Streaming past the Sita Ram Diwan Chand stall in the heart of Paharganj, a teeming backpacker district in central Delhi, oblivious tourists make a beeline for the budget hotels, vendors selling hookah pipes and cafes offering buffet breakfasts and banana pancakes; the usual backpacker fare. They really don’t know what they’re missing. For almost 70 years, Sita Ram has managed to be both a culinary delight, which has Bollywood stars and billionaire businessmen standing in line, and a local secret shielded from passing visitors.
It's not alone. Delhi’s most surprising and memorable food is not in its many upmarket glass and polished-steel restaurants – where distinctly average fare can leave you clutching your wallet in distress rather than your stomach in satisfaction – but in the heat, dust and flies of its streets. This is where one-man, one-dish dhabas (makeshift stalls) turn out eye-poppingly good dishes for just a few rupees. These stalls set a challenge for gastronomic thrillseekers: in India, the best is often to be found in the most unappetising of locations.
Sita Ram is one of the tastiest examples of this point. The shop is tucked away through a nondescript doorway near the Imperial cinema in Paharganj, inconspicuous apart from the hordes of loyal locals who flock there every day for the house speciality: chana bhatura. This is a simple, yet hearty dish of more-ish, spicy chickpeas served with deep-fried flatbread, red onion and pickled vegetables.
Like much of Delhi’s street food, chana bhatura is the perfect union of comfort and spice, and many fans travel great distances to sample it. The first time I visited, two years ago, I ate with an old man, Gulshan Jaggi, who told me he’d been crossing the city several times a week since 1948 for this dish. "I have tasted chana bhatura all over Delhi," he told me, "but here it is unique, very delicious. They maintain the standards that have been set by their ancestors."
I went back recently and found that Sita Ram had moved to a larger shop and installed stainless-steel tables in a back room. I was anxious because when street food goes upmarket, it sometimes loses its edge, but I was relieved to find the food was as good as ever and also seemed to be attracting more of a family crowd. Gulshan Jaggi would have approved. So, too, would the ancestors, I believe.
Diwan Chand and his son Sita Ram came to Delhi from what is now Pakistan at the time of Partition, in 1947, with little more than their recipe for chana bhatura. For almost 30 years, they sold their food from a handcart, which they trundled all over the area between Connaught Place and Old Delhi before moving to their first shop site.
Like most of Delhi’s street food joints, Sita Ram makes only one dish and the recipe is a closely guarded secret [see Pamela’s version on page 116]. The current owner Pran Kohli, a grandson of Sita Ram, joined the business in 1984 after he finished school and has done nothing to change the formula. The secret, he says, is to treat even the most humble of ingredients with respect. "This is a cheap roadside dish," he says. "But we use good-quality ingredients; we don’t compromise."
For many visitors, the first glimpse of Old Delhi’s heart-stopping wholesale markets is when they emerge, blinking, from the modern, air-conditioned metro station into the medieval chaos, dirt and hardship of Chawri Bazar. If they look up, they might imagine the courtesans who once peeked from the ornate balconies that are now crumbling and imprisoned by a jungle of electrical wires. At street level, hawkers bellow, mangy dogs scavenge, ragged beggars hope for a windfall and emaciated rickshaw wallahs struggle with loads five times their own weight.
In this sensory onslaught, many tourists miss out completely on one of the old city’s great joys: from kebabs to kheer (a sweet rice pudding, also known as payasam) and faluda (a drink made from rose syrup, vermicelli, tapioca pearls and milk or water), to stuffed paratha (flatbread), the range of tasty street food here is vast.
A few steps from the metro, on the left side of Chawri Bazar, a cluster of stalls offers an introduction to the endless variety of chaat or savoury snacks. If you order papri chaat at Ashok Chat Corner, for instance, the vendor will break up a handful of deep-fried pastry discs into a dried-leaf bowl, add a few cubes of potato or some chickpeas, then mix the whole lot together with chaat masala, yoghurt, sweet tamarind and coriander sauces. For the gol gappe snack, he will press his thumb into a hollow, egg-shaped pastry and fill it with chickpeas, potato and a spiced water called jal jeera. To eat it, you simply put the whole ball into your mouth for an explosion of tastes and textures. The vendor will keep handing gol gappe to you until you shout for him to stop.
A few steps on, try cheela – a moong dal (mung bean) pancake; aloo tikki – deep-fried potato croquettes stuffed with spicy peas; or paneer – a type of cottage cheese and one of India’s most famous street foods.
If you continue along Chawri Bazar and turn into a little passageway called Raghu Ganj, you’ll find yourself in a quiet haven where an enterprising grain merchant has set up a surprising sideline, Jain Coffee House. Just say the word and Pavan Kumar Jain will build you a sandwich like no other. First, he slathers a slice of white bread with jam, then adds layers of paneer and thinly sliced fruit – mango, pomegranate seeds, apple or whatever’s in season – and then tops it with another slice of bread. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Bag a sack of grain to sit on and wash it down with a milkshake made from chickoo, a sweet tropical fruit. As far as anyone knows, Pavan’s fruit sandwiches are unique. Pavan says he got the idea while on honeymoon in Bombay, where street sandwiches are a more common sight. Then, back in Delhi, he decided to experiment before hitting upon the idea of layering fruit, resulting in one of the old city’s more unusual mouthfuls.
A trip to Old Delhi’s wholesale spice market, in Chandni Chowk, is one of India’s most memorable experiences. From dawn, when the flower market overflows with marigolds and roses, to dusk, when the hardworking market porters finally flake out on top of their carts, the area’s streets are a blur of commerce, colour and chaos. You’ll choke on fumes from a thousand sacks of red chilli, fear for your life as spindly and weather-beaten porters weave in and out at breakneck speed, and marvel at the impossible loads one man can carry on his back. Most visitors, unsurprisingly, hardly notice the food stalls.
At Ram Prashad Makhan Lal’s tiny eatery on the corner of Khari Baoli and Naya Bans, Jamna Lal is the third generation of his family to specialise in making food for hungry market workers. The Lals, originally from Rajasthan, have been doing their bit to keep the spice market moving since 1942. Their delicious puri sabzi (deep-fried bread served with spicy vegetable curry) and paneer pakora (soft-cheese fritters) are often the only highlights of punishing, monotonous days in the market and provide the fuel to keep traders trading and porters moving. Enjoy a plate on the move or sit at one of the tables in the back. On your way out, ask for some lauki burfi – an unusual pale-green, milk-based sweet made from bottle gourd. If you ask nicely, the family might let you go up the ladder to a tiny loft where the sweets are made.
Turn the corner into Naya Bans and you’ll find a stall where Gori Shankar Doodh Bhandar sells lassi, a sweet, yoghurt-based drink. Just expect to be alarmed by the terrifying amount of sugar that goes into it.
A rickshaw ride through Dariba Kalan (Silver or Jewellers’ Street) and Kinari Bazaar (Wedding Street) in Old Delhi is a highlight. Jain temples, brightly painted havelis (private mansions), the majestic Sikh Gurdwara temple and spangly, sparkling shops, are awe-inspiring, but there are also some great culinary landmarks in this area.
The aptly named Old and Famous Jalebi Wala is a family-run business that was founded in 1884 when a young man called Nem Chand Jain, from a village near Agra, set out to make his fortune in the city. Four generations later, the family has come a long way from the village – they no longer live above the shop, but in one of Delhi’s smarter residential areas. The jalebis, deep-fried coils of batter drenched in sticky sweet syrup, are still true to the four-generations-old recipe.
For some time now, I’ve been pestering the Jains for the family recipe, but was recently told, in no uncertain terms, by Nem Chand’s great grandson Abhishek: "Nobody outside of the family has ever been shown or told the recipe for the jalebis and it won’t happen now."
I have gleaned, however, that the jalebi batter is made from 75 per cent white flour and 25 per cent ground urad dal (black lentils) mixed into a thick paste. At the end of each day, a little of the batter is left in a brass pot to ferment slightly, then used as the base for the next day’s batch. This process, Abhishek tells me, called khamir uthana (meaning "ferment"), is similar to an artisan baker’s sourdough starter – it makes the batter ferment just enough to put air into the jalebis, but not so much as to make them "sour", like sourdough.
Arvind Chauhan, who has been making the Old and Famous jalebis for more than 25 years, pipes hundreds of spirals into the boiling oil every day. As they start to crisp and brown, he flips them over, then places them in the syrup, where the real secrecy begins. According to Abhishek, they use a blend of up to 16 different toasted, ground spices, which are then mixed into a sugar syrup. The resulting sweet hit is a treat at any time of year, but especially in the winter with a cup of hot, steaming masala chai. Locals also flock to the shop during the monsoon season from July till September.
Dilli Haat craft market in South Delhi is a favourite spot for tourists and locals to scoop up inexpensive handicrafts from all over India – soft shawls from Kashmir, earthenware pots from Assam, embroidered tablecloths from Bengal. The market’s food stalls also offer you a chance to eat your way round India without setting foot outside of Delhi. Here, more than 25 stalls give some indication of India’s vast repertoire of regional specialities.
Some of the best stalls are those showcasing the cuisines of Nagaland, Manipur, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. One good way to sample a range of food is to order a thali, a platter consisting of a selection of dishes. The Maharashtran thali might include the rustic zunka bhakar, a spicy gram (chickpea) flour dish served with flatbreads, or puran poli, a sweet pastry filled with chana dal (black chickpea) and jaggery (unrefined sugar). The Rajasthani thali will include dal baati, a lentil dish served with unleavened bread, the state’s most famous dish. The Manipur stall is a good place to try momos, a common street food in Delhi, that actually hails from Tibet and Nepal. These are fried or steamed dumplings with either meat or vegetable fillings, served with a chilli dipping sauce and chicken broth. From Nagaland, one of India’s more remote states, there will be pork dishes, such as rajamirch (very hot chilli) ribs and fruit beer.
Just across the road from Dilli Haat is INA Market, South Delhi’s largest and freshest retail food market. A dazzling selection of river and sea fish is delivered daily, along with fruit and vegetables from all over India. The perfect reward for stocking up the larder is a plate of vada, deep-fried pulse-based snacks, from Pasricha’s Kerala food stall at the front of the market. It serves two types of vada: one that resembles a doughnut and another that’s more like a patty. Both are delicious eaten with a little coconut chutney and dipped into spicy sambar (a soupy curry).
The key to eating well in Delhi is to look very closely in all the grittier corners, where you’ll find one of India’s enduring truths: to eat like a king, you have to get down in the dust.
The hit list
Sita Ram Diwan Chand
On Chuna Mandi, Paharganj. From Ramakrishna Ashram Metro Station, head for the Main Bazaar, then take the first left into Chuna Mandi.
Sita Ram is about 90 metres after the Imperial cinema. Open 8am–5pm daily.
Ashok Chat Corner
In Chawri Bazar, next to the metro station.
Jain Coffee House
On Raghu Ganj, off Chawri Bazar Rd.
Ram Prashad Makhan Lal
On the corner of Khari Baoli and Naya Bans, Chandni Chowk.
Old and Famous Jalebi Wala Shop
1795, Dariba Corner, Chandni Chowk.
Dilli Haat Sri Aurobindo Marg, Kidwai Nagar, near INA Market.
Pasricha’s Kerala food stall
Front row of INA Market, opposite Dilli Haat (see above).
Photography by Alan Benson.
As seen in Feast magazine, October 2011, Issue 2. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.