujahideen takeover in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While some returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many chose to remain in their new home, leading to a permanent Afghan settlement.
My photographer friend, armed with a bag full of lenses, asks where we’ll start off and a grinning Sapra tells us to first just look around. The scent of butter and dough tease the senses as we walk past the shops of the famous naanwais or Afghan bread-makers. Digging into khajuri, sweet, crusty naan shaped like dates or khajur, I remember the reason for being so interested in this Afghan food trail.
Of the few memories of growing up in a Bengali household in Calcutta in the early 1990s, the one I hold dear is of the monthly visits of a Kabuliwallah. Every time he would bring me some sheer pira, a type of succulent milk fudge flavoured with rosewater. I have moved to three different cities since then but the taste of sheer pira and the warmth of my “Kabuliwallah uncle” remain buried in my subconscious.
Sapra tells us that bread, though a staple in a typical Afghan household, is rarely made at home. It is bought instead from the local naanwais—mostly men—who make them fresh every day. As soon as one batch is baked, the next is ready to be popped into the large clay tandoors. As we stop at all eight naanwai shops—also run by men—that dot the lane, Sapra introduces us to different kinds of Afghan breads. There is sweet, round, sesame-sprinkled roht; diamond-shaped khasa and the very similar gir; the potato-stuffed bolani, which is served with a tomato-chilli chutney; and the rectangular, roti-like lavasa among others. These nigella-, poppy- or sesame-topped, versatile naans are paired with just about anything, from rich lamb curry to a cup of hot tea, and have now become a part of Delhi’s culinary landscape.
Next on our list is the Afghan burger, which looks more like a fat shawarma than burger. Layers of shredded cabbage, tomato, cucumber, shredded boiled chicken, and a generous helping of Aghani chips (similar to fries) are rolled in a naan. Finishing our meal of one burger—which could be a wise and filling choice for dinner—we hail a rickshaw to reach Lajpat Nagar railway station. According to Sapra, crossing the railway overbridge will transport us to Afghanistan itself.
On the other side, in Lajpat Nagar II, we find ourselves in a lane lined with shops selling food, clothes and all things intrinsically Afghan. There are more than five Afghan restaurants and Sapra decides that we should try out the newest of them all, Chopaan Kebab.
First we order mantu, plump dumplings nearly two-inches wide, filled with minced lamb and onions, and topped with cooked chana dal. The dish is served with a tangy yogurt sauce flavoured with garlic and mint. While we demolish our mantus, Pashto songs in Afghan singer Farhad Darya’s voice serenade hungry guests. The seating arrangement at Chopaan Kebab—low queen-size divans with cushions—reflects that of an Afghan home. Next to us, an Afghani family of five sits cross-legged sharing their food from plates placed in the middle, like they would traditionally at home. Next, we sample the restaurant’s namesake dish. Chopaan kebabs are succulent, yoghurt-marinated kebabs charbroiled to perfection, and have a smattering of the vinegary spice, sumac, and a special “kebab masala,” which is a mix of bay leaves, dried ginger, cinnamon, clove, pepper corn, fennel powder and chilli powder. Accompanying the gratifying display of meat is the summer drink, dogh. There’s no hint of sweetness in this refreshingly salty, chaas-like drink, which has long slices of cucumber and flecks of dried mint leaves. Soon, leaving Darya crooning, we move right across the road to Afghan Darbar.
At Darbar, we order Afghanistan’s national food, the Kabuli pilav. Juliens of carrot, plump raisins, and fiery lamb tikkas mix with aromatic basmati rice. Subtle flavours marry the peppery punch of the meat. It’s served with a brinjal-and-yoghurt curry and rajma. Looking at this spread, I cannot help but notice the similarities between Afghani and Indian cuisine. Though much lightly spiced, many of the Afghani dishes have similar ingredients and styles of cooking and serving—breads eaten with savoury curries, rice served with a side of curry and often a yoghurt-based drink.
After this meal, our stomachs are full but the hunger for more delicious Afghani fare leads us to a roadside shop selling sambosa, flaky meat-filled patties, where we also buy vanilla-sponge-like Afghan cakes that are sold by the pound.
With three stomachs filled (and four hours spent), we decide to end the walk with something sweet at Balkh restaurant down the road. Often known as Afghan ice-cream, sheer yakh is similar to a kulfi but quite rich. We are unable to finish even one plate. As we walk up to the counter to pay, the young Afghan man at the counter refuses to take our money, insisting that we hardly ate one plate and it doesn’t feel right. Our insistence is met with a smile and a promise of accepting money the next time we eat here. In his smile, I see the warmth of my “Kabuliwallah uncle.”
www.delhifoodwalks.com; from Rs2,000 per person depending on group size; max 8 people.
Pallabi Munsi is a news editor playing hookie with deadlines. Her travel plans materialise with much trouble and when they do, you can find her staring at the expanse and contemplating life. Obviously, music plays in the background.
Sambit Dattachaudhuri is a photographer, film-maker, and travel guide. He is the co-founder of the travel initiative called 'The Doi Host'. When he's not playing FIFA, he's usually planning a road trip to the remote Himalayas to take you on.