The shrine of the 13th century Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, sits enclosed by winding stretches brimming with vendors, food enthusiasts, tourists and devotees. Though the area is dotted with graves including those of Sufi poet Amir Khusrau; Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara; Ziauddin Barani, a 14th century chronicler, and others — the neighbourhood is known by the name of the most popular saint of the Chishti order.
The mausoleum, built by a noble called Faridun Khan, hosts devotees and prayer-offerers from across India as well as neighbouring countries throughout the day, with qawwalis performed every evening near the shrine. It is, however, on Thursdays, the night before jumma, that a sizable crowd gathers to listen to the qawwals. The Thursday of our visit was the night of Urs, the most special time at the shrine. Urs marks the death anniversary of Sufi saints. In Sufism, the death of a saint is not mourned but celebrated as it symbolises the union of the lover with god, the beloved.
The market surrounding the mausoleum, though, is a market of jostlers — the howls of vendors compete with the din emanating from the mausoleum, cats leap from one broken building to another, as visitors negotiate for walking space. Even the scent that the itr shops exhale is challenged by that of the fetid garbage. We quickly singled out our cicerone in the waft of meat being cooked over charcoal.
It led us straight to Abdul Kebab Corner. From Madhubani in Bihar, Abdul came to Delhi as a 20-something in search of work. “When I came here, I found employment at Zaika Kebab Corner. It used to stand exactly where my cart is now. They taught me everything I know about cooking,” he says.
His cart has marinated cubes of buff, goat meat, chicken in chilli powder, cumin, ginger, garlic and sundry ground roasted spices (secret ingredient), grilled on an open fire right before serving. Our plate of buff kebabs (for Rs 40), a handful of botis enveloped in spices, were accompanied by a runny coriander-and-mint chutney and fine rings of raw onion. “We prefer to cook on charcoal than stoves because the heat chars the meat on the outside and allows it to cook evenly,” said Abdul.
With searing kebabs in hand, we made our way through alleys, guarded on one side by double-storeyed brick buildings, to Ghalib Kabab Corner, on Ghalib Street, marked by the marble tomb of the 19th-century Urdu poet. The 40-year-old restaurant has emerged as one of the most popular eateries of the neighbourhood. The walls of the dhaba proudly wear a nod of approval from the food aggregator, Zomato. The now aged, Muhammad Hani Khursheed, started with selling buff kebabs but now boasts of a menu of more than 24 items.
“We now sell chicken and mutton korma, mutton and chicken tikka roll, sheermal, biryani and firni but the shami kebab is our most sold item,” said Khursheed, as the boys outside the restaurant vigorously fanned the charcoal fire imbuing the air with a seductive aroma. We dug into the shami kebabs (Rs 70) and instantly realised why they are the most sought-after offering from Khursheed’s kitchen — intricately spiced, delicate cakes of meat that disappear in the mouth, leaving you a little heady.
A walk back around the market was a requisite to bring us back to our senses. Puffs of smoke now rose from carts that were setting up as we made our way to Ghalib Kabab Corner. A lithe goat tied to the motorbike of its owner munched on a mix of hay and grains and a few metres ahead, vendors around the dargah called passers-by to purchase religious artefacts.
Soon after crossing the dargah is the street where the forever-in-vogue Karim’s is situated. Opposite it is Zaki Hotel, a 60-year-old establishment that is now run by the second and third generations of Asif Khan. We demolished a helping of mutton korma (Rs 120) paired with roomali roti (Rs 60), and a plate of mutton seekh kebabs (Rs 120). To end our meal, we were served a glass of hot tea with a hint of lemon.
Meeting the beloved, at Nizamuddin, is easy meat.