For romantic travellers, there can be no better time to experience Delhi than during the month of Ramzan. The smog-jaded capital wraps itself in winking gold lights and the aroma of festive delicacies, undergoing a Cinderellaesque switch under the moon every night for a month. Suddenly, one can hope to walk around its time-worn mohallas and stumble upon fresh wonders–boxes of dry fruit sold for sehri, the smack and sizzle of kebabs hitting the grill, or the rich scent of haleem mingling with that of attar in gleaming glass bottles.
Year after year, I have ensured that I get my hearty dose of iftar food in Old Delhi’s Matia Mahal: biryani at Karim’s, fried chicken at Aslam’s, nihari from the stall next to Al Jawahar. And of course, mango ice cream and shahi tukda on that same stretch of road in front of Jama Masjid, thronged by thousands. This year, though, I decided to take the road less travelled. I wanted to find someplace nondescript, and as a result less crowded and easier to manoeuvre in the sweltering north Indian heat.
A few days after Ramzan began, I jostled my way into a small lane in Hauz Rani, an area behind south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar locality. Here I found myself amongst some of the warmest people I’ve met in a city often chided for its arrogance. Not to mention the largest roadside displays of food I’ve ever seen. The air in this rather neglected part of the city hangs thick and greasy thanks to all the frying and the barbequing. Shops with no discernible names, selling skewers of masala-soused meat and other Ramzan treats, dot the lane that leads up to Jahanpanah Masjid.
I started my grand evening feast by ordering a quarter plate each of two different kinds of fried chicken: one plain and one smeared with spicy masalas, particularly ajwain. I ordered these, along with a quarter plate of chicken Jahangiri—in a thick gravy of tomato, cream, yogurt and melted butter—and rumali roti. The hot spread that cost me just Rs 280 could easily feed two people. But I was on a mission, so I packed half the food and moved on to my next destination.
A few steps ahead, the road is lined with stalls selling seekh kebabs, tikkas, parathas—anything that can be prepared in a tandoor or on a tava. It is nice and quiet; there are no pushy street criers trying to lure you in to try the specialty, which here is buff botis with paratha. Two lip-smacking kebabs and a paratha costs a paltry Rs 13, enough to fill my tummy. They are served with smiles that belie the chaos and exhaustion of working near flames in this heat, and, with a little prodding, stories of the neighbourhood in years gone by.
The veritable sea of stalls, open all night for Ramzan, meant that I lost my head and tried one plate of kebab–silken galouti, minty kakori, melt-in-mouth malai tikkas and all–from each. Heaving and burping but far from done, I then turned to the locally-hailed Hafiz Biriyani stall. My bounty here included quarter of Moradabadi biryani served with raita, tender dal gosht, a tongue-ticklingly spicy buff korma, and a steaming plate of nihari. The kingly spread cost me only Rs 160. I rounded off the marathon with a glass of sweet lassi and meetha samosa (Rs 30), apparently a specialty of the area.
While the prices of the food in Hauz Rani astonished me, the people making the food added colour to my experience. I met Md Saddam, a 32-year-old labourer from Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, something of a local legend for his finesse in making tandoori rotis. There was Md Irfan, who having taken over the 30-year-old Hafiz Biriyani stall from his father, is determined to maintain its “best in the area” reputation.
As I complained of a bursting stomach, Md Saddam sweetly put me in my place. “We keep rozas and can’t eat during the day. But we cook for you. If you don’t eat properly, then what’s the point?”
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.