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Delicious Delhi

We host a festival of family recipes and cuisine(s) from old Delhi at the Claridges Surajkund

By Anoothi Vishal

Despite being the political, art and indeed cuisine capital of the country, Delhi suffers from an image problem: “The city has no culture,” is a refrain that you may have heard often. Apart from the fact that every human habitat has to have its own “culture”—whether it is brash or understated, urban or rural, tribal or cosmopolitan— this statement is also a misrepresentation of sorts because it does not take into account at the very least 500 years of history, if not more.

Delhi has been linked to the mythic Pandava capital though it certainly saw its cultural renaissance as Shahjahanabad during the rule of the Great Mughals. Today, as always, it remains a city of migrants and a cosmopolitan melting pot, but it also a city where the past is very much present and alive. Each time that you drive past the Purana Quila, a medieval tank or tomb, it is stares you in your face. You have to continue to remind yourself to take photographs for some sort of savouring of the experience. Many of the sites, including the Red Fort which was built in the early 17th century, are so grand in scale, they almost envelope you. Looking back over the photo album, the images can never quite represent the sheer size and beauty of these monuments. City shots however are usually more forgiving with the high contrast of colours and textures. Brave the crowds and take the metro into the crowded old city and its flavours come definitely alive. Sampling Purani Dilli’s famed street specialities— chaats, kebabs and desserts—is an unrivalled experience; more so for nostalgia. But even more elusive is the experience of dining with an old Delhi family, sampling some of the dying recipes from their kitchens. With this festival, we bring alive the flavours of the old city through carefully curated family recipes and those known today to just a handful of community cooks.

Like much of Indian regional cooking, the food of old Delhi is also community-centric and this is evident in the repertoire of chaats, kebabs, tahiris, pulaos, breads (baquarkhani vs bedmi and so on), and curries that originated in mainly Muslim, Kayastha and Baniya kitchens and that we today look back on, with nostalgia, as quintessential “old Delhi” food. Chaats like Kalmi Bade, Moong Dal ki Pakori, alternatively called Ram Laddo by khomchewalle on the streets, kulle, bursting with the freshness of fresh fruits but spiced up with chickpeas and chaat masala, are just some of the elusive treats on the menu.

Instead of chole bhature that are prominent on the city’s foodscape today, the purani dilli staple of bedmi-aloo finds centrestage here. And there are home style preparations reminiscent of the vegetarian kitchens of the khatri, baniya-Jain and kayastha households. For non-vegetarians, there is the best of kayastha and muslim cooking: From kebabs like shami and burrah to recipes like nargisi kofte and pasande that have all but disappeared from culinary repertoires of today. These are painstakingly prepared specialities that just a handful of practitioners know how to whip up now.

You may find our menu fairly mutton centric: that is because Mutton (apart from shikar meat and birds like quail and partridges) featured primarily in the recipes. Chicken was all but absent—and came in only much later after Partition when Punjabi refugees started cooking it in their tandoors. Just desserts, come by way of other exclusive treats like daulat ki chaat, nagori halwa, a home-style phirni laden with almonds, lauki ki lauj and the seasonal malpue. Recipes from some well known Dilliwallahs: Delhi has always been a city of immigrants and no community can really lay a claim on it. With each batch of incomers, the cuisine too evolved, assimilating many more influences. To reflect the cuisine of this cultural melting pot, we have also included in this menu, family recipes from quintessential Dilliwallahs (wherever else their community roots may have been.) Columnist Sadia Dehlvi, whose family traces its history back to the Mughal days in the walled city (but who was nevertheless born in the Diplomatic Enclave, much later) has contributed her famous aloo-gosht salan and other recipes to this festival. Poonam Malhotra, who belongs to a well-known khatri family (apart from being the woman behind Full Circle), remembers her idyllic childhood spent in a huge bunglow in Civil Lines where vegetables and fruits would be grown in the sprawling bageecha and wheat cleaned, washed and dried before being ground in a chakki at home. She has contributed two of her mother’s delicious vegetarian party specials. Himani Dalmia, representing the younger generation of one of Delhi’s best known business families, also dug up her family tomes, chatted up the old maharaj in her Lutyen’s home as well as her aunts to give us another family favourite.

We have recreated all these, to give you a well-rounded Dilli experience.

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