While settlers have come, conquered and gone, it is the cuisine of Delhi that has remained a constant. Served at homes, by food carts or at the high table, Delhi’s flavours, like her unique gharana, tell the story of the city. Successive settlers have invested the city with their own heirloom flavours and sense of urbanity. With the exception of creeping urbanity, nothing has changed in all these decades.
A thought often pondered is to whom does Delhi belong? Does it belong to everyone or to no one, is Dilli the Dilwalon ki or does it lose its identity in hollow speculation? What can be certain though is that hidden behind this fog of identity, is the ubiquitous presence of Delhi’s food culture. Successive settlers have given the city their own heirloom flavours and transformed it from being a city with almost no street food culture to a dukanan-i-tabakan (having shops that sold readymade food), that baked bread and participated in communal dining with élan. Along with re-articulations of existing local favourites – falooda, samosa, khichdi – successive rulers left a culinary legacy bestowed by their large-scale kitchen enterprises.
Delhi, Dilli or Dhillika, the city is large enough to be many things and hold many secrets. Those on urgent quests may compare it to a mirage that recedes each time it is approached; a place that vexes and perplexes. The wise will say - the keys to the city are not only in plain sight but also in easy reach. Food taps into the secrets of history; in Delhi more than anywhere else. With the exception of creeping urbanity, nothing has changed in all these decades. With the geographical proximity of Punjab, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Punjabis have always been a part of the city. However, the events following Independence, led to an influx that would give colour the city. Most notable as the growing presence of the tandoor and the whole culture of community kitchens known as sanjha chulha. Eager for a taste of home, the recently displaced, reluctant settlers saw no better way of making the best of what they had, than by putting in place a bit of home in their new home. They set up earth ovens to address yearnings of their appetite and also to restore community spirit with meetings that would inevitably take place around it, as they had since centuries. It also became clear that they could set up a decent cuisine-centric enterprise that addressed the appetites of fellow Punjabis settlers and locals who fell for their forthright flavours. There was no looking back from there. In the process of coming to terms with their new city, the new wave of Punjabis re-expressed the culinary contours of the city and no one was complaining. Along the way, they also raised the status of the lowly chicken, for too long sidelined in the face of the more robust appeal of red meat. Paneer too was ushered in. They also take credit for establishing a roadside institution, a kind of New Age sarai, with a signature cuisine offering that guaranteed satisfaction. The Kayasth cuisine of Delhi tells a story that is distinct. Like modern Delhi itself, the culture of the Mughals proved more influential than any ruling presence immediately before or after. True to the flair of the Mughals with whom they worked and whom they were regularly entertained by, the Kayasths of Delhi developed a reputation for being extravagant hosts who mixed courtly Hindavi culture with their own. Naturally, they entertained noblemen, aristocrats, ministers and high officials of the Mughal Court, among others. Meat had to play an important part and the Kayasths stepped up to the plate. Hiring specialist cooks, they soon mastered Court classics to a tee, going on to use the esteemed techniques of the Mughal matbakh khana (Imperial kitchen) such as dum, dhungar and pulao. In the whole process of adapting to new culinary styles, the Kayasths also struck upon some novel preparations, notably mock meat dishes such as the curried dish kaleji ki subzi, made to look like liver. This line of mock meat dishes in a way would have played to the Mughal appetite for dishes of deception. They gamely combined this new repertoire with ingredients and methods closer to their own – this stands out in their use of ghee (something even the Mughals came round to using, setting aside the animal fat they started out with) and combining vegetables with meat as demonstrated in the slow-cooked shabdeg, a centrepiece of Kayasth cuisine today.
Their own pure vegetarian cuisine absorbed the new, complex treatments awarded to eat dishes including the robust use of spices and arrangements like stuffing; bharwan subzi (stuffed vegetables) are a regular feature on the Kayasth table.
The Banias have put a stamp on the vegetarian cuisine of Delhi. Shahjahanabad, the Old Walled City, was a thriving hub of eateries that catered to these tastes, since this was an area that had many Bania merchants (notably, Sitaram Bazaar). The cuisine of the Banias demonstrates that onion and garlic-free vegetarian food could be as exotic as the best meat-informed dishes. Standout examples include bedvi aloo, potato curry and dahi gujia (gram flour dumplings in curd gravy). This is a cuisine that early on built a reputation for marshalling the finest ingredients, fenugreek seeds and leaves, indulgent doses of ghee and mawa and developing exquisite pickles, chutneys, papads, and breads. But if anything really defines the taste of the Banias, it is the community’s demonstrated obsession with sweets. At times, sweets and their preparation even take on ritual importance. During marriage ceremonies, when halwais are invited to set up their cooking camp, the installation of their equipment is preceded by a ceremony. Later on, the halwai’s fireplace is ritually kicked away by the groom. Dehlnavi cuisine captures the history and diversity of India’s capital. It is a celebration of the cuisine of the major communities that had settled and made a mark in Shahjehanabad. Dehlnavi cuisine combines Mughal magnificence and Punjabi effervescence, as well as the charms of the Vaishyas, Kayasths and the Marwaris. The Europeans in India had established themselves as perfect aristocrats and had lavish tables, adorned with soup, a roast fowl, curries, mutton pie, rice, cutlets, puddings, cakes, freshly churned butter and home baked breads. However, the Indian ambience could not be avoided and a number of dishes came up between the English lady and her Indian cook, the beginning of a new cuisine, called Anglo-Indian cuisine. Soups and salads, cutlets, curry, kedgeree, deviled egg, croquettes, vegetable cooked lightly, chicken roast, fruits, pastries and puddings appeared on the table. The birth of Anglo-Indian cuisine was indeed an interesting fusion of food of two different cultures. Besides wine, beverages such as gin, gimlet, whisky and beer, as well as sandwiches, cupcakes and pastries, biscuits and scones were introduced and made popular tea snacks of British officers in Delhi. Indian snacks like shami kebab, koftas aloo paranthas were also added to the menu.