Through the streets of Shahajahanabad, into the kitchen of some of the oldest families of Delhi, Sadia Dehlvi looks at the shape-shifter of a city that Delhi has come to be in her recent book Jasmine and Jinns. She talks of growing up in an extended Dilli family that lived in Shama Kothi on Sardar Patel Marg, the changes in the city’s palate over the years and giving Delhi one of its culinary stars – Al Kauser. Excerpts:
In the book, you trace your childhood through seasons and recipes telling us about a Delhi that once was. How did you narrow down on the idea?
Delhi has distinct seasons, and once upon a time lifestyles revolved around the weather. I would hear stories of how shopkeepers pulled down their shutters when the first rains arrived and went to Mehrauli for picnics with their families. Special dishes were made in the monsoon like Harimirch Qeema, Besani Roti and fresh Mango Chutney. Nihari was always associated with winter, and was eaten nihar muh, that is on an empty stomach. In winters, at home, every Sunday was ‘nihari day.’ We had it as early breakfast. Now people eat nihari all through the year and usually for lunch or dinner. It was traditionally referred to as gharib aadmi ka khana, and never served at weddings. Now nihari is a part of festive cuisine, even for us Dilliwalas.
In the summer, very little spice was used and I remember a variety of sherbets being made at home. These were mixed with barley water to keep us hydrated. Special chutneys were made with raw mango to save us from the severe heat. People in Delhi are exceedingly particular about taseer — inherent food properties and their effects on the body. I grew up relating to food in terms of halka (light), bhaari (heavy), garam (warm), or thanda (cold). Spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and peppercorns are believed to have garam taseer, and dishes which have these as ingredients are cooked mostly in winter. There is a hidden wisdom in such beliefs.
What are your first and most enduring memories of food?
My earliest memories are of spices being dried in the lawn and then ground in an imamdasta. In those days, ready to use spices were not used in most homes. When large parties were held at home, I recall professional cooks coming to the house, cooking in deghs with the meat and spices provided to them. Tandoors were dug in the house for fresh rotis. There was a separate area in the house of kuchi mitti for this kind of cooking. My grandfather was a gracious host, and Shama Kothi acquired the reputation of serving the city’s finest cuisine.
How did you choose the recipes for the book?
Most of these dishes are cooked in my home and in the kitchens of most Dilliwalas. Except for recipes of a few specialties cooked on festivals and weddings, the rest of the dishes are really a part of our day to day cooking. One does not require some exotic spices to make them. And since our food is dominated by seasons, that’s how I have divided the food sections. We usually cook almost all seasonal vegetables with meat. It’s not just a good way to balance the intake of meat and vegetables, but also to create a variety of wonderful dishes.
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You mention how Delhi’s palate changed with the arrival of the Mughals and then with the British. What are the changes you notice in Delhi’s food culture today?
The Mughal cuisine, that is Indo Persian, is probably the cuisine that best defines Delhi’s traditional non-vegetarian cuisine. Chillies were added to Delhi food in the 18th century on the advise of the city’s hakims after the water in the canal that ran through Chandni Chowk got polluted. It was a way to purge toxins from the body. This is what led to the creation of Delhi’s popular chaat. Delhi’s cuisine once comprised Jain, Bania and Muslim food. Then the British influenced the eating habits of the elite. More changes came after Partition, with the arrival of the Punjabis. Tandoori chicken, butter chicken, choley bhaturey and dal makhani, came to typify Delhi food. But even that has changed, Delhi is no longer about any one kind of food. People from all over the country have made Delhi their home. So it’s now as much about dosa, momos, noodles as it is about biryani and qorma.
In the book, you mention how your mother wasn’t interested in kitchen chores. How do you think women’s relationship with food has changed?
My mother resented kitchen chores, because in those days women’s lives seemed to revolve around cooking. She rebelled against that idea and, luckily, she never really had to cook. She did other things and didn’t encourage me to cook either. Even now, she can’t understand my obsession with cooking. She tells me not to waste too much time in the kitchen. With so many women working, I think now cooking is not really looked at in a regressive way. Young working couples seem to order in or eat out so often. More and more young people are into health, and one has to cook right to eat right. With the internet, world cuisine has opened up and I meet so many young women who are experimenting with cooking various types of food. If you don’t look at cooking as a boring chore, it can be so much fun.
Family recipes were not shared earlier. But you believe in sharing them.
In older days, women or professional cooks never shared recipes. If they did, they would leave out a main ingredient so one could never get it right. I share family recipes because it gladdens my heart that they’ll bring cheer to people’s tables. Many of these have never travelled out of traditional Dilli homes. When friends come home for meals, they are surprised at the unusual combinations such as karela qeema, gajar salan, chuqandar gosht, bhindi salan that are regular fare for us.
How did Al Kauser come about?
I began Al Kauser with my mother in 1979. It was a small kiosk just opposite our house. After having lived a year in New York, I was very taken with the idea of street food. In those days, Delhi just had five star hotels and a few good restaurants, mostly in Connaught Place. Other than these, one had to go to old Delhi to eat kebabs. Al Kauser was the first road side kebab shop in New Delhi. It became quite a rage in the ’80s and ’90s. The kitchen was in our house. Entertaining in those years became so easy, as I could literally order a plate of kebab from my room. Now, street food is so much a part of Delhi culture.
Tell us the story behind the book’s title and the cover design.
Jasmine is the fragrance from my childhood. It was my grandmother’s favourite flower. We had jasmine shrubs in our gardens and I would help amma pluck them. In the summer, when we slept on the terrace, these were put on the charpais of the elders. The girls of the house were not allowed to wear jasmine flowers because amma said that jinns were attracted to young girls who wore jasmine. I also believe we had jinns that lived with us. In the evening, just before sunset, we had to stop playing in the gardens as amma said it was the time jinns ventured out. Throughout the 50 years we lived at Shama Kothi, we heard strange noises every night. So I guess my childhood was about Jasmine and Jinns. The cover idea by Shaaz Ahmed is old style story telling, with various elements from my childhood.